Myanmar supports one of the most diverse, yet imperiled chelonian faunas in Southeast Asia. At least 27 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises are known to occur in Myanmar, including eight endemic forms.
Despite such high levels of diversity, the chelonians of Myanmar are among the least studied and poorly known in the world; even basic distributional and life history information is unavailable for many species. This situation is especially alarming given the threats faced by turtle populations throughout Myanmar from rampant commercial and subsistence harvesting, and habitat destruction.
Tremendous numbers of turtles have been collected, albeit illegally for food, medicinal, and pet markets in southern China. In addition to commercial collecting, rural people across Myanmar harvest turtles and turtle eggs for domestic consumption. Habitat loss to agricultural land clearance, urban sprawl, and road and dam construction also represents a major threat to turtle populations in many areas. Habitat destruction is expected to play an even greater role in the decimation of turtle populations as Myanmar moves towards a more open society and major infrastructure projects fueled by foreign investment are implemented.
As a result of these combined threats, chelonian populations in many areas are now severely depleted, and some species are approaching “ecological” or biological extinction. For example, Mangrove terrapins (Batagur baska and B. affinis) are almost certainly extinct in Myanmar, the Burmese star tortoise (Geochelone platynota) now survives only in captivity, and other species such as the Burmese roofed turtle (Batagur trivittata) survives in the wild by the slimmest of margins.
Still other species, particularly softshell turtles (Amyda cartilaginea, Nilssonia formosa, and Chitra vandijkii) are declining rapidly and will likely become critically endangered within the coming decade. Obviously, without aggressive conservation action, chelonian populations will continue to decline and many species could soon face imminent extinction in Myanmar.
Photo by Khin Myo Myo/WCS
Despite this seemingly bleak prognosis, considerable progress has been made by the Wildlife Conservation Society – Myanmar Program (WCS), working in partnership with Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and the Myanmar Forest Department (FD) since the "Asian Turtle Crisis" was first recognized in the mid-1990s.
Most notably, an extremely successful captive-breeding program at facilities in Myanmar has produced thousands of hatchling Burmese star tortoises since efforts were initiated less than 10 years ago. Captive-breeding has been so successful that a reintroduction program was launched in 2013 to re-establish viable wild populations of star tortoises at Minzontaung Wildlife Sanctuary (MWS). More recently, efforts were initiated at Shwe Settaw Wildlife Sanctuary based on lessons learned at MWS.
Likewise, last minute conservation action saved the Burmese roofed turtle (Batagur trivittata) from near-certain extinction, and in- and ex-situ programs are now producing hatchlings for eventual release into remote stretches of the upper Chindwin River and possibly elsewhere. Relatively secure populations of the Arakan forest turtle (Heosemys depressa) were found in two wildlife sanctuaries in western Myanmar, and an on-going ecological study is revealing new information on the life history of this enigmatic turtles. WCS and TSA are also working closely with FD staff to develop effective conservation plans for this Critically Endangered species.
Additionally, progress has been made in stemming the flow of illegally harvested turtles into southern China, and law enforcement initiatives have netted hundreds of illegally harvested turtles. In response to this upsurge in confiscations, a Turtle Rescue Facility was opened in December 2012 on the Mandalay-Lashio Highway, a major conduit for illegally harvested turtles moving into China. In the following paragraphs we discuss the background, objectives, and on-going work in each of these projects.
WCS Myanmar turtle conservation team. Photo by Eleanor Briggs/WCS
The Burmese star tortoise is a critically endangered species endemic to the dry zone of central Myanmar. High demand, first from food and traditional medicine markets in southern China, and later by global pet markets led to precipitous population declines during the late 1990s, and the Burmese star tortoise is now thought to be “ecologically” extinct in the wild (Platt et al., 2011b).
Despite the imperiled status of wild populations, technical support by WCS and TSA to captive breeding efforts in Myanmar have resulted in a remarkable increase in numbers; at this time almost 10,000 star tortoises are held at three "assurance colonies" and large numbers of hatchlings are being produced every year (about 3000 were produced during the 2014-15 breeding season).
