In Cambodian Riverside Villages, New Attitudes toward Turtles

Here in a riverside town near Kratie, Cambodia, the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center (MTCC) is nearly bursting with baby turtles.

Cantor's giant softshell turtle hatchling

Cantor’s giant softshell turtle hatchling at the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center near Kratie, Cambodia. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

Every available tank holds at least one Cantor’s softshell turtle (Pelochelyscantorii). The animals spend most of their time buried in sand mimicking their Mekong River habitat. Soon most of them will be released back into the wild — blissfully unaware of how close their species has come to disappearing.

An odd species with a froglike face and a flat, soft shell, this turtle — which is almost extinct in Thailand, Vietnam and Laos — was thought to be lost from Cambodia until a 2007 survey by CI and partners found a small population in the Mekong.

pool at Mekong Turtle Conservation Center

This outdoor pool at the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center houses the center’s largest turtles. The 100 Pillar Pagoda can be seen in the background. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

Since then, CI-Greater Mekong has been working with local communities to restore this population, which has been diminished by threats including habitat degradation and human consumption.

In 2011, we opened the MTCC on the grounds of the 100 Pillar Pagoda, a historic cultural site in eastern Cambodia.

The main purpose of the center is to raise wild-born turtle hatchlings until they grow big enough to resist predators like birds and snakes. After a period of about 10 months, the turtles are released back into the river. Returning animals like turtles back into the wild is a common Buddhist tradition; a previous incarnation of Buddha was believed to be a turtle.

I have been running this project since 2007. It can be slow, challenging work, hampered by factors such as limited funding, staff and community participation. However, when I start to see shifts in local behaviors that reflect a greater understanding of how protecting nature can benefit communities, it’s all worth it.

Take Ke Sarith, a farmer, fisher and mother of four from Boeng Sneat village in Kratie province. When Sarith was young, her father collected eggs from animals such as birds, lizards, crocodiles and turtles for food. Turtle eggs are a common food for poor rural communities in this region, despite their minimal nutritional value.

Cantor's giant softshell turtle hatching

A Cantor’s giant softshell turtle hatches. Until recently, this species was thought to be extinct in Cambodia; since then, nest protection and temporary captivity of the animals has helped turtle numbers grow. (© Conservation International/photo by Yoeung Sun)

After Sarith got married, her father-in-law, Ek Smean, taught her how to find turtle nests by looking for turtle tracks on the river’s beaches and sandbars. Smean explained that in the past, “I found the turtle nests and collected eggs for food, but I ate half of them and left the others in the nest for the next generation.”

Now both Sarith and Smean are involved in CI’s turtle conservation program, which pays local people to protect and monitor Cantor’s softshell turtle nests. Since 2010, Sarith has found and protected one nest per year; this year’s nest produced 34 hatchlings. Once the eggs begin to hatch, community members like Sarith call the MTCC, which collects the baby turtles and raises them in captivity until they are large enough to have a better chance of survival in the wild. (Get a glimpse at the center in the video below.)

Sarith wanted to join this conservation program in order to help conserve this species, which local people call romich. She also teaches her relatives and neighbors about the conservation program in order to encourage them to join it.

Sarith is just one of dozens of local villagers who have gone from being hunters to guardians of this unusual species. There are several financial incentives for this; in addition to families receiving direct compensation for the nests they protect, the MTCC aims to expand tourism in the area. This would not only bring money to the center, but also to local businesses like restaurants and souvenir shops.

While the species’ survival is by no means guaranteed — it is currently classified as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species — community efforts have led to dramatic results.

When the nest protection program began back in 2007, only three turtle nests (producing 87 hatchlings) were found in the area. This year, we found 37 nests, which produced 1,012 turtle hatchlings.

This huge increase indicates a growth in community awareness and support for protecting these unique animals — recognition that these turtles aren’t just an ancient part of the river, but are also an economic asset.

releasing turtle hatchlings into Mekong River

Sarith (left) releases some turtles back into the Mekong River. Once the turtle hatchlings have grown big enough to resist predators like snakes and birds, they are returned to the wild. (© Conservation International/photo by Yoeung Sun)

Yoeung Sun leads CI-Cambodia’s involvement in the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center. Thanks to Trudy Chatwin for her generous support of the MTCC and turtle conservation program. Thanks also to the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, which has provided funding to the program for three years and recently committed to an additional three years of support.

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