Asia’s turtle species are in crisis, having lived for over 200 million years, turtle species are now facing their toughest challenge yet. Fresh water turtles and tortoise populations have been declining worldwide due to extensive illegal wildlife trading and habitat degradation. The frontline of this disaster is South East Asia where almost all turtle species are targeted and taken from the wild to make their way to Markets, mainly in China, to be eaten or used in traditional medicines.
I am currently volunteering with one of the biggest organisations that are trying to stop this trade and who are taking care of species effected by it. The Asian Turtle Program (ATP, established in 1998) works towards establishing a safe and sustainable future for Asian turtles whilst ensuring that no further turtle species become extinct in the region. The programme mainly operates in Vietnam, focusing on priority species including critically endangered and endemic species of greatest conservation concern.
Projects focus on the endemic Vietnamese Pond Turtle (Mauremys annamensis), Bourret’s Box Turtle (Curora bourreti), Southern Vietnamese Box Turtle (Cuora picturata) in central Vietnam, and the legendary Hoan Kiem Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) also known Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle in northern Vietnam, largely recognised as the most endangered turtle species in the world with only 3 known individual left.
ATP originated with the development of the Turtle Conservation Centre (TCC) at Cuc Phuong National Park. The TCC works on the conservation of tortoises and freshwater turtles in South East Asia with a focus on Vietnam. Established as a rescue and holding centre for turtles which were seen in the extensive illegal wildlife trade during the 1980’s and 1990’s. It was widely recognised that this trade, largely to China was entirely unsustainable and needed to be addressed.
The centre encompasses an area of about 7,000 square meters comprised of enclosures, aquatic tanks and specialised breeding and holding facilities for more than 1000 turtles representing 23 of Vietnam's 25 native species. Most animals at the TCC have been confiscated by wildlife protection authorities from the illegal trade or were hatched at the centre.
The TCC receives endangered and critically endangered turtles from the trade through confiscations from animal traffickers. Confiscations have included Indochinese box Turtles (Cuora galbinifrons), Bourret’s box turtles, Keeled Box turtles (Cuora mouhotii) and Four-eyed turtles (Sacalia quadriocellata). Most recently the centre received a shipment of around 90 Big Headed turtles (Platysternon megacephalum) that were transported in appalling conditions with many Pangolins.
Turtles arriving from confiscations are often in poor health due to the conditions they were subject to whilst being transported. Often thirsty, hungry, dehydrated and badly injured the centre must do its best to bring the turtles back to health and house them in a suitable way to ensure a more pleasurable existence.
Following on, some of South East Asia’s turtle populations are in such a desperate state that captive breeding procedures need to be put into place in order to help increase the number of turtles. With so many turtles coming into the centre it has been essential to identify priorities for conservation breeding activities. The TCC gives breeding priority to Cuc Phoung’s native species the Keeled Box Turtle. However, other species with low populations have been entered into breeding situations in order to bolster their native counterparts.
The goal of these breeding programmes is to eventually release the captive bred turtles back into their natural habitat. In 2011 the TCC released 10 Impressed Tortoises (Manouria impressa) in the Pu Mat National Park. This species is delicate and difficult to keep in captivity so the best option is to release into the wild. More recently TCC were able to release some Keeled Box Turtles back into their native national park. We are currently waiting for DNA results before being able to release some of the Big Head Turtles back into nature. Since it is difficult finding protected nature areas where it is safe to release turtles, the TCC maintains turtles until appropriate sites are found.
Furthermore, the ATP works hard to educate and change cultural behaviours in regards to turtles. Training and awareness undertaken includes enforcement training for forest rangers, raising public awareness about the importance of protecting Vietnams turtles, Conducting conservation focused research, and building the next generation of young scientists with expertise in Vietnams turtles through a student training program. The TCC opened a visitor section to the site in 2010. This area caters for the parks 80,000 annual visitors giving them viewing tanks and enclosures of some of the turtle species. As well as interpretive panels with information on the Asian turtle crisis and the role of the TCC, the hope is to change attitudes against turtles.
The ATP and TCC are doing their up most to alleviate the devastation caused by the Asian turtle trade. By giving safe haven to turtles being trafficked, creating new generations of rare species and educating locals to try and shift attitudes. However, the ATP is a non-profit organisation so needs help from donors and volunteers in order to keep running.
Footnote: Too read about the Asian Turtle Crisis see my article in the ‘big issue’ section. If you would like to support one of the organisations helping to stop this crisis then you could donate or even volunteer with the Asian Turtle Programme. I am currently volunteering at their Turtle Conservation Centre which is working very hard to help the situation. You can donate using the following link: www.asianturtleprogram.org