Assurance colonies are viable breeding groups of imperiled taxa maintained in captivity as a hedge against the possible extinction of wild populations. Sometimes over-looked however, is the fact that assurance colonies are not an end unto themselves; simply stockpiling animals in captivity does nothing towards achieving the ultimate goal of restoring a species to the landscape. Instead, assurance colonies must be integrated into larger conservation programs that ultimately restore, maintain, and if possible expand ecologically functional populations of wild species. Reintroducing captive-bred Burmese star tortoises from the assurance colonies into the wild is the lynchpin of WCS/TSA conservation strategy.
Minzontaung Wildlife Sanctuary (MWS) was selected as the site of our first reintroduction attempt. We first conducted a community education and outreach program in the 13 agricultural villages surrounding the sanctuary. Then, 150 captive-bred subadult tortoises were selected from two assurance colonies, screened for infectious diseases, and permanently marked by tattooing identification numbers and Buddhist icons on the carapace. Each tortoise is also implanted with a microchip for future identification.
In late 2013, the tortoises were transferred into one of three pre-release “acclimation” pens encompassing 1.0 ha of natural habitat and held for variable periods (6, 12, and 18 months). This "soft release" approach is designed to provide a transitional period between captivity and the wild, familiarize tortoises with the release site, and dampen post-release dispersal. The latter is an especially important consideration given the sanctuary is surrounded by agricultural lands and a tortoise wandering into this area risks being purloined by poachers.
The first group of tortoises was released in May 2014, followed by a second group in November 2014, and the last group in May 2015. Each tortoise released into the sanctuary is equipped with a small radio transmitter and relocated bi-weekly by Forest Department technicians. To date, this reintroduction has been extremely successful; fewer than 10 released tortoises have been lost since being released. Of these several were killed by predators (most likely jackals, mongoose, and feral dogs), one died from unknown causes, and another could not be relocated. Most of the tortoises have remained within 1 km of the acclimation pens, suggesting a pre-release confinement period is important when reintroducing this species. Even more promising, a number of females have been observed nesting in the wild, some only days after being liberated.
Building on the success of the initial release, an additional 300 head-started star tortoises were selected from the assurance colonies, and in early 2015, released into a group of three acclimation pens constructed in a different area of the sanctuary. Unfortunately, our efforts received a setback in September 2015 when several tortoises were stolen from the acclimation pens and sold to illegal wildlife traffickers in Mandalay. Less than two weeks after the theft, a number of these animals resurfaced on websites in Thailand, which cater to the high-end pet market. An joint investigation by the WCS/TSA, Myanmar Forest Department, and the Department of National Parks in Thailand led to the arrest of two wildlife traffickers in Thailand in late December. The theft is still under investigation in Myanmar and illustrates the challenges in combatting illegal wildlife traffickers.
Despite the theft of so many tortoises, plans are moving forward to conduct a second, albeit much larger reintroduction of head-started star tortoises at a another wildlife sanctuary using the methodologies pioneered at MWS. Based on the results of an earlier survey (Platt et al., 2011), Shwe Settaw Wildlife Sanctuary (SSWS) was selected as the second reintroduction site. SSWS consists of 45,167 ha of deciduous forest on the western-most edge of the Dry Zone. Burmese star tortoises occurred in the sanctuary as recently as 1999-2000, but populations were decimated shortly thereafter by rampant poaching (Platt et al., 2001).
As a first step towards reintroducing star tortoises at SSWS, an intensive community outreach and education program was undertaken in the 36 villages surrounding the sanctuary. Conservation educators from WCS/TSA, in company with SSWS staff visited each village, conferred with community leaders, and conducted a series of educational presentations targeting school children as well as adults. Additionally, teams of Community Conservation Volunteers (CCV) have been recruited to strengthen local participation in conservation efforts. CCVs will participate in various aspects of the reintroduction, most importantly in post-release monitoring using radio-telemetry. CCV members also augment law enforcement efforts by providing information on illegal activities such as tortoise poaching. Our previous experience indicates that participation by CCVs imparts a strong sense of community "ownership" to conservation efforts.
