Conservation effort brings turtle species back from the brink of extinction

Hyperaxion September 4, 2020 11:52 pm

The Burmese roofed turtle is endemic to Myanmar and was rediscovered in the early 2000s. Now, almost a thousand specimens live in captivity.

Considered extinct until the beginning of the century, the Burmese roofed turtle (Batagur trivittata) was “resurrected” thanks to a conservation program led by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA).

The results of the achievement were recently published in the journal Zootaxa.

Conservation effort brings turtle species back from the brink of extinction
(Credit: Platt et al 2020).

On the brink of extinction

Hunting and overexploitation of the animal’s eggs almost resulted in its disappearance: the reptile is the second most endangered turtle in the world.

In fact, the species was considered extinct until 2002, when an American turtle collector found a live specimen at a wildlife market in China.

Burmese roofed turtle shortly after its birth.
Burmese roofed turtle shortly after its birth. (Credit: Platt et al 2020).

The conservation program

Encouraged by these discoveries, scientists carried out field research in Myanmar, where the species comes from, in an attempt to find living wild populations of these animals – and it worked. Turtles were found in two different rivers, but their population continued to decline.

In 2007, with the support of the government of Myanmar, biologists created a conservation program for the species to ensure its survival.

The umbilical scar can still be seen in the newborn turtle.
The umbilical scar can still be seen in the newborn turtle. (Credit: Platt et al 2020).

“The biggest threat is that there are so few left in the wild and so if there’s an accident we’ve lost a big chunk of the population,” said Steven Platt, the study’s leader.

“Otherwise its mostly fishing. I worry about them getting entangled in fishing gear and drowning. And if we didn’t monitor, the eggs would be collected.”

A new beginning

The turtles are now bred, hatched, and reared in an environment protected from predation, poaching, and egg collection.

Conservation efforts are also focusing on the remaining wild turtles: five to six females and two males living on a remote stretch of the upper Chindwin River in northern Myanmar.

Their nests are monitored and the eggs are collected and incubated in a safe facility.

Batagur trivittata.
Batagur trivittata. (Credit: Myo Min Win / Platt et al 2020).

Challenges ahead

The project worked and today the number of Burmese roofed turtles living in captivity is approaching one thousand. The goal is to eventually release them back to their wild habitat on the Chindwin River, but, as experts explain, the process can be somewhat challenging.

“River turtle conservation is really difficult,” Platt said. “Tortoises can move about a kilometer, or, normally just stay within a few hectares of where we release them, but these turtles, once they’re in the river, they can go up or down for several hundred miles if they just keep swimming.”

Although the turtles are not living in the wild yet, scientists are optimistic about the species’ future.

“The captive breeding program has produced about 170 turtles a year for the past two years,” Platt explained. “So the turtles are biologically secure. They’re not going to go extinct.”

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