Batagur headstarting facility at maximum capacity

There was good news recently for a rare species of River Terrapin (Batagur baska, now re-classified as Batagur affinis) in the Sre Ambel area of Cambodia’s coastal region, with the successful hatching of 23 eggs on a beach in the Sre Ambel River.
The Fisheries Administration and WCS have been working with communities in the Sre Ambel area since 1999, conserving the Batagur through the implementation of a variety of conservation interventions. These interventions are targeted to protect in-situ populations of Batagur, through guarding nesting beaches and adjoining sections of river throughout the nesting and incubation seasons, and implementing patrols in remaining habitat. These activities are complemented by an ex-situ conservation hatchling center.

The in-situ project activities are based around the two remaining rivers where the animals occur. One team comprised of three conservation personnel work along the Sre Ambel River and another team of four concentrate on the Kaong River. Both groups are coordinated by Mr. Yen That, from the Sre Ambel Fisheries, Koh Kong province. The focus of activities is the protection of the Batagur nests and during the nesting season the conservation teams attempt to locate all nests along each river. They then construct enclosures around the nests to provide protection against predators.

The 2009 nesting beach was first identified in March, after project patrol staff found several Batagur tracks on the beach, and subsequently found 23 eggs buried in the sand. The beach was then guarded around the clock by project staff for two months, until the eggs hatched in early May. The hatchlings were relocated to the hatchling center, where they will be housed in small plastic tubs for the next six months, until they are large enough to be introduced to one of the center’s larger concrete holding pens.

There are currently 115 animals being held at the facility, 46 hatchlings from 2006, 46 hatchlings from 2007, plus the 23 recent arrivals. The center is staffed by a dedicated team that ensure that fresh food is provided for the hatchlings on a daily basis and the facility is enclosed in a metal fence to prevent theft. The animals eat primarily morning glory (Ipomea), with the addition of mangrove fruits from the Sre Ambel river system during the fruiting season. All the hatchlings have been micro-chipped. Plans are currently being finalized to improve the center with a new solar water pump, increased water storage capacity and additional holding facilities, with the latter now particularly important given the recent arrival of the 2009 hatchlings.

Given the increasing threats to wild Batagur in the Sre Ambel river system, it is now more important than ever to ensure that there is an appropriate release plan in place for the hatchlings at the center. This includes an expert appraisal of the ecological requirements of the hatchlings and the suitability of the habitat within the Sre Ambel and surrounding river systems, as well as an assessment of the existing and future threats to wild Batagur in these river systems. A number of boat surveys were conducted in late 2008 and early 2009, firstly by a team of ecologists who were conducting surveys throughout southwest Cambodia and secondly by Batagur experts including Brian Horne. These surveys assessed both the quality and suitability of habitat in the area, as well as the threat posed by future economic developments, such as hydropower dams. It is hoped that information obtained from these surveys will facilitate the formulation of a release strategy in the near future.

- Heng Sovannara and Mark Gately
Fisheries Administration, Royal Government of Cambodia/Wildlife Conservation Society

The TSA currently provides both logistical and technical support to the Batagur headstarting operation in Sre Ambel, and funded (with EAZA Shellshock and the Batchelor Foundation) the construction of the facility in 2006.