Bangkok Post

Bug-eye is back

En­dan­gered roofed tur­tles live to smile again

- RACHEL NUWER Animals · Zoology · Ecology · Wildlife · Biology · Myanmar · Yangon · Hong Kong · University of Western Australia · Australia · Western Australia · Wildlife Conservation Society · Mandalay · Bhamo

Con­ser­va­tion­ists are not known for de­liv­er­ing a lot of good news but in the Burmese roofed tur­tle — a gi­ant Asian river tur­tle whose bugeyed face is nat­u­rally set in a goofy grin — they have cause for cel­e­bra­tion. Just 20 years ago, the species was pre­sumed ex­tinct but af­ter re­dis­cov­er­ing a hand­ful of sur­viv­ing an­i­mals, sci­en­tists have grown the pop­u­la­tion to nearly 1,000 an­i­mals in cap­tiv­ity, some of which have been suc­cess­fully re­leased into the wild in Myan­mar over the past five years.

“We came so close to los­ing them,” said Steven G Platt, a her­petol­o­gist at the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety. “If we hadn’t in­ter­vened when we did, this tur­tle would have just gone.”

Tur­tles and tor­toises face one of the high­est ex­tinc­tion risks of any an­i­mal group, with more than half the planet’s 360 species listed as threat­ened. The cri­sis is most acute for Asian species, pummelled by both habi­tat loss and high lev­els of hunt­ing for food, medicine and the pet trade.

The Burmese roofed tur­tle is among the species that have faced this toll. The tur­tles once basked in the hun­dreds at the mouth of the Ir­rawaddy river south of Yan­gon, Myan­mar’s largest city, with a range stretch­ing all the way to Bhamo in the north. Fe­males — which grow sig­nif­i­cantly larger than males — can ex­ceed the size of a steer­ing wheel, while males un­dergo a breed­ing-sea­son trans­for­ma­tion that causes their usu­ally green heads to turn a bright char­treuse-yel­low with bold black mark­ings.

By the mid-20th cen­tury, in­ten­si­fied fish­ing pres­sure and in­dis­crim­i­nate trap­ping tech­niques were killing many adult tur­tles, while over-har­vest­ing of eggs pre­vented the pop­u­la­tion from re­plen­ish­ing it­self.

For decades, West­ern sci­en­tists had no idea how the species was far­ing, as the coun­try was closed to for­eign­ers. When it be­gan to re­open in the 1990s, re­searchers could find no trace of the Burmese roofed tur­tle, so many pre­sumed it to be ex­tinct. In 2001, how­ever, a vil­lager in a for­mer war zone handed Mr Platt a shell from a Burmese roofed tur­tle. The bad news was that the tur­tle had re­cently been eaten. The good news was that the species wasn’t ex­tinct, reignit­ing hope for it.

Around the same time, a live spec­i­men turned up in a mar­ket in Hong Kong and sub­se­quently found its way to an Amer­i­can col­lec­tor, who still has it in his pos­ses­sion. “When the species showed up in a pet shop in Hong Kong, it raised a lot of eye­brows,” said Rick Hud­son, pres­i­dent of the Tur­tle Sur­vival Al­liance. “There were a num­ber of lo­cal deal­ers smug­gling star tor­toises out of Burma at that time, so we just as­sumed it had been smug­gled out by the same traders.”

En­cour­aged by th­ese devel­op­ments, Ger­ald Kuch­ling, a bi­ol­o­gist now at the Univer­sity of West­ern Aus­tralia, se­cured per­mis­sion to ini­ti­ate a joint ex­pe­di­tion with the Myan­mar For­est Depart­ment to sur­vey the up­per Chind­win River, where an Amer­i­can ex­pe­di­tion in the 1930s had col­lected Burmese roofed tur­tles.

When the sum­mer mon­soon grounded the team in Man­dalay, Mr Kuch­ling killed time by vis­it­ing the tur­tle pond at a Bud­dhist tem­ple. Gaz­ing out at the murky wa­ter, he sud­denly saw three smi­ley heads pop up. They bore an un­canny re­sem­blance to pho­tos of Burmese roofed tur­tles he had seen in old nat­u­ral his­tory cat­a­logues.

