Nest Patrols Benefit Painted Terrapins in Indonesia

by Joko Guntoro 

The three-month nesting season for the painted terrapin (Batagur borneoensis) is just ending. During that time, the nesting patrols spearheaded by the Satucita Foundation and the Agency of Natural Resources Conservation (BKSDA) Province Aceh (and supported by local volunteer fishermen) successfully saved and incubated 898 painted terrapin eggs from 55 nests. Additionally, the team protected and incubated 119 green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) eggs in the same area.

measuring the depth of nest before moving eggs into hatchery

The nesting patrol is an important tool for painted terrapin conservation. Without protection, the eggs would likely be eaten by wild boars, lost  to damage at high tide, or harvested and eaten by fishermen who believe the eggs have high protein and are good for stamina.

As of  March 2, incubation efforts have resulted in 102 painted terrapin hatchlings (from six nests) and 109 green sea turtle hatchlings. The hatching rate so far for 2016 is very high compared to last year and looks very promising.

In 2015, 167 painted terrapin hatchlings were released back into their native habitat: the Tamiang River and its estuaries. Last year, the team had a hard time controlling a variety of environmental variables during incubation, which resulted in a low hatch rate. For that reason, this year they are using a different method in which incubation is done in an in situ hatchery where the eggs are buried in a protected area on the same beach, and at the same depth as in original nest. The team expects this improved methodology to result in 700-800 hatchlings this year. Releasing these juveniles will bring an important boost to a wild adult population that is estimated at only about 247 individuals (not including the 167 that were released last year) left in this area.

the hatchery

The in situ hatchery is effective, but is not without its own unique challeges. Team members must remain on the beach 24 hours per day for at least five months, until all of the nests hatch by the end of April. Nest patrol personnel live on a remote beach that located about 2 hours by boat from a nearest village, without any of the comforts of home - but plenty of mosquitoes! For this reason, team members rotate on a bi-weekly basis. 

Nests must be protected from a variety of threats, including storms and high tide!  The team had to work quickly this year to protect a part of the hatchery from being washed away after a series of storms impacted the beach by building a wall of sandbags. Clean water for cooking and drinking must be delivered to the team from the nearest village every three days and food arrives on a weekly basis. Occasionally, the team is able to buy fresh fish from some of the local fishermen as they pass through the area.

Painted terrapins are listed as Critically Endangered, according to the IUCN Red List. The species is also listed in CITES Appendix II with zero quota for wild capture for commercial purposes. However, this aquatic turtle is not locally protected. This may be because the Government Decree (Peraturan Pemerintah) on the Preservation of Animals and Plants was issued 17 years ago when wild populations were considered to be more stable.

Nevertheless, a local effort to protect this beautiful species in law was launched by the Aceh Tamiang Local Government throug Aceh Tamiang Office of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs. The draft of the Qanun (Local Regulation) was submitted by the Office to Aceh Tamiang House of Representatives last year. A public hearing on that draft was also held last September when the participants agreed to protect the painted terrapin in Aceh Tamiang. The Office also successfully built a captive breeding facility to build an assurance colony for this species. The Satucita Foundation partnered with the Office on these efforts. If the Qanun is approved by the House of Representatives this year, this vertebrate species will not only protected in the district, but also will become a mascot for Aceh Tamiang.

This year's nesting patrols were made possible by the Chester Zoo, Houston Zoo, and PT Pertamina EP Field Rantau (who provided boats and camp), with the cooperation and coordination of the Agency of Natural Resources Conservation (BKSDA) Province Aceh, and Aceh Tamiang Local Government.