TSA President Rick Hudson recently visited Myanmar to evaluate the TSA's conservation programs there. This is his trip report - enjoy!
I arrived in Bangkok on 24 September, overnighted, and flew into Mandalay the next day. I was met by Dr. Kalyar Platt, Director of TSA's Turtle Conservation Program, and her colleagues Me Me So and Myo Myo, with our partner organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). We left the hot dry plains surrounding Mandalay, and drove up into the mountains of the Shan Plateau, to the town of May Myo (or Pyin Oo Lwin), 4,000 ft above Mandalay and a former cool-climate retreat for British officers during colonial times. This was my first trip back since we opened the Turtle Rescue Center (TRC) in December 2012, and the most obvious change I noted in my nearly two year absence was the number of people were carrying smart phones. There was better-than-expected cellular coverage in the cities, and wireless internet access was available in most hotels.
September 26: We drove to the TRC, about 17 miles outside May Myo, with plans to meet our architect to design a series of ponds to accommodate the growing number of softshell turtles that we continue to see in confiscations heading for China. We were unable to include facilities for aquatic turtles in the Phase I of the TRC due to lack of funds; with new potential funding on the horizon, we needed to get plans and a budget prepared. Upon arrival, as irony would have it, we were notified that there had been a softshell turtle confiscation that morning and that they were on the way! We worked with the architect on the available land for building, and plans quickly came together. We inspected our breeding facilities for the 30 adult Burmese mountain tortoises (Manouria emys) at the facility, all of which were received from a confiscation back in 2007. It's the rainy season so the enclosures are muddy and we discussed ways to improve drainage in this area.
Then the confiscated turtles arrived. The baskets and bags into which they were crammed reeked with the smell of death, and we prepared ourselves for the worse.
We unpacked 69 turtles including 60 Lissemys scutata, one Nilssonia formosa, one Amyda ornata, four Cyclemys and three Indotestudo elongata. Fortunately there was only one dead specimen that accounted for the smell, and all the others appeared to be in fairly robust condition. Kalyar's team went to work quickly and within 15 minutes had the whole lot sorted out and placed in temporary holding containers with water for rehydration. The turtles had been seized by a mobile crime unit – composed of Police, Customs and Ministry of Commerce – during a routine inspection of a bus load of passengers heading for China.
After instructions were given to staff on caring for the turtles, we prepared to leave. WCS veterinarian Dr. Tint Lwin will visit soon to evaluate the group, and most will eventually be released once appropriate sites can be identified and their health confirmed. The N. formosa, or Burmese Peacock Softshell – so named for the prominent ocelli on the carapace - is an Endangered endemic species and will likely be retained for the development of an assurance colony. We already have other N. formosa housed with Batagur elsewhere, and will acquire more soon when a temple pond is drained in Yangon.
At 1:00 PM, we began the five hour drive to Bagan to rendezvous with the WCS medical team who was there conducting pre-release health exams on 300 Burmese star tortoises (Geochelone platynota) destined for reintroduction. About an hour outside of Mandalay we stopped at the Minsontaung Wildlife Sanctuary, home of one of three breeding facilities managed by the Forest Department for star tortoises. This is the first of three facilities for G. platynota that TSA built, in 2009. Breeding success was marginal when we first started work here, but with improved facilities and husbandry, hatching has improved dramatically. In fact, 794 hatchlings have been produced in 2014!!
We arrived in Bagan in time for dinner and met the WCS team that included Drs. Brian Horne and Bonnie Raphael, long-time ,valued TSA colleagues.
September 27: We visited the assurance colony for both Burmese roofed turtles (Batagur trivittata) and star tortoises at the Lawkananda Wildlife Sanctuary in Bagan. The TSA built these facilities in 2011 and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. There are young star tortoises of all size classes, so many so that a new juvenile rearing unit had to be built this year.
430 hatched in 2014, and we hope that with this rate of rapid growth, that our release program will be able to keep pace. Star tortoises are prolific, with females reaching sexual maturity in as little as six years and laying multiple clutches of eggs.
