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Hunted turtles find sanctuary at golf course and primary school

Jim Gubricky at the Angkor Golf Resort; an Indochinese snail-eating turtle (inset).
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The private sector is working with a wildlife conservation NGO to safeguard Siem Reap's population of endangered turtles, which are being traded on the black market as food.

Photo by: KYLE SHERER/Inset photo by angkor Centre.

Jim Gubricky at the Angkor Golf Resort; an Indochinese snail-eating turtle (inset).

The Angkor Golf Resort and the Jay Pritzker Academy are working with the Angkor Centre for the Conservation of Biodiversity to provide safe havens for critically endangered turtles that have been confiscated during government raids from markets where the animals were being sold by the kilo to turn into stew.

Turtles are considered a delicacy by Cambodians, and the demand for their meat is high enough to support an illegal trade, pushing many species toward extinction. While police can confiscate turtles from poachers,  the more difficult task is finding a safe area to release them.

Putting them back in their habitats just replenishes the population for poachers, so to establish a permanent home for the turtles requires a little imagination.

Jim Gubricky, golf course superintendant at the Angkor Golf Resort, said the resort started fostering turtles about 18 months ago. "The wife of a guy who used to work here saw a bunch of turtles being sold in the market. She bought them all - probably about 50 or 60 - brought them to the course and released them."

Gubricky and Markus Handschuh, animal collection manager at the Angkor Centre for the Conservation of Biodiversity, also decided to work together to release turtles taken in by the wildlife centre.

The Angkor Golf Resort has three wetland areas and a large lake system that is a frustrating area to lose a ball in, but the perfect habitat for a reclusive turtle. Gubricky said the course, which also has several designated "natural areas" with indigenous trees and uncultivated grass, is designed to attract native animals. "It's all about trying to make this course a natural haven - whether it's for turtles, birds or whatever."

Making the course environmentally friendly was an important part of the Angkor Golf Resort design, Gubricky said. As soon as the course was completed, Gubricky joined Audubon International, a nonprofit organisation that works with golf courses to create environmentally friendly areas. In March, Gubricky said that the Angkor Golf Resort earned a certificate for environmental planning from Audubon after conducting bird surveys at the course with the Sam Veasna Centre conservation NGO.

The bird survey found that the resort is home to 37 different types of birds, and the Angkor Golf Resort is now working with the Sam Veasna Centre to increase the bird population at the course.

But with the turtles, Handschuh said, "At the Angkor Golf Resort, we've released Asiatic softshell turtles, giant Asian pond turtles and yellow-headed temple turtles. All these species are red-listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and face a high risk of extinction in the wild. The turtles will do well in their new locations, as we assessed the habitat suitability before deciding which species to release and how many. And the turtles are regularly observed by the property owners and staff."

Monitoring by the staff is an important part of the programme, but initially, Gubricky was worried that the staff were observing the turtles a little too closely. "The staff took a little training, because they think of turtles as food," he said. "Now we're at the point where we don't have to worry about the staff, but when we brought the turtles in at first you could see their eyes light up."

Now the only real problem, Gubricky said, is the turtles leaving the water and wandering off, possibly into open traffic or the open arms of passersby. "Sometimes turtles will leave the wetlands and crawl out of the course, there's no stopping them really," said Gubricky. "My staff told me I should sign my name on the shells. Apparently, it's bad luck to eat a turtle when someone has done that. So that'll be standard procedure from now."

 Three weeks ago, the Angkor Centre for the Conservation of Biodiversity started to release turtles at a new location, the Jay Pritzker Academy.

The prestigious free primary school is surrounded by large wetland areas that are now home to four Indochinese snail-eating turtles.

Handschuh hopes that the turtles will start breeding at the school, and if he sees evidence that they're thriving, he plans to introduce more vulnerable species.

Gubricky and Handschuh said that the turtle releases at the golf course are a success, but expanding the programme to other species might be problematic. "There's a limit to what you can put on a golf course," said Gubricky. "Crocodiles are out. But maybe we could take some of the bigger lizards, creatures people won't be afraid of."

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