Team Effort Progresses Conservation for the Southern River Terrapin in Cambodia

By Clinton Doak, Andrew Walde, and Jordan Gray

The Koh Kong Reptile Conservation Center (KKRCC) in Koh Kong Province, Cambodia, officially opened in November 2017. Begun as an initiative of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and The Royal Government of Cambodia's Fisheries Administration (FiA), this facility is the only of its kind for breeding and rearing the Southern River Terrapin (Batagur affinis) in Cambodia. Once relentlessly poached, the last remaining wild population of this critically endangered species teeters on the brink of functional extinction. Today, sand mining, damming, incidental capture, and agricultural operations pose a constant threat to the turtles and their habitat along Cambodia’s Sre Ambel River. With only a few wild adult individuals left in the country, the KKRCC is the keystone for the species’ survival.

Cristina Jones and Samuel Tay hold a male and female Southern River Terrapin at the KKRCC.

Upon opening the KKRCC, the FiA, Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), WCS, and Wildlife Reserves Singapore immediately began devising a plan to increase the capacity of the facility’s breeding ponds for the Southern River Terrapin. On 16 January 2019, after lengthy discussion and planning, a team led by Dr. Brian Horne (WCS) and Andrew Walde (TSA), and including TSA’s Clinton Doak, San Diego Zoo Global’s Brett Baldwin, Singapore Zoo’s Samuel Tay, Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Cristina Jones, and Beau Bradley of Rock Scapes, assembled in Koh Kong to begin work on the “Batagur Project.” Once there, they were joined by the local WCS team, led by Sitha Som and Chris Poyser, and several local Cambodians (Khamir). With limited amount of time to complete the expansive project, this motley crew of chelonian conservationists literally got down and dirty with the task at hand.

The Southern River Terrapin pond expansion team poses as the KKRCC.

First and foremost, the team needed to finish concrete work on the remaining two ponds that had been excavated and outfitted with pond liner the previous year. After surmounting the mammoth hurdle of completing the first pond, the team split up to tackle other tasks that required accomplishment before the trip concluded. One team, consisting of Clinton, Brett, and Samuel, with the help of WCS Khamir staff and skilled laborers, focused on finishing the concrete work of the second pond. Meanwhile, the other team took on the equally colossal task of constructing reliable water distribution systems for the center’s freshwater ponds. Brian Horne supervised the excavation of two ground-fed ponds that will supply a critical source of freshwater for the terrapins during the dry season. Likewise, Beau, Cristina, and Andrew worked diligently on more than tripling the onsite water storage capacity. This included upgrading the mechanism for water supply from the nearest reservoir, over 1 km from the center.

Brett Baldwin smoothes concrete over the rubber pond liner of the new terrapin pond.

After two grueling weeks, in which many back-breaking hours were put in under the hot Cambodian sun, the team managed to accomplish all of the main goals that were necessary for the advancement of the center and its population of terrapins. Although there were many cut and bruised bodies, with several team members feeling like their bodies were broken and burnt, we couldn’t have asked for a better group to complete the task. Spirits were high on the last day of work at the KKRCC, knowing that they contributed to the continued survival of the charismatic Southern River Terrapin, and were one step closer to the TSA’s vision of zero turtle extinctions.

A new terrapin pond sits completed before being filled with fresh water.

Wanting to make the most of their time abroad after the completion of the work in Koh Kong, the team separated, with a few of the members staying behind in Asia while most of the others departed for the United States. Andrew, Clinton, and Brett struck east to Vietnam and the oldest national park in the country, Cuc Phuong. Inside the park lies the home of TSA partner Asian Turtle Program’s (ATP) Turtle Conservation Center (TCC). The TCC is home to over 1,000 turtles and tortoises, primarily acquired through confiscations. These animals are maintained at the facility for breeding, education, and in some cases, temporary housing for reintroduction to the wild. The TCC is open to the public when accompanied by a park ranger. After a very in-depth tour of the facilities and its inhabitants, the team sat down with Thu Thuy Nguyen of ATP to discuss the future of the TCC and how the TSA can become more involved with assisting the Program and conservation of Vietnamese chelonians.

The TSA/ATP team saddles up as they prepare for their search for the Yangtze Giant Softshell.

Following their visit to the facility, the three team members, led by four ATP staff members, shifted their focus north in search of the world’s rarest turtle, the legendary Yangtze Giant Softshell. There, in a lake due west of Hanoi, an unforgettable adventure began. (Read A Special Moment in Time with the World’s Rarest Turtle).