Endangered Asian softshell turtles return to the wild in Cambodia

Endangered Asian softshell turtles return to the wild in Cambodia

As part of a community protection programme that began in 2007, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), in collaboration with Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration and the Turtle Survival Alliance, has released over 150 endangered Asian giant softshell turtle hatchlings into their natural habitat along the Mekong River, Cambodia.

The Asian giant softshell turtle is listed on the IUCN Red List as globally endangered. They were thought extinct in the Cambodian portion of the Mekong River until their re-discovery in 2007 in a 48-kilometer stretch of the river between Kratie and Stung Treng Provinces, providing hope for the species.

Also known as a Cantor’s giant softshell turtle or a frogface turtle, it is the largest freshwater turtle in the world and boasts some unusual attributes. It lacks the most turtle like feature of all – a shell – and relies on fused ribs to create a cage, covered with thick rubbery skin. It also spends 95 percent of its life under the sand or mud with only its eyes and nose exposed. It is an ambush predator and possesses jaws powerful enough to crush bone.

Asian giant softshell turtles are in decline due to direct exploitation, habitat loss and illegal collection. Huge swaths of the turtle’s habitat in Southeast Asia have disappeared due to urban and industrial development along the Mekong River, which flows more than 3,000 miles from China to Vietnam. The sand where turtles breed is routinely hauled away for use in construction projects, while fishing nets scoop up hatchlings. The turtles, and their body parts, are also traded or they are sold as pets.

softshell turtle
The Asian softshell turtle is the largest turtle in the world

The community-based protection program encourages the participation of local communities living in Kratie and Stung Treng Provinces by hiring former nest collectors to search for and protect nests, instead of harvesting the eggs. Since 2007, 329 nests have been protected and 7,709 hatchlings released.

“The purpose of this release is to increase the wild population of the Asian giant softshell turtle,” said Mr. Sun Yoeung, WCS’s Asian Giant Softshell Turtle Conservation Project Coordinator. “As the project pays local people as guardians and rangers, the release will also increase local incomes and encourage the support and involvement of local communities in conserving the species.”

“Protection is needed to conserve the Asian giant softshell turtle from extinction,” said Mr Ouk Vibol, Director of Fisheries Conservation Department of Fisheries Administration. “Collection of eggs or adults for consumption or sale is illegal in Cambodia. Everyone can help conserve Asian giant softshell turtles by not buying or eating their meat or eggs.”

softshell hatchlings
Hatchlings ready to be released

WCS works to save turtles and tortoises around the world. In 2012, WCS launched an organization-wide program to revive some of the most endangered turtle and tortoise species. Efforts include breeding programs at WCS’s zoos in New York, head start programs abroad, and working with governments and communities to save species on the brink of extinction.

Conservation of the Asian giant softshell turtle along the Mekong River would not be possible without the support of the Turtle Survival Alliance, Conservation International, and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the Macarthur Foundation, and the World Bank. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation.

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