November 14, 2005

The Clock is Ticking for Survival of Kachuga trivittata

Efforts Need to Focus on Conserving Remaining Wild Populations

The Burmese roofed turtle, Kachuga trivittata, ranks second on the list of the world?s most critically endangered chelonians, and is one of five species endemic to Myanmar.  Surveys by Gerald Kuchling and Steven Platt have identified two rivers where wild populations are known to remain.  Based on surveys by Kuchling and subsequent information collected by students, the Dokhtawady River population is believed to be comprised mainly of juveniles, suggesting that the population is no longer viable following the loss of reproducing adults.  According to WCS survey reports, there have been no known nestings documented since 2001.

A large female Kachuga trivittata recovered and released on the upper Chindwin River in April 2005.

In contrast, the Chindwin River population is concentrated on a 37 mile stretch of river between Khamti town and Htamandhi Wildlife Sanctuary in Sagaing Division.  The Chindwin population remains reproductively active with about 15-20 nestings in 2004. In 2006, only five nests were recorded.

Immediate and urgent efforts are required to help protect this last stronghold for the Burmese roofed turtle.

Working with the WCS Myanmar Turtle Program Team, the Asian Turtle Coordinator has designed and implemented a conservation project focused on protection of Kachuga trivittata.  The project combines protection activities with community awareness and participation, as well as integrates ongoing research by students and links to a conservation breeding program under development at Yadanabon Zoo.  Moreover, the project is being designed to respond with immediate measures to specific identified threats, and nurture long-term sustainability through community participation and ownership.

The project was formally launched in February 2005.  At that time, the Chindwin River Project team carried out a threat assessment within the project area.   Priority threats to the species include the exploitation of eggs for local consumption or selling in markets, hunting by non-resident fishermen that seasonally camp on beaches within the project area, competitive uses of nesting beaches by seasonal fishermen for agriculture, camping, and livestock, and the incidental drowning of turtles in fishing nets set along the river.  The threat posed by ghost fishing practices was further illustrated by reports that two adult females had drowned in fishing nets across from the principal nesting beach at Linpa in December 2004.  Villagers were reported to have removed more than 100 eggs from the drowned turtles

Khin Myo Myo (sitting in center) of the Myanmar Turtle Team working with seasonal fishermen camping on the nesting beach of the upper Chindwin.

In March of 2005, the field team was tasked with conducting field surveys in the Hukaung Valley, north on the river above the project site to determine whether Kachuga trivittata?s natural range might extend north beyond the fall-line just above Khamhti town.  The surveys failed to find evidence of Kachuga trivittata in the Hukaung Valley, though other species were documented. 

In April the field team mapped the nesting beaches within the project area (Khamti to Htamandhi Wildlife Sanctuary) using GPS and determined that there were six active nesting beaches in 2005, three of which were nested upon with a total of five nests reported. 

In late June, Kyaw Moe, a graduate of Mandalay University, was hired to coordinate field activities at the project site and work with rangers from Htamandhi WS and residents hired from the local communities.  The expanded project team carried out a critical village assessment in July, identifying and profiling all of the communities within the project area, looking at population dynamics, socioeconomic factors, access to markets, communications, and other indicators that would help the program design community-specific conservation activities.  All 13 villages within the 37 mile project area were profiled. 

Based upon our findings in July, the Chindwin River field team identified Linpa Village where tow of the nesting beaches are located to use as a base of operations for the project.

A view of the project area including nesting banks (far side of river) and island. Thirteen critical villages are located along a 37 mile stretch of river where Kachuga trivittata is known to nest.

In July and August, Chindwin River Project staff member Khin Myo Myo completed a month of intensive training in Vietnam with Education for Nature ? Vietnam (ENV), a local NGO specializing in community-based awareness and training environmental educators.  Khin Myo Myo worked with ENV to develop two village awareness programs including one focused on residents from the 13 critical villages and a second program targeting seasonal fishermen.  In addition to the village-level meetings, activities will be carried out in schools in early 2006, signs will be placed on nesting beaches, and billboards will be placed along the river and in key market areas (as has been done successfully at the Batagur baska project in Cambodia). 

October marked the beginning of a permanent presence on the Chindwin River.  Patrols were initiated within the project area following four set patrol schedules, and Khin Myo Myo led five village awareness meetings in critical hamlets. 

If the project goes according to the schedule, two months of patrols and awareness activities in local villages will set the stage for protection of three priority beaches where turtles were known to nest last year (n=5), and monitoring of two additional beaches where tracks were observed.  Local resident guards will be posted on the priority nesting beaches where they will remain until the nesting season is complete in April.  Nests will be screened and protected in-situ, and adult turtles will be marked and released following nesting.  The guards will remain on beaches where nesting has occurred through July, however, some nests may be relocated from other beaches if located, and additional beaches will be monitored by the patrol team through the nesting season.

According to the project plan, a portion of the juveniles hatched on the Chindwin will be transferred to Yadanabon Zoo where a conservation breeding program for Kachuga trivittata is under development.  Facilities for head-starting of Kachuga will also tentatively be established in Linpa village at the project office in order to increase community participation and interest in the project, provide a second site for rearing juveniles, and serve as a middle station for transfer of hatchlings and head-started juveniles to and from the zoo.  Unlike the conservation breeding program at Yadanabon Zoo, the Linpa site will be for head-starting only, and not hold any animals long term. 

Win Ko Ko (center holding carapace) and the survey team during the February 2005 threat assessment mission.

In addition to strengthening protection on the river, raising awareness in local communities and amongst seasonal fishermen, and promoting community participation and support in protection activities, the project will evaluate options to lease portions of the river adjacent nesting areas traditionally leased by non-resident fishermen, and sign community agreements allowing for resident fishermen to fish in these sections of the river utilizing low impact fishing methods. Discussions with village leaders may permit priority nesting beaches to be closed during the nesting season.

The project also will involve opportunities for students from Mandalay and other universities to carry out research projects under the supervision of the project team, and further surveys are planned to identify additional nesting beaches and critical habitat. 

If all goes well, a portion of the 2006 hatchlings will be secured at Yadanabon Zoo where they will be raised and become part of an assurance colony, and simultaneously local efforts on the Chindwin River will mobilize greater community support and protection for the species, allowing wild populations the opportunity to recover.

For more information about Kachuga trivittata and the project that is currently underway on the upper Chindwin River, please contact:

Douglas B. Hendrie
Asian Turtle Program Coordinator
Wildlife Conservation Society and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
PO Box 222
Hanoi, Vietnam
Tele.  (844) 775-3935