by Maryann Mott
An extremely rare turtle has escaped the clutches of smugglers, thanks to a high-tech identification tag and keen-eyed inspectors.
Earlier this month Vietnamese police discovered a 33-pound (15-kilogram) endangered mangrove turtle, or "royal turtle," during a raid on a wildlife smuggler's home. Inspectors also found and confiscated more than 300 pounds (150 kilograms) of other turtles.
The shipment was headed to China, where turtle meat is often used in soups and the shells are ground to make traditional medicines.
Wildlife officials identified the rare species of the turtle, Batagur baska, from photographs in an old field guide. They then called Doug Hendrie, an Asian-turtle specialist working in Vietnam for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
"Initially, I was skeptical, as Batagur baska has never been recorded in the [turtle] trade here in Vietnam," he said.
A photo soon confirmed that the rescued turtle was a mangrove turtle.
"I was very surprised," Hendrie said.
When Vietnamese wildlife officers inspected the 20-year-old male turtle, they discovered a microchip under the animal's skin. The chip revealed that the turtle came from the Sre Ambel River in southern Cambodia.
The turtle had first been caught by fishermen in Cambodia in 2003. The fishermen turned it over to biologists, who implanted it with the tiny computer chip as part of a conservation program.
The reptile had not been seen again until now.
The rescued turtle is now undergoing a check-up. Wildlife workers discovered that its claws are worn down, suggesting that the turtle had been in captivity for some time and tried to escape its holding tank.
Within the next few weeks, the turtle will be released back into the river where it was first found, Cambodia's Sre Ambel River.
Mangrove turtles were thought to be extinct in Cambodia until WCS workers discovered a small population of the species on a nesting beach in 2001.
Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni ordered protection of the animal, giving it its local nickname, "royal turtle."
Mangrove turtles are considered the most endangered river-dwelling turtle in Asia. Just a decade ago, tens of thousands were thought to exist.
Now in many parts of its range?including Cambodia, India, Malaysia, and Thailand?only a handful remain.
Conservationists attribute the declining numbers to poaching, habitat loss, and the use of fishing nets, which can snare turtles and cause them to drown.
"No matter where you look the number of nesting females is declining," Hendrie said. The Cambodia population, he pointed out, only has two to eight mature females.
The turtles spend most of their lives in mangrove-lined tidal estuaries, where rivers flow into the sea. During the breeding season, females swim upriver searching for sandbanks to lay their eggs.
The eggs are sought by poachers and considered a delicacy in many Asian countries.
WCS is working to safeguard nesting beaches by training local guards to protect them.
"Smuggling wildlife in Asia, as well as the rest of the world, is second only to the illegal trade in drugs and arms," said WCS spokesperson Stephen Sautner. "Asia clearly leads the way in both quantity and scope of trade, due mostly to demand from China for wildlife products."
The organization says that about 14 tons (13 metric tons) of live turtles are exported from Southeast Asia to East Asia each year.
Of the estimated 72 turtle species native to Southeast Asia, half are endangered.
Hendrie said protection efforts are getting better, but he's not sure if such improvement will outpace the crisis Asian turtles currently face.
"Some species are too close to the edge of extinction to probably survive this critical period," he said.