Burmese Roofed Turtles Return Home

by Steve Platt 

In 2007, Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society-Myanmar Program (WCS), launched an ambitious program to rescue the endemic Burmese Roofed Turtle (Batagur trivittata) from the brink of extinction. Considered the second-most critically endangered turtle in the world, the remaining wild Burmese Roofed Turtles are confined to a remote stretch of the Upper Chindwin River where fewer than ten adult females cling precariously to survival.

Every dry season (November-March), locally recruited "beach wardens" monitor the sandbanks where these females nest. When a female deposits her clutch of 10-35 eggs, these are collected by TSA/WCS biologists and spirited to Limpha Village where they complete incubation in a fenced enclosure on protected sandbar. Since 2011, the hatchling turtles have all been headstarted at a facility in Limpha; however, prior to this the young turtles were taken to the Yadanabon Zoo in Mandalay for rearing. Regardless of where the headstarting took place, our ultimate objective has always been to return the turtles to the Chindwin River. Several recent grants received by TSA/WCS have brought this dream one step closer to reality, and we are now moving forward with plans to release of headstarted turtles in early 2015.

Because the young turtles being reared at Limpha are still too small to release (smaller turtles have very low survival rates due to natural predation), the older (and larger) turtles at Yadanabon Zoo were an obvious choice for reintroduction. The oldest headstarted turtles (hatched in 2007) at the zoo are now almost eight years old and of a body size unlikely to fall victim to predators. Almost 200 turtles were available for release, the only hitch being that we had to get them from Mandalay to Limpha, a distance of over 350 miles. We prevailed in the end, but this proved no easy task.

On 16 January, Dr. Tint Lwin (WCS Veterinarian), Myo Min Win (Roofed Turtle Project Manager) and I assembled at the Yadanabon Zoo, and with the assistance of the curatorial staff, begin packing the turtles for shipment. Unsure of the best means to safely pack so many turtles for transport over such a great distance on what was sure to be a arduous journey, we finally settled on sturdy plastic crates used for shipping fruit. We placed one or two turtles, depending on their size in each crate, and stacked these in the bed of a large cargo truck driven by a seasoned trucker familiar with the roads over which we had to travel. Our choice of a driver was a crucial consideration for road signs are non-existent in the hinterlands of Myanmar, not to mention the fact that many "roads" barely qualify as such being little more than rutted dirt tracks that become impassable quagmires during inclement weather. Eventually everything was in order, and we packed ourselves, our gear, the driver and his assistant, and 160 critically endangered Burmese Roofed Turtles into the truck. Hoping to depart by mid-morning, it was almost 3 PM before we were finally underway. The next four days proved to be an ordeal none of us ever wish to repeat.

For starters it began to rain and turned cold as we rolled out of Mandalay. The pavement ended after about 150 miles and our pace slowed to a crawl, lurching and grinding through deep mud-filled ruts that could swallow a small car. Steep, muddy stretches of road were especially challenging and more than once we were only feet from plunging off a steep embankment only to have our driver gun the engine and fish-tail us out of harms way. Twice our progress was brought to a halt by mired vehicles blocking the road. On one especially discouraging day, after having driven scarcely 20 miles, we rounded a bend only to find a passenger bus bogged to the axles completely blocking the road. We spent the rest of the day waiting as passengers made numerous unsuccessful attempts to dig out their stranded conveyance. Late in the afternoon, salvation arrived in the form of a much larger truck approaching from the opposite direction that managed to wrench the stranded bus from the quagmire. Each night we drove into the wee hours of the morning and then caught a few hours of fitful sleep sprawled on hard tables at one of the many roadside restaurants that serve the traveling public in Myanmar.

Finally, on our fourth day of travel, we rolled into Homalin, a small town on the east bank of the Chindwin River where the relative luxury of a hotel awaited us. Our comfort was secondary though, because our first task was to see to the welfare of our precious charges. To be honest, I feared the worst. The trip had been hard on us – how had the turtles fared? Soon after our arrival we drove to the headquarters of Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary on the outskirts of town and began unpacking the truck. Dr. Tint Lwin carefully examined each turtle, which was then placed in a large concrete cistern and allowed to rehydrate, a serious concern given these river turtles rarely leave the water except to bask or lay eggs. Happily my fears proved unfounded; other than some minor abrasions, our charges came through the journey in amazingly good shape.

Our next task (besides getting a good night's rest – and that had to wait one more night) was to get the turtles from Homalin, 100 miles up the Chindwin River to our basecamp in Limpha Village. Thus, we were dockside at 4 AM the next morning, loading our cargo of turtles into the hold of a commercial river boat that regularly plies the upper Chindwin River between Homalin and Khamti. Thankfully, our 10 hour upriver voyage was uneventful, each of us taking the opportunity to catch-up on missed sleep. We docked at Limpha Village late that afternoon to be greeted by a horde of villagers waiting to assist us with unloading the turtles. The turtles – all 160 of them – are now safely ensconced in two large concrete grow-out ponds, constructed in the Fall of 2014 at our basecamp. Some of these are destined for release very soon, while others will serve as founders for another assurance colony currently under construction in Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary. Our journey was now at an end, the first chapter in a longer story yet to be written, but one that will hopefully see the Burmese Roofed Turtle restored as a functional member of this remote riverine landscape.