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Guarding Cambodia's giant turtles

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Sambor district, kratie

Wildlife officials use cash to entice Mekong residents in northeastern Cambodia to protect nesting grounds of Cantor's soft-shell turtles, believed extinct just two years ago.

Photo by:

Brendan Brady

A Kratie resident Ken Vy excavates a Cantor's giant turtle nest for wildlife officials as part of a program that pays local villagers to preserve nesting sites of the endangered species.

The Giant turtles' chomping ground 

The Cantor's habitat lies mostly within a 55-kilometre stretch of the Mekong in northeastern Cambodia between the cities of Kratie and Stung Treng, where scientists have noted the richness of the natural environment. In a report released Thursday, the WWF said the "near-pristine region of tall riverine forests, waterways and island archipelagos" is a sanctuary for the critically engandered Irrawady dolphin and other vulnerable fauna populations, a total of 36 of which are listed as threatened under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. The area used to be one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge until as late as 1998. Now, it is rapidly shrinking as peace is leading to migration of communities to areas previously off limits due to security concerns, the group said. The two dams proposed for just outside the unique strip would "massively disrupt the delicately balanced ecosystems in the area", it said. WWF has petitioned the government to designate the area as protected. 

LAST year, Mekong resident Su Pie sold the delicate eggs he unearthed to Chinese miners working in the area, banking around US$20. This year, he stands to make exponentially more by not laying a hand on any nests he discovers, as well as ensuring no one else does either.

The 59-year-old fisherman and farmer, whose home lies along the Mekong in a district called Sambor, about an hour from the city of Kratie, stands along the banks of the river with his wife and three children as he explains to Conservation International (CI) officials his mixed success this year in contributing to their project.

The good news was he found two nests. The bad news was he ate the eggs from one after he suspected it would be discovered by other local fishermen, given its visible location.

The conservation officials cringe as they hear this. They can count the number of meals that could push Cambodia's population of the endangered Cantor's giant soft-shell turtle to extinction. But the program employing locals to protect nests is in its first year, and they expected it to develop with hitches.

Cantor's can grow up to two metres in length and reach weights of more than 50 kilograms. The turtle's flat, soft shell is covered with rubbery skin and has been valued for use in post-natal traditional Khmer cures.

In 2007, wildlife experts found the super-sized freshwater turtle species, which was previously believed to have vanished from Cambodia. Until the discovery in May that year of an 11-kilogram female by a scientist working for the government and the global conservation group WWF - including her  nesting grounds and hatchlings - the Cantor's turtle was believed by officials to exist only in very small numbers in Laos, and many feared the animal's extinction was imminent.

Since then, the wildlife groups planned to employ local villagers to protect the species' breeding grounds.

"I like helping protect them, but if I didn't get money, I would always take half of them and leave the other half," the fisherman said.  "Other fishermen come around looking for eggs, also, so it can be difficult to do what I'm asked."  

After verifying the location of the preserved nest, the conservation officials pay Su Pie $30 on the spot. The fisherman receives a net, which he is instructed to place over the nest to protect it from natural predators, such as monitor lizards, so the baby turtles can be caught and studied before they are released by the CI team, which will base itself in the area as the hatching period nears.  

"Thirty dollars for finding the nest, plus $2 a day from the time we see the nest until it hatches, plus $2 per hatched egg," explained the program's head monitor, Kim Chamnan. Nests typically hold 20 to 50 eggs, which take more than 60 days to hatch.

"He can make a lot more by cooperating with us. He'll get more than $200 for this nest if they hatch," said Kim Chamnan.

Last year, CI officials were able to preserve four nests and held onto twelve hatchlings for a "Head-Start" program in which they allow them to mature in captivity before they are released at a size large enough to overwhelm any would-be natural predators.

A fragile youth

Sightings of adult Cantor's are rare, as they hug the muddy river bottom. Sonar is required to track the turtles, given the depths of as much as 40 metres they tend to inhabit.

"It buries itself in the sand and spends 95 percent of its time completely hidden out of sight with just its eyes and nose showing," said David Emmett, a wildlife biologist for CI based in Cambodia. "It feeds from this position, striking at fish and crabs."

But the creatures are especially vulnerable at birth as the mother, while armed with a bone-crunching bite, does not hang around the nest.

Kea Ratha, a graduate student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh whose research has centred on the feeding behaviour of hatchling Cantor's, says their high-mortality rate during pre-natal stages and as newborns places a premium on efforts to protect their nesting sites.  

But "besides the Conservation International project, nothing is being done to protect this species, which faces many threats", she said.   

Emmett says officials have not yet been able to survey the Cantor's population in Cambodia, but estimated it was on the decline, with only around a hundred breeding adults.

"Adults are being caught and sold, and nests are plundered by fisherman for eggs. The population is surely declining, but because they are capable of laying so many eggs - up to 50 in one nest - the population could recover very fast if the nests are protected."

Locals search for nests by looking for tracks from the mother. They poke a stick into the sand, and if it gives easily, it is a sign eggs may lie below.

Cambodian palettes are not especially drawn to turtle eggs, says Kim Chamnan, unlike the Chinese, for whom turtle holds a potent combined culinary and medicinal allure.

At rural markets in the area, an egg goes for around 1,500 riels (US$0.37 cents), so a nest's bounty is not likely to land much more than ten dollars. But that cash is still very attractive to local fishermen who are not aware of the conservation officials' much larger offer.

Trawling along the river in a thin, wooden vessel, the two-man Conservation International team approaches residents they see on or along the river, giving them a graphic laminated handout with a picture of a turtle nesting site and a number to call should they spot one. The hefty cash rewards get the attention of local residents, but it will take time for the campaign to spread awareness. In the meantime, officials will continue to find dug-up nests, like the handful spotted along the river's banks during the day's patrol.

Money talks

Like most of the riverine inhabitants, 31-year-old Ken Vy fishes and farms for a living. But he has stood out to Conservation International officials for his ability to sniff out nests.  

Last year, he was informed of the project towards the end of the hatching season, so he got a late start, spotting one nest for which he was rewarded with a total of $200.

"I had already eaten or sold the eggs from two nests.  I just came here to walk my cattle, and while I was here, I would look for nests," he said.  

But with hundreds of dollars hanging in the balance, he now dedicates part of his time to searching for nests.

"Last night, I came at four in the morning with a headlamp to go searching. If I waited until later in the morning, I was afraid other fisherman would see me and search here, too."

He has staked out two nests on a small sand bank near his home. "I come here a few times every day to protect the nests, to make sure no one else is stealing the eggs."

In the presence of officials from the capital soliciting his help, Ken Vy becomes animated as he talks about his laborious routine to keep would-be egg snatchers at bay.

But he was clear it was the handsome cash reward that motivated him to rise in the dark hours of morning to hunt for nests he can protect - and the pragmatism of the wildlife team in understanding this could be the thrust behind the program's success if the endangered species is to be protected. 

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