A “soft-release” strategy similar to that successfully employed at MWS is being used to reintroduce star tortoises to SSWS. Three acclimation pens have been constructed deep within the sanctuary at a secluded and well-patrolled site. In late 2015, 150 captive-bred star tortoises were selected from the assurance colonies and transferred to these pens where they now await release.
Turtle Survival Alliance director Kalyar Platt holding an endangered Burmese star turtle. Her work with WCS Myanmar and dedication on saving turtles and tortoises allowed her to be the first woman to receive the Behler Turtle Conservation Award in 2015.
The Burmese roofed turtle is a critically endangered endemic species known only from the Ayeyarwady, Chindwin, Sitaung, and lower Salween rivers, where it was historically reported to be common. However, rampant egg collection, conversion of nesting beaches to seasonal agricultural fields, and chronic over-harvesting of adults by fishermen led to long-term population declines, and by the 1970s the Burmese roofed turtle was assumed to be extinct.
Fears of extinction fortunately proved premature, and the species was “rediscovered” in Dokthawady River (a tributary of the Ayeyarwady River) during a 2001 WCS expedition (Platt et al., 2005). Subsequent surveys located additional turtles along the Dokthawady River and in temple ponds in Mandalay, and a remnant breeding population was found in the upper Chindwin River (Kuchling, 2002). Unfortunately the Dokthawady population is now thought to be extinct after the construction of a hydropower dam allowed an influx of fishermen and inundated nesting beaches. However, turtles obtained from the river and temple ponds in Mandalay were used to found a captive assurance colony at the Yadanabon Zoological Gardens in Mandalay.
To address continuing declines among the remaining wild population of Burmese roofed turtles, WCS/TSA implemented an aggressive in-situ conservation program along the upper Chindwin River. This program is based at Limpha Village and consists of 1) protection and monitoring of nesting beaches by locally hired “conservation wardens”, 2) collection and transport of eggs to a protected beach for incubation, 3) head-starting of hatchling turtles, and 4) an education campaign targeting riverside agricultural communities. This integrated conservation program has enjoyed noteworthy success and as of 2015, over 700 roofed turtles have been hatched and reared successfully as part of the head-starting program. Nonetheless, fewer than 10 females remain in the wild, and given the extinction risk inherent in any small population, this aggressive conservation program must be continued if this population is to survive.
In addition to conservation efforts along the upper Chindwin River, three assurance colonies have been established with the objective of bolstering the global population of Burmese roofed turtles and producing offspring for eventual release into the wild. The initial assurance colony was founded at the Yadanabon Zoological Gardens (Mandalay) and currently contains 22 adult breeding turtles. The founding stock consists of turtles confiscated by the Myanmar Forest Department after being illegally taken by fishermen, and others found in monastery ponds and donated to the zoo for conservation purposes. The turtles are housed in a spacious natural pond and provided with an artificial sandbank for nesting.
The 2014-15 nesting season yielded 53 hatchling turtles, now being head-started at a specially designed rearing facility in the zoo. In 2010, a second assurance colony was established at Lawkanandar Wildlife Sanctuary using captive-bred progeny produced at the Yadanabon Zoo as well as turtles hatched on the upper Chindwin River. Most of the 100 roofed turtles in this assurance colony are now 9-10 years-old and have yet to reach sexual maturity. However, adult males now exhibit breeding coloration and reproduction is expected within the next few years. In anticipation of future breeding, a large artificial sandbank for nesting turtles was constructed in the enclosure during 2015. The third assurance colony consists of another 100 turtles housed in a large pond near the headquarters of Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary in the riverside hamlet of Htamanthi. These turtles were originally hatched on the upper Chindwin River, head-started at the Yadanabon Zoo, and returned to Htamanthi in 2015. Breeding is not expected to begin for another 3-5 years.
Given this numerical buffer against biological extinction, the first reintroduction of head-started roofed turtles to the wild was undertaken in 2015. Prior to this action, a wide-ranging assessment of potential release sites was conducted. Ultimately, two areas were identified where reintroduction was thought likely to succeed. The first area is a stretch of the upper Chindwin River near Limpha Village, already inhabited by several nesting females, while the second is along Nam Thalet Chaung, a relatively pristine tributary of the Chindwin that debouches into the river near Htamanthi.