Our B. trivittata facility is a beautiful earthen pond, with fresh water pumped in straight from the Ayeyarwady River, lots of grass for grazing, fruiting fig trees on the bank, a basking platform and two sand banks for nesting. 100 turtles are being raised here, hatched on the Chindwin River in 2007, and they are growing rapidly. The turtles are exhibiting the typical sexual dichromatism that this species is known for, with the males showing yellow heads and pale carapaces with bold markings. The Forest Department warden at this park is very diligent in assuring that the turtles and tortoise are cared for properly and we always discuss ways to improve their husbandry. We returned to the hotel where the WCS was wrapping up their work – two mobile labs were set up in hotel rooms and it was hard to believe that this much equipment would need to be packed up by the next day! They were ready for a break and to unwind - a sunset boat trip was just the ticket.
September 28: We shared lunch with the warden at Lawkananda Park, then spent the rest of the day working on a grant proposal with the team.
September 29: We said goodbye to most of the WCS veterinary team, and left Bagan at noon for the 4-5 hour drive to Mandalay where we would overnight.
September 30: We flew from Mandalay to Khamti , the farthest point north I have ever been in Myanmar. There we met Kyaw Moe, Director of Field Operations here, then boarded a boat for the Linphar Base Camp - headquarters for the B. trivittata field recovery program. The team now consists of Steve and Kalyar Platt, Brian Horne, Bonnie Raphael and myself. Linphar Village lies far up the Upper Chindwin River and is accessible only by boat, and is downstream (south) from Khamti. It's the wet season and the river is up and swift, so traveling down river to see the program makes good sense. This is the first opportunity that some of us have had to travel up the Chindwin, and I am immediately impressed by the beauty and remoteness of the area. It was not long before we began to see exposed sand banks, which Steve says are much larger in the dry season when the river is lower, and I can only speculate as to how many female Batagur historically may have used these for nesting. After a three-hour boat ride, we arrive at Linphar, where we walk across a sand flat to reach the steps up to the village. Trying to do this barefoot at 3 PM turns out to be a huge mistake! Linphar is a charming little village that has apparently remained relatively unchanged since WWII, and is reminiscent of any small town where everyone knows everyone. The accommodations at Base Camp and much better than I expected, with generator power after dark, and good food thanks to the manager's wife. There is no phone or internet which is refreshing, but the times they are a-changing and a new cell tower has just been erected, visible from the village, just waiting to be connected.
October 1: I got my first good look at the headstarting facilities for Burmese roof turtles. Currently 249 turtles are being reared here, hatched from 2011 – 2014, all growing rapidly and in need of more space. Fortunately, two large concrete pools have just been completed for grow out, with deeper water to encourage improved swimming abilities. We have long questioned the wisdom of releasing turtles into a large swift-moving stream that have been raised in a small pool, and how their swimming musculature might not be as well developed as needed for survival. These pools will expand our capacity to headstart terrapins from hatchling to release size, at one location that is close to their natal beach and natural habitat, and not move them to Mandalay for headstarting as we have in previous years. Considering the remoteness of this location, I am impressed with the scope of the operation all that the team has managed to achieve here, which is certainly a testament to their fortitude and CAN DO attitude.
Aside from the 249 B. trivittata here, we have another 100 at Lawkananda and 265 at Yadanabon Zoo in Mandalay – 614 total. This is an amazing achievement when one considers that this species was only rediscovered in 2001 and our captive population started with just three specimens rescued from a temple pond. This rapid population growth was fueled by an aggressive nest beach protection / egg incubation / headstarting program that was, without question, started in the nick of time to prevent this species' slide into extinction. The efficiency and scale of this program is even more impressive when one considers that the first turtles will be returning to the wild in 2015.
October 2: We packed up and left Linphar early and headed downstream by boat to the town of Htamanthi and the Tamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary (TMS), one of the largest protected areas in Myanmar. Sitting on the eastern bank of the Chindwin River, the sanctuary is a biodiversity mecca, for large mammals especially, and is home to tigers, elephants, gaur (Asiatic bison), leopards, serow, gibbons and bear. Kyaw Moe, our WCS colleague who manages the B. trivittata project, is on staff here and splits time with the Linphar Base Camp. We had two goals for the day: First, travel up the Nanthalat Chaung, a tributary of the Chindwin, to see one of the proposed Batagur release sites; second, look at the site where a third assurance colony for B. trivittata will be developed.
