July 15, 2005

Critically Endangered Mangrove Turtle Goes Home

Nearly a month ago, police in Tay Ninh Province confiscated a shipment of wildlife from a trader?s house in Tay Ninh town. About 150 kg of turtles were seized in the shipment, which was reported to have come from Cambodia, and presumably headed for the soup pots of China. Hidden amongst the shipment was rare mangrove turtle (Batagur baska), never before recorded in the wildlife trade in Vietnam (see full story attached).

This unique discovery triggered efforts by the Vietnamese and Cambodian wildlife authorities and partner international organizations resulting in the repatriation of the rare turtle to Cambodia where it originated and will soon be released by Fisheries Department staff.

On Thursday July 14, the rare mangrove turtle safely completed his journey home, crossing over the border back into Cambodia, escorted by a forest ranger and met by counterparts from the Cambodian Fisheries Department.

?This is a clear and very positive example of how authorities can cooperate across international borders to resolve specific trans-border trade cases?, says Doug Hendrie, the Hanoi-based Asian Turtle Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society and Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. ?In this case, a very important turtle has returned home.?

However, Hendrie warns that every day thousands of turtles are smuggled across international borders in the region, many of these ending up in China where turtles are consumed as food or used in traditional medicine. ?The authorities have done an excellent job repatriating this particular turtle, but there we must not forget that most of the region?s turtles are suffering from the same fate as the Royal Turtle of Cambodia, and many of our species are critically endangered and on the brink of extinction.? Hendrie urges wildlife protection authorities to treat all cases concerning turtles more seriously and enact stricter punishment upon traders that violate the law. ?I hope that we can see more of this type of positive cooperation between regional governments, and build upon the success of this case.?

The Story of Lucky Turtle

The story of this ?lucky turtle? began when the turtle probably became tangled in a fishing net in the Sre Ambel or Kaong River along the southern Cambodian coast. No one can predict when the turtle was sold into the trade but the fisherman probably sold it immediately to a local trader earning as much as $2-3/kg. This 15 kg turtle would have amounted to a significant prize for the fisherman who probably earns no more than $40 a month fishing, barely enough to feed his family.

The local trader held the turtle for some time, as evident by the worn claws on the forelimbs of the turtle, a sure sign that the turtle spent a fair amount of time in captivity, trying to escape from a concrete tank or walled enclosure. The turtle was then probably shipped to an export trader based in the Phnom Penh area. Other turtles and wildlife were gathered by the trader until a group had been assembled that would warrant the expense of shipping the turtles to the border with Vietnam.

According to information from Tay Ninh Provincial wildlife protection authorities, the wildlife shipment was most likely smuggled by motorbike through the forest and across the border into Vietnam in order to avoid detection by border police at major crossings. In this specific case, three hired motorbikes transferred the shipment about 50 km from the border to a trader?s house in Tay Ninh town. If things had gone well, the Tay Ninh trader would have the turtles on a bus or truck heading north to China within a week or two at most, after which the turtles would cross into China and find their way to Guang Zhao or other major market towns in China where those that did not die along the way would soon perish in soup pots or have their shells ground up to make traditional medicine.

However in this case the endangered turtle was luckier than most other turtles in the trade. Tipped off by an informant, Tay Ninh police raided the house of the local trader and confiscated the turtle, as well as other wildlife on the premises.

Alert Tay Ninh Forest Protection rangers, called by police to receive the animals, tentatively identified one of the turtles as a mangrove turtle, using an old copy of a local language field guide on Turtles of Indochina and Thailand. The identification was then passed along to the Saigon-based organization Wildlife at Risk (WAR) which called upon assistance from specialists to assist with dealing with this unique case. Identification was then confirmed from photographs taken by WAR representatives, after which efforts were initiated to return the animal to Cambodia, where it originated.

The Vietnamese authorities could be sure of the turtle?s origin thanks to a small microchip inserted under the skin of the turtle in February of 2003 by researchers and staff of the Fisheries Department in Cambodia, the turtle?s exact origin can be traced to the Sre Ambel River in southern Cambodia. Saigon wildlife protection officers and WAR representatives discovered the chip using a special reader. The number encoded on the chip positively identified the male turtle as the same turtle released in March of 2003.

Back in Vietnam, the National Forest Protection Department CITES office worked closely with their Cambodian colleagues to generate the permits needed to return the turtle to Cambodia. The mangrove turtle is listed on Appendix I of CITES, the highest level of control assigned to species critically threatened by trade, and requiring permits for both export and import of the species.

Meanwhile in Saigon, the rare turtle was transferred to the care of Saigon wildlife protection officers, and spent another week anticipating its imminent transfer home before boarding a bus headed for the Cambodian border along with his Forest Ranger escort, and was received by grateful staff of the Cambodian Fisheries Department waiting at the border.

Following a routine health screening and examination, the turtle will be taken to Sre Ambel along the southern coast of Cambodia, and transported upriver to be released into the familiar waters of the Sre Ambel River from a sandbank that was once perhaps his birthplace 20 years before.

Key Facts

Habitat and Range: The mangrove turtle is native to coastal river systems and mangrove forests from India through Bangladesh and Myanmar south along both coasts of peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra (Indonesia), Thailand, and Cambodia. Scientists believe that the range of the species might have once long ago extended into the Mekong region of southern Vietnam.

Conservation and Threats: Threatened by hunting and trade, human consumption of eggs, loss of habitat, and possibly accidental drowning in fishing nets, populations of this critically endangered turtle continue to decline across the species? range. Batagur baska is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN list of threatened wildlife. It is also listed on Appendix I of CITES, making trade across international borders illegal without a permit from the national CITES office.

The Royal Turtle: Known as the ?Royal Turtle? in Cambodia and once protected by the King, a small population of mangrove turtles were rediscovered in the Sre Ambel River system in early 2001 by biologists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The National Fisheries Department of Cambodia with support from WCS has since been working to protect nesting beaches and reduce local hunting and egg collection in order to ensure that this small population, with only a hand full of nesting females recorded each year, does not become extinct in Cambodia.

Contact information

Ms. Nguyen Phuong Dung
Communications Officer
Education for Nature - Vietnam
Tel: (84-4)7753685
Email: [email protected]
Visit our website:
www.envietnam.org (English)
www.thiennhien.org (Vietnamese language)