In January 2015, 160 large sub-adult roofed turtles were transported by truck from Mandalay to the WCS/TSA Forward Operating Base in Limpha Village; 60 of these turtles were destined for release while the remaining 100 would go to the nascent assurance colony being established in Htamanthi. The trip proved nightmarish, a week-long truck ride along rutted jungle tracks awash in mud, followed by a 160 km boat trip up the Chindwin River. Upon arriving at Limpha the turtles were released into two large concrete grow-out ponds to recuperate from their arduous journey.
In the meantime, "soft-release" acclimation pens were constructed at two sites along the Chindwin River and Nam Thalet Chaung. Given that few reintroductions of river turtles have been attempted anywhere, there was almost nothing in the scientific literature to guide these efforts. Therefore the release was designed as a simple experiment to test the efficacy of penning in dampening post-release dispersal - two groups of 30 turtles would be released at each site; one group would be released immediately and the other group was penned for 30 days before being set free. The post-release movements of these turtles (monitored with VHF radio transmitters) would then be compared to determine if penning periods had any effect on dispersal patterns.
Release ceremonies attended by government officials and villagers were held first at Limpha and later on a beach along Nam Thalet Chaung. The turtles were ceremonially "donated" to attending Buddhist monks who then blessed them before they were either released into the river or placed in a holding pen. In late March of 2015 the pens were opened and the turtles released. On both the Chindwin River and Nam Thalet Chaung most turtles moved only 1-2 km up- or downstream from the release site, many taking up residence in deep holes that according to local lore, once harbored resident roofed turtles. Wet season movements proved more extensive and surging floodwaters appeared to have moved several turtles many kilometers from the release sites. Monitoring is currently underway to determine if the reintroduced turtles will continue to range widely or return to the release areas. Additional releases of head-started roofed turtles are scheduled for the dry season of 2016.
As part of the conservation effort to restore roofed turtles to the wild, WCS/TSA has leased the fishing rights to approximately 5 km of the Chindwin River at Limpha Village. Leasing fishing rights allows us to legally control access and dictate the type of fishing gear (if any) deployed on this stretch of river with obvious benefits for turtle conservation. Furthermore, the WCS/TSA turtle conservation team in conjunction with Forest Department personnel based at Limpha conducts regular patrols of the Chindwin River to enforce laws against electro- and dynamite fishing. These patrols are generally conducted at night and enjoy considerable support among riverside communities who view fish poachers as thieves unfairly exploiting a common resource. Future plans call for leasing the fishing rights on additional sections of river to expand protection of turtles.
WCS Regional Herpetologist Steve Platt discussing with TSA Director Kalyar Platt about the health of a newborn Burmese Roofed turtle within the Minzontaung Wildlife Sanctuary, while WCS turtle technician Khin Myo Myo is taking records of the data. Photo by Eleanor Briggs/WCS
Five species of softshell turtles are known to occur in Myanmar (Amyda cartilaginea, Nilssonia formosa, Chitra vandijki, Dogania subplana, Lissemys scutata), and three of these are endemic (N. formosa, C. vandijki, and L. scutata). As a group softshell turtle are in high demand by Chinese wildlife markets and as a result, populations of most species have been decimated throughout much of Myanmar (Platt et al., 2000; Kuchling et al., 2004; Platt et al., 2012c). This is particularly alarming because effective conservation measures have yet to be implemented, captive-assurance colonies remain to be established, and exploitation continues unabated.
In 2015 the WCS/TSA Turtle Program implemented a multi-component conservation program that represents a first step towards reversing the downward slide of softshell turtle populations in Myanmar. This program consists of two principal components: a) an egg collection and head-starting program on the Upper Chindwin River and Nam Thalet Chaung, and b) an assurance colony to produce offspring for head-starting and eventual release. These initial efforts should be regarded as experimental; head-starting has rarely been attempted with softshell turtles and methodologies will no doubt require some refinement before success can be guaranteed.
