Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Royal turtle’s survival ‘at risk’

Royal turtle’s survival ‘at risk’

A critically endangered southern river terrapin pictured in Koh Kong province. WCS
A critically endangered southern river terrapin pictured in Koh Kong province. WCS

Royal turtle’s survival ‘at risk’

There may be “fewer than 10” breeding female royal turtles left in Cambodia, a conservation group that monitors the critically endangered species warned yesterday.

Cambodia’s national reptile, the royal turtle, also known as the southern river terrapin (Batagur affinis), faces threats against “its very survival due to habitat loss caused by increased sand dredging and illegal clearance of flooded forest”, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a US-based group with an active branch in Cambodia, said in a press release.

The turtle, now believed to exist only along the Sre Ambel River in Koh Kong province, has long been among the world’s most endangered turtle species.

“These forest habitats are key for their survival, providing shelter and diverse food for their diet,” explained Som Sitha, a technical adviser with WSC’s Sre Ambel Conservation Project.

“Sand dredging is further threatening their survival. It causes so much river bank erosion . . . destroying nesting beaches and devastating [wetland] forest, which is the source of their food,” he said.

According to Sarah Brook, another WSC technical adviser, the turtles lay their eggs along riverbanks, which can be ruined by sand dredging. “[Dredging] can really change the structure and sediment load of the river,” she added.

Brook added that while a previous WSC and Fisheries Administration (FiA) search had found four royal turtle nests by May of last year, a team looking this year had only found one so far. “[It’s] a big reduction given how rare they are already,” she said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen banned sand dredging in 2011 after public outcry over its environmental impacts. Since then, however, a small number of firms have continued to operate under specific licences granted by the Ministry of Mines and Energy.

Ministry spokesman Dit Tina yesterday said there are currently four firms with dredging licences in Koh Kong.

“The granting of licences has been made based on environmental assessments and evaluations. What [firms] are doing right now [in Koh Kong] is under license,” he said, adding that his ministry had a hotline that locals could call to report illegal dredging.

Thun Rotha, an environmental activist in Koh Kong with the NGO Mother Nature, said he has recently witnessed a lot of sand dredging along the Sre Ambel River. He said he had queried Tina’s ministry for information on the dredging firms to no avail.

Three environmental activists affiliated with his NGO have been imprisoned since August for protesting against sand dredging in Koh Kong.

The royal turtle, so named because Khmer royalty used to claim exclusivity over eating its eggs, were assumed extinct until 2000, when biologists from WCS and FiA discovered small numbers in the Sre Ambel.

The next year, they started a community-based protection program that pays former poachers there to search for and protect nests, instead of harvesting eggs. WCS and FiA currently employ eight nest protectors, who Sith said are paid $90 to $180 a month.

Last year, 21 turtles were fitted with acoustic transmitters, which researchers use to track their movements. Three were found 97 kilometres from where they were released in a different river system, said Brook, which suggested that “they occupy a larger range than we expected, and thus we need to increase the area we work in to ensure they are protected.”

As her organisation's letter put it, “Urgent action is needed or the Royal Turtle will disappear forever.”

MOST VIEWED

  • With herd immunity likely in 2022, is Cambodia ready to reopen for tourism?

    The government aims to inoculate 80 per cent of the target population by June next year, giving it a head start among regional peers to reboot the sector but first, it has to do a few things to up its game A sign on a glass

  • US wants 'full access' to Ream Naval Base

    On June 11, the US embassy's Defense Attaché Colonel Marcus M Ferrara visited Ream Nava Base in coordination with Cambodian officials following the recent approval of Prime minister Hun Sen to allay the concerns on Chinese military presence at the base as raised by US Deputy

  • US embassy guard gets Covid despite two doses of Pfizer jab

    The Covid-19 tracking commission on June 4 said a security guard at the US embassy in Phnom Penh had contracted the novel coronavirus, despite having received a second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot two weeks ago. Embassy spokesperson Chad Roedemeier confirmed the SARS-CoV-2 infection to The

  • Jab drive heading to 5 provinces

    The government is set to vaccinate more than 1.2 million people in five provinces after finishing with Phnom Penh and neighbouring Kandal in an ongoing campaign administered by the ministries of Health and National Defence. The five provinces are Preah Sihanouk, Kampong Speu, Takeo, Kampong Cham

  • New immigration bill targets illegal foreigners in Kingdom

    General Department of Immigration (GDI) officials are discussing revisions to the new draft law on immigration to prevent foreigners from entering Cambodia illegally and to supervise those living in the Kingdom more effectively. The revisions draw wide support among civil society organisations. GDI director-general Kirth

  • Kingdom set to be a gold producer

    Cambodia will soon join the roster of gold producing countries after the government announced the commencement of commercial gold mining operations in the Okvau area in southwestern Mondulkiri province's Keo Seima district from June 21. Prime Minister Hun Sen on June 10 announced that after 14 years of