The Nanthalat Chaung is smaller than the Chindwin and not as heavily utilized, in fact there was evidence of Batagur nesting on this tributary in the not-too-distant past. Aside from its remoteness, many of the typical threats that make life on the Chindwin difficult for Batagur – gold mining, electro- and dynamite fishing – are not visible here. Sand bars are available for nesting and overall the river has a very verdant feel to it - more pristine, less used. Prior to my arrival in Myanmar the WCS / TSA selected 60 B. trivittata for release from the stock at the zoo in Mandalay, primarily hatched from 2007 – 2009. Radio-transmitters were placed on 30 of them and the plan is to release 30 turtles at each of two sites - here and at Linphar - during the upcoming dry season in 2015.
We returned to Htamanthi, had lunch and rested up till the temperature began to drop around 5 PM. Then we walked to a site just outside town, where a spring-fed stream winds across a beautiful meadow. This is the water source for the town and is hence protected from disturbance. A high bank already exists on one side and the idea is to build levees on the other side as the pond is excavated, and tap into the stream to fill the pond, and keep it overflowing with fresh water. The plan is to move many of our sub-adult B. trivittata from the zoo at Mandalay, and create another assurance colony, this one much closer to the natural range of the species and just down the river from the project base camp and release sites.
We returned (hot and sweaty!) to a well-deserved bucket bath, had dinner, and spent the night in the new guest house at TMS.
October 3: We traveled by boat downstream, four hours to Homelin, and enjoyed the scenic and lazy pace of life on the river. Though not as heavily populated as areas downstream near Bagan and Mandalay, the Upper Chindwin is still heavily utilized and gold mining operations are surprisingly evident. The river winds through some incredibly picturesque scenery with the beautiful Naga Hills in the background. We arrived by 1 PM, had lunch, and checked into a hotel where we experienced our first AC in many days, but the pleasure is fleeting: the generators are soon shut down and won't be on again till dark. But there is a shower and life is good. We had dinner here and spent the night.
October 4: Flew to Yangon in the afternoon and spent the night. Enjoyed real hot water and AC!!
October 5: Flew to Bangkok in the afternoon and overnighted here, before an early morning return flight to Tokyo and then the US.
The joint Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) / Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) field team recently returned from the Upper Chindwin River in Myanmar where one of the world's most critically endangered turtles is making a remarkable recovery. Feared extinct until "rediscovered" in 2002, when three specimens were found in a pagoda pond, the Burmese roof turtle had not been seen by scientists since the 1930s. Surveys subsequently located a remnant population on the Upper Chindwin River – a major tributary of the Ayeyarwady - that has provided the foundation for this species' recovery. A combination of nest protection, headstarting hatchlings for future release, and captive propagation have pulled this species back from the brink, and over 700 turtles are now thriving in three assurance colonies.
Led by the husband-and-wife team of Steven and Kalyar Platt, the expedition traveled by boat to their forward operating base in Limpha Village. Owing to the overwhelming success of this project and the burgeoning number of turtles in captivity, there is an urgent need to both expand the network assurance colonies and identify habitats where headstarted turtles can soon be released. Expanding the existing facilities in Limpha Village proved straight-forward: ten 250-gallon fiberglass tanks were installed to accommodate the rapidly growing turtles and house the hatchlings expected later this season. Furthermore, a vacant lot was donated by the village council where grow-out ponds for larger turtles will soon be constructed. Finally, a site was identified near the headquarters of Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary where a third captive breeding colony can be established. Plans call for a 1-acre fenced breeding pond to be constructed on the site during the coming months. A core group of breeding animals will be selected from rapidly maturing turtles currently being headstarted. Identifying potential release sites was more problematic owing to fishing pressure, widespread use of sandbanks for seasonal agriculture, and gold mining. Nonetheless the search was successful: suitable release sites were identified in the Chindwin near Limpha and Nam Thalet Chaung, a tributary of the Chindwin where roof turtles historically occurred. As the Platts stated in an email, "this is a beautiful stretch of river with sandbanks for nesting, adjacent deep pools, and abundant fruiting trees for food. Importantly gold has never been found in this river, which has escaped the despoliation that typifies parts of the Chindwin."
