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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.”

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