Snapping at monks and government officials with jaws capable of shredding through bone, a rare adult Cantor’s Giant Soft-Shelled turtle was one of 100 reptiles given a new home at a conservation centre that aims to boost dwindling turtle populations in Cambodia.
The US$20,000 Mekong Turtle Conservation Centre, constructed by NGO Conservation International within the confines of 100 Pillar pagoda in Kartie province’s Sambro district, opened on Wednesday. It is intended as a sanctuary for four different types of turtles, including two endangered species, and contains facilities for raising baby turtles away from predators and researching the reptiles further.
Among the endangered reptiles are Cantor’s Giant Soft-shelled turtles, with individuals known to weigh over 110 pounds and two meters in length. Featuring a distinct snout that earns it the name of ‘frog head turtle’ in Khmer, the breed inhabits the depths of freshwater streams and inland slow-moving river systems, feeding primarily on aquatic plants, fish, crab and shrimp.
The turtles – thought to be extinct in Vietnam and on the brink of extinction in Thailand and Laos – were virtually undetected in Cambodia until a biological survey, conducted in 2007, gained international attention for spotting them in a pristine natural habitat along the Mekong River. The discovery was an impetus for the new conservation centre.
“This centre will provide turtles with a safe environment to mature before they are introduced to the wild,” project associate of Conservation International Sun Yoeung said, adding that baby turtles would be released once they reached between 10 months and two years old.
However, 15 four-day-old Cantor’s turtles were released into the river yesterday, a Conservation International spokeswoman said, in part to facilitate the filming of a nature programme by French filmmakers.
“We don’t want to take all of the hatchlings back to the centre because we don’t know if they will all survive [there],” explained Som Sitha, monitoring and evaluation coordinator at Conservation International, pointing out that Cantor’s turtles had never been raised in captivity before. “Also, we want to involve local fishermen and show them that we will release some turtles back into their habitat.”
Sun Yoeung, 33, project associate of Conservation International, said human activity remained the greatest threat to turtle habitats.
“Turtle nests are easily found by people because of the large tracks that adults leave in the sand,” he said. “People were eating the eggs, but this is less common now because of education about turtles.”
Turtles are also sold to markets as ingredients for traditional Chinese medicines, ornaments and pets.
Environmentalists also attribute human activity to the destruction and pollution of turtle habitats through fishing, farming, small-scale mining near the Mekong River.
Community partnerships have been central to the success of the conservation effort thus far, said Sun Yoeung, as fishermen and villagers continue to be educated about rare breeds.
He said the an incentive program, rewarding people with $10 for finding turtle nests and $6 per hatchling, had populated the conservation centre with about 100 turtles so far.
Main features of the new facility include 33 aquatic tanks as well as a large concrete pond, where one adult Cantor’s Giant Soft-shelled turtle is being displayed.
Partners of the turtle conservation effort include Conservation International, Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration and 100 Pillar Pagoda, in addition to the World Wildlife Fund and the Association of Buddhist Monks.