Wildlife conservationists expressed joy to see 30 royal turtle eggs hatch at an artificial sand bank at the Koh Kong Reptile Conservation Centre (KKRCC) last week.

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”.

It was designated as Cambodia’s national reptile by Royal Decree No NS/RKT/0305/149 on Designation of Animals and Plants as National Symbols of the Kingdom of Cambodia, dated March 21, 2005.

NGO Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in a May 20 statement said the royal turtles in a captive-breeding group at the reptile conservation centre – located in northwestern Koh Kong province’s Tuol Koki commune – had laid 81 eggs in nine clutches during this year’s nesting season, meaning that a striking 37 per cent of them had hatched.

Conservationists were elated at the sheer number of hatchlings this year, whereas just one of 71 eggs in five clutches had successfully hatched in the 2021 nesting season. WCS claims that this was the second documented case of royal turtles laying eggs in captivity in the Kingdom.

“This is one of the most exciting and significant developments in Royal Turtle conservation in Cambodia. With this successful hatching of so many baby turtles, the long-term survival prospects for the royal turtle suddenly got much better,” said Steven G Platt, associate conservation herpetologist for WCS in Southeast Asia.

Mandai Nature deputy CEO Sonja Luz said: “This is extremely encouraging news. The success of these hatchlings could not have been done without an all-hands approach, involving the team on ground and support from various partners involved.

“This active contribution to species recovery plans is also testimony to the important role ex-situ management plays for species protection.”

Department of Fisheries Conservation director Ouk Vibol added: “We are very proud to get this great result. We strongly encourage and support the continuation of this captive breeding program for restoring this species in the future and we hope this species will survive for our next generation.”

There are currently 31 new royal turtle hatchlings at the KKRCC after one more was transferred from the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB), a partner of WCS. It was the only successful hatching out of 16 eggs.

WCS landscape project manager Som Sitha stressed that breeding in nature was on the decline and that the NGO’s captive-breeding programme seeks to secure the long-term survival of the royal turtle.

No nests were found on the beach along the Sre Ambel River System within the Fisheries Management Area in Koh Kong and Preah Sihanouk provinces during the 2022 nesting season, she lamented.

There are currently 186 royal turtles at the KKRCC. Since 2015, 147 young adult royal turtles have been released back into the wild.