The Southern River Terrapin, Batagur affinis, is a large river turtle with a carapace up to 625 mm in length. This species inhabits large rivers and estuaries of the southern Malay Peninsula (southern Thailand and West Malaysia), Sumatra, and a remnant population is found in Cambodia. The Southern River Terrapin is declining across Southeast Asia and listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and considered one of the world's 25 most endangered turtles. The population of Batagur affins in Cambodia is facing threats from commercial sand mining, illegal fishing, illegal harvesting, and habitat loss from land grabbing and clearance of riparian forests.
The species which was once found in Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong was thought to have disappeared from Cambodia until it was rediscovered in 2001 along the Sre Ambel River System in Koh Kong Province—the only remaining habitat for the species in Cambodia. Conservationists initiated conservation interventions to restore this species in the wild. These include nest protection, education and awareness programs, law enforcement, community livelihood development, head-starting of hatchlings, ex-situ breeding, and post-release monitoring of head started turtles. To date, more than 200 hatchlings, sub-adults, and adults have been released into the Sre Ambel River System. Of those, 96 sub-adult and adult turtles were released into the wild with attached acoustic transmitters to study their movements, habitat utilization, and survivorship.
These interventions have resulted in some conservation successes. In 2005, a Royal Decree No 0305/149 designated the species as the National Reptile of Cambodia, named “Royal Turtle” in an effort to bring awareness and conservation for this species. In 2009, the Royal Turtle was classified as “Critically Endangered” under the Sub-Decree No. 123 on threatened fisheries resources and production. In 2019, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) declared the establishment of the Fisheries Management and Protection Area for Royal Turtle and Siamese Crocodile that covers large majority of the Sre Ambel River System.
Although conservation efforts have been underway for more than 15 years, the wild population of Batagur affinis has not significantly increased because illegal threats caused by human are still happening including sand dredging, loss of habitat and hunting for meat and traditional medicinal trade. On another hand, B. affinis like most turtles – are slow growing and require at least 15 years to mature. Therefore, recovery will occur only over a prolonged period.
According to Cambodia Fisheries Law, Article 92, any illegal offences such as catching, selling, buying, transporting, collecting, exporting, importing, processing and stocking all types of natural fishery products of endangered species shall be subject to a transactional fine by the Fisheries Administration in cash from two to three times of the market price of the obvious evidence. WCS’s conservation program for the recovery of the Critically Endangered Royal Turtle is funded by the European Union (EU)- Partners against Wildlife Crime, Mandai Nature, USAID-Feed the Future, US Forest Service, Rainforest Trust, Alan and Patricia Koval Foundation, and Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA).