September 26, 2005

Turtles Released at Cat Tien Get Second Chance at Survival

Once destined for the soup pots of China, a few lucky turtles will get a second chance at life thanks to the efforts of concerned wildlife protection authorities and conservationists. 

Last week, 175 turtles representing five native species were released at various locations within Cat Tien National Park.  The turtles were initially confiscated last year by the Nghe An Forest Protection Department.  They were subsequently transferred to the Cuc Phuong National Park?s Turtle Conservation Center (TCC) in December 2004, and quarantined prior to their release.

Mr. Nguyen That Ha of the Pu Mat Rescue Center and TCC manager Bui Dang Phong accompanied the turtles on their long trip by train back to the south.  From Ho Chi Minh, the turtles were loaded on a truck and transferred to Cat Tien National Park in Dong Nai Province, where they were carefully released over a two day period at a number of locations within the park. 

Eighty-five of the turtles originated from the illegal trade, according to Phong, who coordinated the release in cooperation with provincial and central authorities.  ?Had they not been seized and turned over to the TCC, they would almost certainly have been cooked and eaten long ago.  These are a few of the lucky ones,? says Phong.  ?The remaining 90 turtles were the offspring of adults that were rescued from the trade over the past six years?. 

The five species that were released included the yellow tortoise Indotestudo elongata, the black marsh turtle Siebenrockiella crassicollis, the Malayan box turtle Cuora amboinensis, the giant Asian pond turtle Heosemys grandis, and the yellow-headed temple turtle Hieremys annandalii.  The yellow tortoise lives in open forest areas and edge habitat.  The other species are semi-aquatic and were released in wetlands, small ponds, and along the Dong Nai River. 

All of Vietnam?s 23 tortoise and freshwater turtle species are critically threatened by hunting and illegal trade.  Wild populations of turtles have rapidly declined since the mid-1990s when the turtle trade with China reached its peak, and an estimate of one to eighteen tons of turtles were crossing the Vietnamese border into China each day.   Today, many of Vietnam?s most common turtle species are now considered rare, and much of the turtle trade consists of animals being smuggled through Vietnam to China from Laos and Cambodia.  In China, most turtles end up in the soup pot or are ground into powder and used in traditional medicine. 

As a result of the widespread decline in turtle species native to Vietnam due to hunting and trade, remaining wild populations desperately need greater protection, as well as help from ordinary citizens. 

Turtles are special creatures.  They have evolved with a unique form of protection, a hardened shell protecting their bodies from most predators.  In nature, turtles are most vulnerable in the early stages of their lives, as eggs or newborn hatchlings.  Turtle eggs and juveniles are readily preyed upon by a wide range of predators including small carnivores, rodents, birds, and even other reptiles like monitor lizards.  However, if a newborn turtle can survive the dangerous egg and juvenile stages of its life, and grow to a sufficient size where its shell becomes strong enough to protect it from most predators, its chances of survival will improve remarkably.  Some of Vietnam?s turtles may live to more than 100 years old.  In nature, the stability of wild populations depends upon adult turtles reproducing for many years to compensate for the loss of eggs and hatchlings.

In a modern world, adult turtles are not safe to reproduce for many years, and a turtle?s hardened shell does not protect it from the new human ?super-predator?.  Moreover, humans do not collect just a single turtle to feed their family, but will collect as many as they can and transport them great distances to markets.  Clearly, this has upset the natural balance resulting in widespread declines in wild populations of many turtle species.

The Cuc Phuong National Park Turtle Conservation Center (TCC) was established in 1998 as part of an effort to promote awareness and enhance protection of Vietnam?s native turtle species.  The TCC works closely with provincial Forest Protection Departments and receives turtles that have been confiscated from illegal traders.  Efforts by the TCC have also focused on breeding some of Vietnam?s most critically endangered turtle species in order to release offspring back into the wild. 

Last week?s turtle release was the fourth time since 2000 that the TCC has returned turtles to the south of Vietnam and released them at Cat Tien National Park.  The release was carried out with support from the Humane Society International.

For further information or questions, please contact:

Mr. Bui Dang Phong
Turtle Conservation Center
Cuc Phuong National Park
Telephone:  03 0848090


Ms. Nguyen Thi Van Anh
Wildlife Trade Program Officer
c/o Education for Nature ? Vietnam
Tele.  04-775-3935