Years ago, Sar Torn was famous for catching turtles.
Fishing in Stung Treng and Kratie provinces, Torn, 44, nabbed an average of five giant soft-shell turtles from the Mekong and its banks every day, contributing to their decline and placement on a list of critically endangered species.
“I alone managed to catch up to 40 kilograms of turtles a day for more than 20 years, from 1979 to 2000,” he said, sitting on a bank of the river with his wife, South Chanthorn, 41.
“I wasn’t able to count how many turtle-catchers there were back then, but there were hundreds.
“No one banned us from catching. We could hunt as much as we could. We stopped only when the turtles disappeared.”
Torn lives in the Mekong Flooded Forest, a biologically diverse environment in the northeast of Cambodia. In addition to the rare Cantor’s giant softshell turtle, which Torn once caught in droves, the flooded forest is home to several vulnerable species, including the Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin and the white-shouldered Ibis.
With assistance from environmental groups, however, locals who once depleted stocks are turning into conservationists. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is providing funding for Torn and Chanthorn to stay temporarily on an island to look after the Ibis population there, and a tourism plan is in the works to draw visitors to see the dolphins.
One of the more intriguing stories, however, has centered on the soft-shell turtle, which was thought to be extinct until researchers rediscovered it in March 2007 during a survey of the Mekong.
“We did interviews with locals about the shelter of the remaining turtles,” explained Sun Yoeung, a Mekong Project associate with Conservation International (CI), which is partnering with the Cambodian Fisheries Administration on the project.
“When we knew of the location, we put traps in the water, and of course only one reproductive turtle was caught. We thought that it was gone from Cambodia,” he said.
Since then, the turtle – which has a smooth, flattened carapace, can grow up to 1.2 metres and can live more than 100 years – has made quite the comeback.
Between 2007 and 2012, 30 families participated in a preservation program that led to the release back into the wild of more than 3,000 young “romich”, the turtle’s name in Khmer. During a recent trip with reporters, CI released a total of 105 young soft-shell turtles at three different locations, bringing the number introduced into the wild so far this year to more than 500.
Meakh Phoeurng, 58, and his family have been staying at Koh Preah island in Stung Treng province for almost three years. He has hundreds of turtle eggs under his care.
When they hatch, he hands them over to a CI officer in exchange for payment. Since he started, he has made nearly $6,000.
“We try our best to look for turtle eggs on the sand in the flooded forest, or they will be found by villagers and taken for food,” he said, adding that the turtle produces eggs between November and June, and one nest consists of between 10 and 50 eggs that hatch after 60 days.
Eggs are taken from natural nests and buried under a layer of sand until they hatch, Phoeurng explained.
According to Yoeung, the project manager with CI, turtles still face several dangers. Potential dams planned for the area could upset their habitat, housing development could lead to dredging, and illegal loggers could hunt them. Their meat and eggs are often sold for food or traditional medicine – and that’s when natural predators like snakes aren’t after them.
But the co-operation between CI and WWF is pushing locals and fishermen to change their attitude and work together to preserve the remaining turtles.
“It is hard to preserve the turtle without participation from locals. They used to catch the turtle, so they know the turtle well,” Yoeung said, stressing the rarity of the species.
“This kind of turtle is found in only 11 countries in the world.”
In time, he says, a “turtle census” will be conducted to determine exactly how many are thriving in the waters, but anecdotal evidence so far suggested that the turtles are on the uptick.
Sok Ko, an official with the Kan Tuoth forestry administration working under the WWF project to preserve birds, said awareness is a key part of the battle. In many cases, he noted, that seems to be increasing.
Sam Sarin, 68, who lives on Koh Dambang island in Kratie’s Sambo district, said that he sometimes sees turtles surface in the water in front of his home. But he never bothers them.
“Some villagers still secretly catch turtles. People eat meat like a giant,” he said, citing a Khmer proverb. “So when they see meat, they catch it for food.”
Saving the turtle, of course, is part of a much broader vision.
“WWF’s larger strategy is to protect not only individual species but the habitat and ecological systems of this entire area. Conservation of these species is not only important to Cambodia, but to the world as a whole,” said Gordon Congdon, freshwater conservation manager at the Cambodia country office.
Because the riverine habitat of the flooded forest is still intact, it can serve as a refuge for species that have largely disappeared from the rest of Southeast Asia. Saving the turtles, dolphins and birds means saving the forest.
“We are doing what we can to call attention to the great biodiversity in Cambodia.”