Arakan Forest Turtle Surveys

The Arakan forest turtle (Heosemys depressa) is endemic to the Arakan Hills of western Myanmar, and considered one of the least known turtles in the world.  Heosemys depressa is classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN due to continuing over-exploitation and its limited distribution.  To gain a better understanding of the biology of this poorly known species, Steven Platt (Sul Ross State University) led a field team into the Rakhine Yoma Elephant Range (RYER) of western Myanmar from 25 May through 10 June 2009 to conduct a preliminary survey. 

 RYER is a sanctuary designed to protect Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) and encompasses over 175,000 ha of steep mountains cloaked in dense bamboo forest.  Few trails penetrate the sanctuary and access is difficult, especially during the wet season.  The survey team included WCS Biologist Khin Myo Myo and members of the Myanmar Forest Department stationed at RYER.  The primary objectives of this survey were to assess the conservation status of H. depressa in the RYER, and train the team in basic survey and data collection techniques so they can return and conduct a more intensive survey later in the wet season. 

The team found five H. depressa, including two very small juveniles in the dense bamboo forest at elevations ranging from 180 to 240 m.  Each turtle was measured, permanently marked, and its location noted before being released at the point of capture.  Feces collected from several of the turtles contained unidentified vegetation, bamboo flowers, and immature bamboo seeds.  These are the first observations biologists have ever made of H. depressa in the wild.  Additionally, thirteen Indotestudo elongata and a single Cyclemys sp. were found during the survey.  Given the size of the RYER, the limited area surveyed, the lack of access and human presence in the sanctuary, and the number of turtles found during the relatively brief survey period, RYER appears to offer excellent prospects for the future conservation of wild populations of H. depressa.