Hatch and release: Can turtle tourism save a species in Cambodia?

Cantor's giant softshell turtle, Mekong Turtle Conservation Center, Cambodia (© Kristin Harrison & Jeremy Ginsberg)

A young Cantor’s giant softshell turtle at the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center in Cambodia. Since CI’s nest protection program began in 2007, the number of turtle hatchlings documented has increased tenfold. (© Kristin Harrison & Jeremy Ginsberg)

Few things are more wondrous for nature travelers than to witness newly hatched sea turtles scramble to the sea.

For hardcore turtle tourists, though, there’s a new experience that is just as exhilarating — and just a bit farther from the beaten path: releasing an endangered freshwater turtle into one of Southeast Asia’s most important rivers.

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In June, about 150 people gathered on the banks of the Mekong River near Kratie, Cambodia, to do just that. The crowd included students, teachers, international tourists, staff from the Fisheries Administration, Buddhist monks, local village chiefs and community members — including those who serve as “nest guards.”

locals and tourists at turtle release on Mekong River, Cambodia

Locals and tourists gather to release 200 4-month-old turtles back into the Mekong River. (© Brann Sinal)

Villagers are compensated for protecting nests of the Cantor’s giant softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) from human and animal predators alike. Once found across Asia, the turtle has recently been spotted only in small pockets of Cambodia.

The nest guards let staff of the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center (MTCC) know when the wild turtles are about to hatch; 10% of the hatchlings are then brought to the center, built on the grounds of a Buddhist monastery. There, the animals are raised in captivity for several months until they are large enough to resist predators like birds, fish and snakes. Once they’ve grown large enough to have a greater chance of survival, they are released back into the river to fend for themselves.

Releasing young Cantor's giant softshell turtles with local residents, monks and CI staff along the Mekong River

A monk releasing young Cantor’s giant softshell turtles with local residents and CI staff along the Mekong River in 2011. (© Kristin Harrison & Jeremy Ginsberg)

At the recent event, about 200 4-month-old turtles measuring about 5–8 centimeters (2–3 inches) across were released. Yoeung Sun, who leads Conservation International’s involvement in the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center, taught the crowd about the turtles’ habitat, why they should be protected (they’re an important Buddhist symbol, among other reasons) and the right places to release them: sandbars near deep pools with small trees nearby. He also reminded locals not to collect the animals or their eggs for food or trade. (Check out footage from CI’s 2014 turtle release event in the video below.)

The species — believed to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 2007 — has experienced a remarkable recovery in just a few years. Researchers saw a dip in numbers in 2013 and 2014, when reduced program funding limited the number of paid nest guards. However, thanks to creative solutions like trading turtle eggs — a local delicacy — for duck eggs, things are back on track. The species is now an officially protected species in Cambodia.

graph of turtle nest and hatchlings recorded at Mekong Turtle Conservation Center in Cambodia

Sun hopes that tourist interest in the program will continue to grow. “We created the turtle release program to let tourists not only see the turtles in the MTCC, but also to play a role in conserving this species with their own hands,” he said.

“I can see the excitement on the faces of the participants as they watch these rare turtles return to their native habitat. Starting next year, we will hold more turtle release days for visitors. We also plan to expand activities for tourists, including homestays, visits to nesting sites, restoration of turtle habitat, kayak rides and other activities with local communities to support the program. Through actions big and small, we can all have a part in saving this rare species.”

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

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