By Mengey Eng
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| November 15, 2017
(Koh Kong, Cambodia - 13 November 2017) –The Royal Government of Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration (FiA), WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) announced today the release of 25 Royal Turtles into their natural habitat in the Sre Ambel river system—the only place in Cambodia where this species is found.
Listed on IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered, the Southern River Terrapin, locally known as the Royal Turtle, (Batagur affinis) is one of the world’s 25 most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles. The species lives only in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, and its global wild population numbers less than 500 mature individuals. It was designated Cambodia’s National Reptile by Royal Decree in 2005.
After undergoing health examinations by veterinarians from the WCS Bronx Zoo Zoological Health Program, all 25 sub-adult turtles were fitted with acoustic transmitters that will allow researchers to monitor their survival and seasonal movements, and to better understand their habitat use within the wider river system.
“Sand dredging along the Sre Ambel river system was recently banned by the government of Cambodia,” said Som Sitha, WCS’s Technical Advisor to Koh Kong Conservation Project. “This is welcome news for Royal Turtle conservation as this safeguards their only known natural habitat and breeding ground. We will be able to monitor the movement of the released animals, their habitat utilization and survival rate. These data will allow conservationists of FiA and WCS to better plan and manage this species—a huge step forward in our ability to recover the population.”
“We are optimistic about this release because we succeeded in 2015 when we released 21 Royal Turtles into the Sre Ambel system. After two years of regular monitoring, we found that over 85 percent of them are still alive,” he added.
The species is still known locally in Cambodia as the "Royal Turtle" because historically the eggs were considered a delicacy protected for the king. More recently, however, they have been pushed to the brink of extinction largely due to unsustainable harvesting of both eggs and adults.
As a result of this persecution the Royal Turtle was believed extinct in Cambodia until the year 2000 when a small population was re-discovered by the FiA and WCS in the Sre Ambel river system. In 2001, WCS in partnership with the FiA started a community-based protection system in Sre Ambel, hiring former nest collectors to search for and protect nests, instead of harvesting the eggs.
“FiA, in collaboration with WCS, has been working to conserve the Royal Turtles for nearly 20 years,” said Mr Ouk Vibol, Director of Fisheries Conservation Department of the FiA. “Efforts have ranged from nest and habitat protection, to education and awareness, to the construction by WCS and FiA of the Koh Kong Reptile Conservation Center for housing, rearing and breeding the turtle species.”
“Collection of eggs or adults for consumption or sale is illegal in Cambodia. Everyone can help conserve the Royal Turtle by not buying or eating their meat or eggs,” Mr. Vibol said.
This work was supported by the Alan and Patricia Koval Foundation, Wildlife Reserves Singapore, National Geographic Society, Chicago Zoological Society, Save Our Species, and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the MacArthur Foundation, and the World Bank. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation. SOS – Save Our Species is a joint initiative of IUCN, the Global Environment Facility and the World Bank. Its objective is to ensure the long-term survival of threatened species and their habitats.