Critically Endangered Turtle Rediscovered in Thailand

BANGKOK, Thailand, January 11, 2007 (ENS) - A rare mangrove terrapin, a species of turtle that has not been seen in the wild in Thailand for over 20 years, has been caught by a fisherman in the western part of the country.

Realizing that this was a rare find, the village contacted a local specialist from WWF Thailandís Marine and Coastal Resources Unit, based in the coastal province of Phang Nga, some 800 kilometers (500 miles) from the capital, Bangkok.

"In Thailand, this species is considered to be critically endangered and is classified similarly in Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia," said Dr. Chavalit Vidthayanon, a freshwater biologist with WWF Thailand.


An adult female mangrove terrapin, Batagur baska, also called river terrapin and Asian river terrapin (Photo courtesy Asian Turtle Conservation Network)
"In the past, villagers could catch up to 1,000 of these terrapins a year for their eggs, meat and shells," he said.

Today, mangrove terrapins are facing extinction in the wild, especially in Thailand. The main threats are hunting, egg harvesting, loss of habitat and nesting beaches, and the incidental drowning in fishing nets.

The fisherman caught a female terrapin weighing 28 kilograms (62 pounds) and measuring over 50 centimeters (19.5 inches) in length.

Because females lay their eggs at the end of the year, from November to January, it is believed that this terrapin was on her way up the river to lay her eggs on an undisturbed sandbank or beach.

Dr. Vidthayanon and other WWF scientists have recommended that the terrapin be brought to a fisheries department facility to be cared for and bred so that her offspring can be released back into the wild.


Biologist Dr. Chavalit Vidthayanon heads WWF Thailand's Marine and Freshwater Unit. (Photo by Jo Benn courtesy WWF International)
"She is probably very lucky that she wasnít eaten or sold to a wildlife trader," said Vidthayanon.

WWF Thailand now plans to develop a project that will protect the headwaters of the Klong Tum, where the terrapin was discovered, as well as continue efforts to research the rare species.

"The discovery of a species that was believed to be extinct in Thailand is considered to be a very important event," said Songpol Tippayawong, head of WWF Thailandís Marine and Coastal Resources Unit.

"It shows that the natural habitat, in which it was found, is still rich and should be conserved."

Mangrove terrapins, Batagur baska, represent one of Asiaís largest species of freshwater turtles. They are distinguished by an upturned snout and feet with only four claws, while other turtles have five.


Head of an adult female mangrove terrapin (Photo courtesy Asian Turtle Conservation Network)
Feeding on the seed pods of mangrove and other coastal trees as well as shrimp and crabs, mangrove terrapins live in creeks and estuaries on the Andaman coast, from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia to as far as Sumatra in Indonesia, as well as in the South China Sea in the Gulf of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

This species is called the "Royal Turtle" in Cambodia because its eggs were a delicacy once eaten only by the royal family.

Once widespread and abundant throughout southeast Asia, the species was thought to have disappeared in Cambodia until it was rediscovered in 2001. Conservationists began tagging the terrapins with tracking devices and monitoring their nests, and King Norodom Sihamoni personally ordered their protection.

In Malaysia, rivers of Kedah, Perak and Terengganu are major nesting grounds, though the population continues to crash despite conservation efforts undertaken by Malaysian Wildlife Department for over 20 years.

Pasir Temir and Pasir Lubuk Kawah by the Terengganu River are the largest nesting sites for Batagur baska in the world.

Currently, the species is not specifically protected under Malaysian national wildlife protection laws.