While at Limpha the team assisted in collecting roof turtle eggs, which are transferred to a secure beach at the basecamp for incubation. The 2013-14 nesting season yielded a bumper crop of eggs: 150 from eight clutches were collected from four sandbanks. This represents an increase of one clutch over previous years and it seems likely that a additional young female has entered the breeding pool. Although outlook for the roof turtle appears promising, complacency is out of place. With fewer than ten mature females surviving in the wild, the future remains of this species remains precarious. However, without conservation action, the roofed turtle would no doubt have joined ranks of the "disappeared" and faded into biological oblivion.
From Bangladesh to Cambodia, River Terrapins (Genus Batagur) are laying eggs - and lot of them - both in the wild and captivity. Below is a brief summary of River Terrapin nesting activity in programs managed by the TSA and their partners.
Northern River Terrapin or Sunderban Batagur (B. baska): In Bangladesh, at the captive breeding center at Bhawal National Park, the first nest (19 eggs) was laid March 21, followed by two more nests on March 23, consisting of 22 and 14 eggs respectively. Apparently one of the two females dug up another female's nest while laying her own so there was some breakage and egg loss. Project Coordinator Rupali Ghosh was on hand for the nest digging. This is a joint program of Turtle Survival Alliance, Vienna Zoo, Bangladesh Forest Department and our newest partner, IUCN Bangladesh. There are 14.5 adults in this breeding colony (14 males and five females).
In India, at the B. baska breeding center at Sajnekhali, in West Bengal, TSA India Director Shai Singh reports that two females are emerging every night and making trial digs in the newly created nesting enclosure. Last year 50 total hatchlings emerged from these two Centers and we are hoping for a much better hatch rate this year. More good news: the Forest Department procured an additional adult female (22 kg) from a village pond in the northern Sunderbans, bringing the total number at Sajnekhali to 6.5.32 (six males, five females and 32 unknown).
All total there are now 20 males, 10 females and 55 unsexed juveniles of this rare Batagur in captive centers in Indian and Bangladesh and the conservation outlook is looking much brighter that it was just a few years ago when this species was ranked #4 on the list of the Top 25 World's Most Endangered Turtles.
The TSA/WCS Myanmar Program Turtle Team returned this week from a two month expedition up the Chindwin River in northwestern Myanmar. Access to this region by foreigners has long proven difficult owing to security concerns that have recently lessened. The principal objectives of the expedition were to determine if any populations of Burmese roofed turtles (Batagur trivittata) remain along the lower Chindwin River, and investigate local reports of hitherto unknown populations on tributary creeks of the upper river. Despite significant conservation progress, including a highly successful captive-breeding colony and head-starting program, Batagur trivittata is considered one of the most critically endangered turtles in the world with fewer than 10 reproductive females thought to remain in the wild.
From January 2009 to September 2010, TSA teams worked in Myanmar to develop concepts and designs for new breeding facilities for key chelonian program species. Building plans and budgets for new turtle and tortoise facilities were finalized in September 2010 and construction got underway shortly thereafter. Members of the TSA Board of Directors visited Lawkananda Park in Bagan, Myanmar to inspect one of the newest facilities in February.
Lawkananda is the largest and most successful of the four government-operated star tortoise breeding facilities in Myanmar. The existing facility is being vastly expanded - basically doubling the size - to accommodate their burgeoning population of Burmese star tortoises (Geochelone platynota), a critically endangered endemic species. Due to its success, the sanctuary has been overcrowded and the new construction here will help to alleviate this problem.
