Turtles: Back to the Future!

News Brief by Kip Hansen – 11 September 2020

He just got a reprieve!  Sort of .  .  .    This is a  Burmese Roofed Turtle – thought to be extinct until it was re-discovered in 2002.    According to the Wiki:  “The female turtle grows significantly larger than the male and reaches sizes similar to that of a steering wheel; the males’ color transforms during breeding season in which their usually green heads turn a bright chartreuse-yellow with bold black markings”.   It lives in Myanmar (once known as Burma).   Almost all turtles are under some negative population pressures, but according to an article in the NY Times, especially “Asian species, which are pummeled by both habitat loss and high levels of hunting for food, medicine and the pet trade.”

The beleaguered Burmese Roofed Turtle has a distinct disadvantage – it is found only in Myanmar,  a very poor country – 25% of the population is officially poor, making less than US$ 1.20 per day.  Despite the numbers, this is an improvement. [ source – World Bank – 2017 report .pdf ]    In addition, because the female turtle grows to “sizes similar to that of a steering wheel” – she becomes a very tempting target for bush food hunters who nearly drove the species to extinction.

The Times reports:

“Conservationists are not known for delivering a lot of good news. But in the Burmese roofed turtle — a giant Asian river turtle whose bug-eyed face is naturally set in a goofy grin — they have cause for celebration. Just 20 years ago, the species was presumed extinct. But after rediscovering a handful of surviving animals, scientists have grown the population to nearly 1,000 animals in captivity, some of which have been successfully released into the wild in Myanmar over the past five years.”

And that “goofy grin”:

This smiling cutie was saved by serendipity:

“When the species showed up in a pet shop in Hong Kong, it raised a lot of eyebrows,” said Rick Hudson, president of the Turtle Survival Alliance. “There were a number of local dealers smuggling star tortoises out of Burma at that time, so we just assumed it had been smuggled out by the same traders.”

Encouraged by these developments, Gerald Kuchling, a biologist now at the University of Western Australia, secured permission to initiate a joint expedition with the Myanmar Forest Department to survey the upper Chindwin River, where an American expedition in the 1930s had collected Burmese roofed turtles.

When the summer monsoon grounded the team in Mandalay, Dr. Kuchling killed time by visiting the turtle pond at a Buddhist temple. Gazing out at the murky water, he suddenly saw three smiley heads pop up. They bore an uncanny resemblance to photos of Burmese roofed turtles he had seen in old natural history catalogs.

Dr. Kuchling returned the following day and lured the three turtles to the edge of the pond with a bit of grass. In the seconds before the guards began shouting for him to back away from the animals, he was able to confirm that they were indeed the long-lost species.

“I was very excited, and definitely flabbergasted,” he said. 

Dr. Kuchling and his Burmese colleagues worked with the temple’s board to transfer the rare reptiles, a male and two females, to the Mandalay Zoo.

 [ NY Times ]

Thus began the years-long successful restoration effort.

This environmental success is great news – and represents the work of a lot of good people working on the ground in Myanmar.  Like all successful humanitarian efforts, it is imperative to find local heroes who will champion the work.  This type of success requires not only the foreign biologists (and their financial resources) or academics from the national university but the local people who are now helping release hatchling turtles and watching over nesting sites in the wild.

Read the story in the NY Times or your favorite news outlet.  Very heartwarming.  Donate to organizations that do this kind of good work like the Turtle Survival Alliance (100% of your donation goes to program work, not fund-raising or salaries) or other conservation groups.

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Author’s Comment:

The poor Burmese Roofed Turtle was almost driven to extinction by the world’s two greatest threats to wildlife: Poverty and Greed.

Poverty drives local populations into the wild to find something, anything, to eat — food which they can not afford to buy.  They need the food to feed themselves and their children or to sell to others to buy the necessities of life. 

Greed drives hunters and rare animal collectors into the bush to find rare animals – strange animals – which they can smuggle to the Pet and Animal Collectors Markets, like those in China.  Prices are in keeping with rarity and are often driven by Asian food fads or the market for folk medicine ingredients, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Poverty is a hard nut to crack but progress can be made, one country at a time.  Greed has always been with us – but the smuggling of live animals and their parts could be much better controlled by international and national laws.  China alone could eliminate a huge percentage of the trade by imposing their usual penalties (which for some things can – and should  —  be draconian). 

The amount of this mostly-illegal trade that is necessary or useful approaches zero.   It is something we should work to eliminate altogether. 

Read More – Read Widely – Read Critically

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September 11, 2020 at 05:01AM

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