Egg collection and head-starting program: This program was initiated along the upper Chindwin River and Nam Thalet Chaung during January-May 2015 in conjunction with the on-going Burmese roofed turtle conservation program. Villagers will be compensated for notifying WCS/TSA personnel when turtle eggs are unearthed in their riverside gardens. The eggs will then be excavated and transferred to a secure riverside facility also used to incubate Burmese roofed turtle eggs. After hatching, the neonates will be head-started in large fiberglass tanks at Limpha Basecamp.
Assurance colonies: A softshell turtle assurance colony is currently being established at a Buddhist monastery near Bago, about 60 km north of Yangon. The monks are interested in taking an active role in conservation efforts and offered the use of several large, natural ponds on the monastery grounds for breeding turtles. In October 2015 a formal agreement was reached with the monks to host an assurance colony at the monastery. Ponds are being fenced and outfitted with artificial sandbanks to provide a nesting substrate. As of early December 2015, seven adult softshell turtles have been acquired for the assurance colony. These turtles were either confiscated from wildlife traffickers by the Forest Department or donated by fishermen, and include three narrow-headed softshell turtles (C. vandijkii), two Asian giant softshell turtles (A. cartilaginea), and two Burmese peacock softshell turtles (N. formosa). Additionally, another pair of peacock softshell turtles confiscated from fishermen and housed at the Yadanabon Zoological Garden (Mandalay), deposited a clutch of eggs on an artificial sandbank sometime in mid-2015 (actual nesting escaped notice). Fourteen eggs hatched in July 2015 and the neonates are currently being reared in 250-gallon fiberglass tanks on the zoo grounds. This event marks the first successful reproduction of the Burmese peacock softshell in captivity.
WCS Myanmar turtle researcher Daw Me Me Soe - Photo by Eleanor Briggs/WCS
The Turtle Rescue Center (TRC) was opened on 6 December 2012 in a formal ceremony attended by representatives of WCS, TSA, and the Myanmar Forest Department. The TRC sits astride the Mandalay to Lashio Highway, a major conduit for illegally harvested wildlife moving into southern China. The TRC is a state-of-the-art facility designed for the immediate care of turtles confiscated from wildlife traffickers. The spacious interior contains examination tables and holding tanks, while outdoor pens and tanks are available for housing turtles during the rehabilitation process. After an appropriate quarantine period, rehabilitated turtles are either repatriated to areas of suitably protected habitat, or in the case of threatened and endangered species, incorporated into existing assurance colonies.
The facility has proved its worth on a number of occasions, succoring hundreds of confiscated turtles, including yellow tortoises (Indotestudo elongata), Asian giant tortoises (Manouria emys), impressed tortoises (Manouria impressa), Arakan forest turtles (Heosemys depressa), and several species of softshell turtles. A major expansion of the TRC is currently underway with the installation of ponds to better house confiscated softshell turtles.
WCS and TSA hold a captive bred turtle release ceremony in Thajettaw.
In addition to captive propagation of Burmese star tortoises and Burmese roofed turtles, WCS/TSA also maintains assurance colonies of Asian giant tortoises and Arakan forest turtles. About 60 Asian giant tortoises are held in assurance colonies located near Maymyo and Gwa. The tortoises are kept in spacious outdoor pens with access to deep pools for swimming and soaking. Nest material is supplied during the reproductive season, although results so far have been discouraging as most eggs have been destroyed by predatory ants. Artificial incubators are now being installed at both facilities so that eggs can be incubated safely indoors.
Gwa is also home to an assurance colony of Arakan forest turtles, a poorly known and critically endangered species endemic to the Rakhine Hills of western Myanmar (Platt et al., 2010). The colony was founded several years ago after a handful of turtles were seized by the Forest Department from wildlife traffickers. Originally housed in a ramshackle enclosure near the sanctuary headquarters, WCS/TSA sponsored a major renovation of this facility in 2012 and provided training on the care these rare and seldom-kept turtles.
These efforts paid off, and hatchlings were produced in 2013 and again in 2015, marking the first time these enigmatic turtles have been propagated in Myanmar and one of only a handful of successful breeding attempts anywhere in the world.
Photo by Khin Myo Myo/WCS
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