To celebrate World Turtle Day, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Department of Fisheries Conservation of Fisheries Administration, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries released 200 Endangered Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle Hatchlings into the Mekong River on May 25.
This is the fourth release of Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle Hatchlings into the Mekong River in 2019, following the second and third event last March and April in the same district where 654 hatchlings were released. Approximately 800 Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle hatchlings have been released into the Mekong River each year since 2007.
The release ceremony was held in collaboration with Department of Fisheries Conservation of the Fisheries Administration (FiA) at Koh Peng in Yeav Village, Kampong Cham Commune of Sambour District in Kratie Province. All of the hatchlings are aged between 15 and 30 days. In order to improve survivorship these hatchlings were collected by WCS nest protection teams immediately after emerging from the sand when they are most vulnerable so that they can be released in safety from turtle nesting beaches.
Mr. Ouk Vibol, Director of the Department of Fisheries Conservation, said “we highly appreciate the participation of local authorities, community and WCS in the release ceremony, who have been working together to conserve critically endangered turtles so that they can persist in the natural water bodies”. He added “all stakeholders should continue their efforts to conserve the threatened species, and those who still trade protected species will face legal action”.
WCS has five community nest protection teams—four in Sambour district and one in Siem Bouk district of Stung Treng. Each team is tasked to search for the turtle’s eggs and protect them until hatched, and then build a temporary wooden pen to keep and feed them for about two weeks before releasing them into the wild. From 2007 to 2019, the team has found 449 nests (12,985 eggs) on 60 different locations in the two provinces. With good care from the teams, 10,128 (or 78%) of the total have successfully hatched. This figure included 1,005 hatchlings protected by the teams during the 2019 nesting season, which started in November 2018 and ran through to May 2019.
Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle Pelochelys cantorii is classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Only a few records of the species exist for Laos, and it appears to have disappeared across much of its former range in Vietnam and Thailand. In Cambodia it was not observed in the wild by scientists between 2003 and 2007, when it was found on the Mekong River in Kratie and Stung Treng provinces by Conservation International (CI). CI worked with Fisheries Administration to protect the species until 2017, when they handed over the project to WCS. Since then, WCS and FiA have been working to conserve the species through a nest protection program, law enforcement patrols, education and awareness raising among local fishermen and students.
“With continuous funding support from EU, USFWS, WRS and TSA, plus good cooperation from FiA, WCS has made significant progress in implementing its project over the past years,” said Dr. Ken Sereyrotha, Country Program Director for WCS Cambodia.
“The hatchling release is the result of our joint effort in conserving turtles, in which main activities included turtle nest protection, care for the baby turtles at the hatching sites, and community-based turtle nest protection,” he added.
“The nest protection program plays a vital role to protect the species by paying former egg collectors to protect nests, generating extra income for them and allowing nests to successfully hatch,” he said.
WCS’s conservation of Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle is funded by the EU, Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), USFWS, and Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA). Etienne Delattre, WCS’s EU-Counter Wildlife Trafficking Project Coordinator for WCS/Greater Mekong said “The four-year EU Counter Wildlife Trade regional project, began in January 2019, and in Cambodia will focus on turtles, which are globally affected by illicit trade. Cambodia retains populations of a number of highly threatened turtle species, and is both a source and transit country for the trafficking of turtles to markets in Vietnam and China”.