Mr Kuch­ling re­turned the next day and lured the three tur­tles to the edge of the pond with a bit of grass. In the sec­onds be­fore the guards shouted for him to back away, he was able to con­firm that they were in­deed the long-lost species. “I was very ex­cited, and def­i­nitely flab­ber­gasted,” he said. Mr Kuch­ling and his Burmese col­leagues worked with the tem­ple’s board to trans­fer the rare reptiles, a male and two fe­male tur­tles, to Man­dalay Zoo.

The species’ luck was just be­gin­ning. Mr Kuch­ling found sev­eral ad­di­tional sur­viv­ing in­di­vid­u­als in the Dokhtawady River, a trib­u­tary of the Ir­rawaddy, and ar­ranged for their trans­fer to the zoo. A ma­jor damming project soon de­stroyed the lo­cal nest­ing habi­tat. When Mr Kuch­ling fi­nally made it to the up­per Chind­win River, fish­er­men from the Shan eth­nic group also con­firmed that a hand­ful of fe­male tur­tles still nested there each dry sea­son.

Rather than cap­ture the tur­tles in the up­per Chind­win River, Mr Kuch­ling worked with the For­est Depart­ment and the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety to set up a con­ser­va­tion ste­ward­ship pro­gramme to an­nu­ally hire nearby vil­lagers to fence off the beach, watch for nest­ing tur­tles and care­fully ex­ca­vate the eggs. Later, the Tur­tle Sur­vival Al­liance also joined the vil­lage part­ner­ship.

Around 1,000 Burmese roofed tur­tles — some hatched from eggs laid in the wild and oth­ers bred in cap­tiv­ity — now live at three fa­cil­i­ties in Myan­mar. Five wild fe­males also con­tinue to go back to the Chind­win beach to lay eggs.

No one knows how many wild male tur­tles re­main but in 2015, all the fe­males stopped pro­duc­ing fer­tile eggs, sug­gest­ing that any re­main­ing males had died. Af­ter the re­searchers re­leased 50 tur­tles from cap­tiv­ity, all five wild fe­male reptiles be­gan pro­duc­ing vi­able young, in­clud­ing one that had never laid fer­tile eggs be­fore.

While the species is no longer in dan­ger of com­plete ex­tinc­tion, Mr Platt cau­tioned that un­sus­tain­able fish­ing prac­tices re­main a prob­lem for the tur­tles’ re­cov­ery in na­ture.

Sci­en­tists also still do not fully un­der­stand the tur­tle’s bi­ol­ogy and ecol­ogy. Barely a month ago, Mr Platt and his col­leagues pub­lished the first de­scrip­tion of baby Burmese roofed tur­tles. The lack of ba­sic knowl­edge makes it dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine which as­pects of the en­vi­ron­ment need to be pro­tected to en­able the species to sur­vive in the wild. All that said, Mr Hud­son added, “this is one of the best global-level tur­tle con­ser­va­tion suc­cesses we have had”.

Gaz­ing out at the murky wa­ter, he sud­denly saw three smi­ley heads pop up.

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 ?? PHO­TOS: THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? MAIN PHOTO
A Burmese roofed tur­tle hatch­ling. Fe­males are sig­nif­i­cantly larger than the males, while the males turn bright colours dur­ing breed­ing sea­son.
PHO­TOS: THE NEW YORK TIMES MAIN PHOTO A Burmese roofed tur­tle hatch­ling. Fe­males are sig­nif­i­cantly larger than the males, while the males turn bright colours dur­ing breed­ing sea­son.
 ??  ?? RIGHT
A nest along the Chind­win River. The eggs are laid in mul­ti­ple holes, each flag not­ing the spot where one or more eggs were ex­ca­vated.
RIGHT A nest along the Chind­win River. The eggs are laid in mul­ti­ple holes, each flag not­ing the spot where one or more eggs were ex­ca­vated.
 ??  ?? LEFT
Vil­lagers lined up on the Chind­win River to re­lease tur­tles. Sci­en­tists have re­built the pop­u­la­tion of Burmese roofed tur­tles to nearly 1,000 in­di­vid­u­als and count­ing.
LEFT Vil­lagers lined up on the Chind­win River to re­lease tur­tles. Sci­en­tists have re­built the pop­u­la­tion of Burmese roofed tur­tles to nearly 1,000 in­di­vid­u­als and count­ing.
 ??  ?? BE­LOW
An­other Burmese roofed tur­tle.
BE­LOW An­other Burmese roofed tur­tle.

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