Turtle Egg Hunters Become Turtle Protectors in Cambodia

An entire community—from former poachers to religious leaders—has teamed up to save the endangered southern river terrapin.
Buddhist monks blessed 21 endangered southern river terrapins before they were released to their native river. (Photo: Courtesy Allan Michaud/WCS)
Jul 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

A freshwater turtle that was once all but extinct has a new lease on survival.

On Monday, 21 captive-raised southern river terrapins slipped into their native habitat: the gray-green waters of the Sre Ambel River system in southwest Cambodia.

The release was made shortly after more than 150 villagers, government officials, conservation workers, and monks held “a traditional ceremony in a nearby village to bestow blessings on the terrapins for their survival and reproduction,” according to a statement from the Wildlife Conservation Society.

These were the first turtles to be released as part of an ambitious international collaboration to save the species from extinction, said Brian Horne, WCS coordinator of freshwater turtle and tortoise programs. Horne has made upwards of 20 trips to Cambodia in the past five years to advise the program.

The project pays former egg collectors to monitor and protect turtle nests instead while a facility in the town of Sre Ambel raises turtle hatchings in captivity. There, the the vulnerable baby turtles can grow toward adulthood safe from hungry birds, lizards, and other predators, as well as entangling fishing nets and lines.

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“We hope to continue to do this for the next several years at least,” Horne said. “These turtles that were released are six to seven years old, and we don’t know exactly when they’ll reach sexual maturity. So we hope to monitor the population and increase the number of turtles that we release.”

Southern river terrapins are being raised in captivity in Thailand and Singapore as well, said Horne, “because the population is quite small, [and] there’s always the potential of a catastrophic event that could kill all the animals, such as a typhoon.”

The participation of religious leaders has helped increase local support for saving the southern river terrapins.

“In Cambodian society, Buddhism is a very important part of the culture, and monks are revered and respected,” Horne said. “So when the local monks join in and say, ‘Don’t go out and harm these turtles,’ generally people listen.”

So, Why Should You Care? Southern river terrapins were nearly driven extinct by overexploitation for their eggs and meat. The basis of this entire restoration effort is a small population that turned up in the Sre Ambel River system only 15 years ago. “Our best guess is that there are three to five nesting females in the wild,” said Horne, making the southern river terrapin one of the world’s most critically endangered freshwater turtle species. “It really is one of the most rare turtles. That’s why we’re putting so much effort into it.”

Before being overhunted, southern river terrapins were the largest herbivores in the river system, Horne said, and crucial to its ecological vitality. “Large herbivores are important to nutrient cycling, which goes to the health of the whole ecosystem and the food web. There is some evidence that they help with seed dispersal and that they shape the plant community as they graze and feed.”

In Cambodian culture, the southern river terrapin is also called the “royal turtle,” said Horne, “long decreed as the property of the king. It’s a national symbol, and so we’re trying to bring back this national symbol for the people.”