The new facility was literally built around an original building, which will now house only juvenile tortoises. The six walled sections will let the adult tortoises roam and graze freely, yet will allow for them to be separated into breeding groups thus assuring the greatest genetic diversity. It has been found that if tortoises are kept in one large herd, a single male will dominate the group and be the only one to mate. At the time of the visit, 20 clutches of eggs had already been laid, with an expectation of over 250 hatchlings emerging from those nests in June.
In addition to adding more space, the new facility offers better security to guard against theft. Over 500 Burmese star tortoises are managed here, 237 of them hatched in the last four years – 113 in 2010! Security is serious issue with star tortoises which sell for a lot of money, so measures must be made to prevent theft. Previously, the tortoises were moved into a locked box at night with someone sleeping on top for security.
A new facility for Asian mountain tortoises (Manouria emys phayrei) was also built adjacent to the star tortoise unit that features two large pools and shade retreats, and should accommodate ten adult tortoises. This will help distribute the large group of 65 tortoises that is currently being held at the Mandalay Zoo and create the third assurance colony for this highly threatened species in Myanmar.
A second facility for Burmese roof turtles (Batagur trivittata) is also now completed. In spring 2011, 50 sub-adult turtles that were hatched in 2007-08 will be moved here to relieve crowding at the Yadanabon Zoo. This facility effectively allows us to divide the captive gene pool of this critically endangered species, thus eliminating the “all eggs in one basket” scenario and avoid the risk of catastrophic loss at one facility – Yadanabon Zoo. This species was previously believed to be extinct until its rediscovery in 2002. Since that time, the captive assurance colony there has grown to over 400 individuals, representing a remarkable conservation success story. The new pond at Lawkananda will help to alleviate overcrowding at this program.
The nesting season for wild Asian river terrapins (Batagur) is winding down, just on the heels of the recently completed Batagur workshop in Singapore and Malaysia in February, and we hope that the training will have an impact on hatching success.
In Myanmar, Kalyar Platt (TSA Turtle Conservation Coordinator) just returned from the upper Chindwin River where she worked with field coordinator Kyaw Moe on the nest protection and egg recovery effort for the critically endangered Burmese roof turtle (Batagur trivittata). They report that in this 2010-2011 nesting season, nesting occurred as early as 9 December 2010 and continued through 26 March 2011. During this period, a total of 179 eggs were recovered for incubation. Approximately six to nine females were thought to have nested along a 48-mile stretch of the river.
The plight of the planet's tortoises and turtles -- creatures that have roamed the Earth for 220 million years -- has never been greater, according to the newly released report "Turtles in Trouble: Top 25+ Endangered Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles ." It shows the world's 25 most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles will become extinct in the next few decades without concerted conservation efforts.
Kalyar Platt, TSA’s new Turtle Conservation Coordinator in Myanmar has hit the ground running since starting in her position last month. Charged with overseeing the continued construction of multiple turtle facilities, she conducted site visits last week to evaluate the progress and make recommendations.
Rick Hudson, Lonnie McCaskill and Kalyar Platt recently returned from a successful trip to Myanmar where they finalized construction plans and budgets with local architects. All total, over $60,000 will be spent over the next three months on new turtle and tortoise facilities at Lawkananda Wildlife Sanctuary in Bagan and the Yadanabon Zoo in Mandalay. The facilities will benefit a number of critically endangered endemic species whose recovery relies on captive breeding and management programs. The funds also provide support for new species initiatives (Asian mountain tortoise, Manouria e. phayrei, and both endemic softshells, Nilssonia formosa and Chitra vandijki) while expanding existing programs for Burmese star tortoises and roofed turtles. This program is managed in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Myanmar Forestry Department.
This report is the first to chronicle the daily activities of a TSA team’s visit to four countries in Asia – Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Philippines - to design turtle facilities, develop conservation programs, and consult on turtle husbandry issues. The team is led by Rick Hudson and includes Lonnie McCaskill and Dave Manser. The team was met in Myanmar by Kalyar Platt and her father Nyunt Thein (a local retired civil engineer) in Yangon, Myanmar. The mission in Myanmar is to begin designing and “costing out” turtle and tortoise facilities that were recommended at the January 2009 workshop.