Fifty-one royal turtles were released into the wild, in northern Preah Sihanouk province’s Kampong Seila district on November 26, by the Wildlife Conservation Society Cambodia Programme (WCS) and relevant government officials.

The event was accompanied by a ceremony, attended by Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries officials, local authorities, WCS representatives, Buddhist monks and locals.

WCS country director Ken Serey Rotha commented that conservationists had believed that royal turtles were extinct in the Kingdom, a presumption he said was rebuffed by a study back in 2000.

Also known as the southern river terrapin and by its scientific name Batagur affinis, the royal turtle is listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as “critically endangered”, and was designated as Cambodia’s national reptile by a 2005 royal decree, according to the NGO.

Serey Rotha noted that November 26’s event marks the sixth of its kind under the associated conservation project, bringing the total number of freed royal turtles from 96 to 147.

He also credited the ministry’s Fisheries Administration (FiA) for working with the WCS on rare-species conservation.

Speaking at the ceremony, Kampong Seila district deputy governor Prak Sovann urged commune- and village-level authorities and the general public to join hands in the conservation of royal turtles.

“If we can protect these habitats, they’d provide enchanting eco-tourism spots,” he said. “Sightseers would visit the royal turtles in their own spaces, as well as the beautiful forests here in Kampong Seila.”

Sovann said he was committed to protecting the species and ensuring viable populations “at all costs”, and called on the public to report trapped turtles to the authorities, who will then prepare them for release back into the wild.

FiA director-general Pum Sotha said royal turtles are now only found in Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia, of which the Kingdom has the largest population.

“We must all come forward to protect them, and not merely be content with having the most, but failing to look after them,” he said.

Sotha also requested local authorities, the WCS and EU to look into building statues and other monuments across the Kingdom that are dedicated to the royal turtle and bear inscriptions that indicate the rarity and importance of the species.