Have you ever wondered where all the terrapins that are sold in pet shops and released into ponds in Chinese temples come from? Many kids have no idea of the origin of their pets.
One interesting way for your kids to find out where these reptiles come from is to visit the Bota Kanan Tuntung Centre. Located in Perak, 40km south of Ipoh, off the Ipoh-Lumut road, the centre is a fun and educational place to visit and learn about these wild creatures.
There are two species of tuntung in Malaysia: the river terrapin (Batagur baska) and the sea terrapin (Callagur borneonsis). The terrapin is classified under the endangered category of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red Data book.
The river terrapins are still found in the wild, but their numbers are dwindling rapidly. Legend has it that in the mid-17th century, the Sultan of Kedah obtained river terrapins from Sumatra and presented some to Sultan Muzaffar Shah II of Perak when he called on Kedah. These were brought back to Perak and raised in captivity, before being released at Bota Kanan where the terrapins thrived.
They were so numerous in the 19th century that villagers used to have egg fight festivals.
The terrapins were plentiful in Sungai Perak until the late 1960s when their numbers began to dwindle. Now they are becoming an endangered species. The reasons for the decline are habitat destruction, collection of adults for pets and eggs for eating, pollution, accidental drowning in fishing nets, etc.
It was easy to find the terrapin centre in Bota Kanan as it is signposted. When I arrived, I went to the display centre to look at the exhibits and to learn about the creatures. There is a relief model of the area, which shows Bota Kanan on the left bank of the Sungai Perak, just downstream of the Idris Bridge. The tuntung are bred at the centre. The eggs are incubated and hatched, then the young are kept in captivity until they are old enough to be released in the river. If you are lucky, you may be able to see the young being released into the wild.
The wild terrapins generally lay their eggs from November to February. After mating, the females lay their eggs in the sandy river banks, always at night. Rangers scour the riverbank for eggs and hatchlings to be brought back to the centre for protection. Generally between 17 and 37 eggs are laid in a clutch, and they take 75 to 100 days to hatch. One-third of all eggs collected by licensed collectors must be given to the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) for rearing and release.
There are 17 species of tortoises and turtles in Peninsular Malaysia and five sea turtles off the coast. All are in decline, and not even breeding programmes have managed to halt the decline. Out of those 17, there are 10 species of freshwater tortoises or terrapins. These include the river terrapin, and also the painted terrapin which lives in river estuaries but comes to ocean beaches to nest.
The Bota Kanan Centre was set up by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in the late 1960s to save the endangered river terrapins. The hatchery has since released tens of thousands of hatchlings into Sungai Perak. From November to March, visitors can observe migrating river terrapins swimming upstream to lay their eggs. There is accommodation available for those who wish to stay over.
After looking at the exhibition area, I was invited to the small museum set up in the laboratory. Here there were various stuffed animals, such as terrapins, a gharial, pangolin, civet cat, also an otter skin, and there were carapace from terrapins. There were even the feet and a trunk from elephants and the skull of a seladang.
Then I went outside to see the terrapin ponds. The hatchling ponds are near the ranger?s quarters, and have steep sides to prevent predators such as monitor lizards and otters from raiding. There is a ?mother and child? pond, and a neighbouring tank with what seemed to be juveniles. The bigger ponds with the more mature animals have a landing ground to enable the animals to leave the water and bask in the sun. A large area of the water is covered by an awning to shade the animals.
The average adult size is 60cm, and females are larger than males. The lifespan is about 12 years, possibly up to 25 years in the wild. The furthest pool seemed to contain young adults. They were all basking in the sun on the ramps but as I approached they all dived into the water, too shy to have their photos taken.
The terrapins are fed in the morning. Their natural food in the wild is riverside vegetation, especially mangrove fruit, as well as shellfish and prawns.
Near the hatchling area is a large area of sand which is the egg incubation site. Other eggs are hatched in polystyrene boxes, some under cover, some in the open. The centre has found that with the artificial sand beach there is a 50% success rate of hatching captive terrapins. The success rate is higher for the wild terrapins.
In the wild, hatchlings make their way to the river and begin a long and dangerous journey downriver. Not much is known about this part of their lifecycle. They are believed to spend most of their life in tidal waters near the river mouth, foraging along river banks and in creeks.
In the 1930s the beaches would be black with terrapins fighting for a place to lay their eggs. An estimated 10,000 females came to lay perhaps as many as 650,000 eggs on the banks of Perak river. In the 1995/96 season approximately 39,808 eggs were laid in the wild.
Habitat destruction is an increasing problem, caused by sand mining, dam construction along rivers and flooding from development and clearing of mangroves.
There are various things that we can do to help protect the terrapins. The main one is to refuse to eat the eggs or meat. Although the adults are rarely eaten in Malaysia, river terrapin eggs are in great demand, selling for seven times the price of chicken eggs. It would also help to keep the rivers clean. Don?t dispose of plastic bags indiscriminately.
The objective of Bota Kanan centre is to preserve and protect the existing population and habitat of river terrapins. They do this through research, captive management, and by controlling the exploitation of eggs. They also try to maintain the nesting beaches and feeding areas. The reserve covers 8.5ha of riverbank area.
If you are stuck for something to do over a weekend or school holiday, take the family to the terrapin centre. It will be a fun and rewarding experience for all.
The Bota Kanan Tuntung Centre is open every day from 8.30am- 4.30pm. Entrance is free. The best time to go is between 10am and 11am, when the terrapins are fed.
This article can be found at thestar.com.my