Team TSA in Asia, August/September 2009

This report is the second to chronicle the daily activities of a TSA team’s visit to four countries in Asia – Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Philippines - to design turtle facilities, develop conservation programs, and consult on turtle husbandry issues. The team is led by Rick Hudson and includes Bill Zeigler, Lonnie McCaskill and Dave Manser. The team was met in Myanmar by Kalyar Platt and her father Nyunt Thein (a local retired civil engineer).

The journey through Myanmar continues
On August 25, we drive all day from Mandalay to Bagan. The next day, we visit Griffon Enterprises, a private star tortoise facility managed by a Japanese entity. 126 adults (51 males and 75 females) are maintained here. They have hatched 500 tortoises in 2009, but 100 have died. We examine some of the sick ones and find their shells soft.  On questioning we learn that they ran out of calcium supplements, and we speculate that the animals are becoming depleted (diet consists of Ipomea and bean sprouts) and then eating rocks and sand and becoming impacted.  We suggest they start using cuttle bone (available in Yangon) and start growing spineless prickly pear cactus (Opuntia) to supplement feed.  20% of the tortoises hatched here are returned to the government annually.


We then move on to the Lawkananda Wildlife Sanctuary where one of four government-run star tortoise breeding facilities is maintained.   We meet with our old friend Lei Lei Kaing ‚Äì a long-time tortoise keeper and the Park Warden.  We discuss tortoise husbandry and introduce them to the idea of feeding Opuntia and demonstrate how much the tortoises like to eat it.  We review the need for security on the new facility (they currently collect all tortoises every afternoon and put them in a locked box at night) as they are so concerned with tortoises coming up missing that they fear losing their jobs.  We discuss the overcrowded conditions here (more Griffon Enterprises tortoises generally arrive here each year) and their concern of bringing in more (more tortoises = more risk for them).  When we were here in January we designed a new addition to this facility ‚Äì 60 x 60 ft ‚Äì and we go to reassess this area.  We are allowed to expand this area to 88 x 88 ft, to include a 28 x 88 ft Manouria emys enclosure.  The star tortoise area will include a large juvenile rearing area located centrally, and a series of sub-dividable enclosures around the perimeter for adult breeders.


On August 27, we drive to the Shwesettaw Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the first government-run star tortoise facilities built.  The reserve has undergone major habitat degradation recently, and star tortoises no longer occur here.  We review the plans that we drew up in January for star tortoises and refine the design. It is a 100 x 100 ft enclosure similar to the one we designed at Lawkananda.  When we revisit our redesign of the existing facility, it is decided that due to a lack of sufficient water, Manouria emys will not be appropriate here.  We plan instead for a dedicated area for Heosemys depressa.  This will feature a new shallow pond, turning up the compacted soil and adding organics, planting bamboo and other plants and adding leaf litter for burying. 

The next day, we wrap up with staff at Shwesattaw and drive back to Bagan for some down time to work on facility drawings. August 30 brings a flight back to Yangon where we end up arriving too late for meetings. 

The next day (August 31), we hold a debriefing meeting with U Than Myint, Director of the WCS Myanmar Program office. Then, it‚Äôs off to Yangon Zoo to check on a group of five Manouria emys phayrei that had unexpectedly been moved from Mandalay. They are in a decent enclosure but we find a mouse deer enclosure that has pools, heavy plantings of banana, elephant ear and cycads, and is perfect for this species.  We are feeling much better about this move now, once the tortoises are moved to their new home.

On to Thailand
September 1 starts off with an early morning flight to Bangkok. That evening, we have dinner with Jonathan Murray and Chris Shepherd (Traffic ASIA) who is up from Kuala Lumpur (KL) in Malaysia.  We hear some horror stories about the incredible volumes involved in the wildlife trade and the associated animal cruelty. As a result, we go to bed seriously depressed.

The next day (September 2), we have lunch with Dr. Nantarika from the Chulalongkorn Vet School, division of Aquatic Animal Medicine.  ‚ÄúNing‚Äù is featured frequently in the media and is somewhat of a celebrity vet in Thailand. She also has a great passion for saving turtles.  She has established a well-supported network of turtle workers and we watch presentations of some of their work.  They clean out temple ponds, removing and treating the turtles (primarily yellow-headed temple turtles), and then release them in protected areas.  Very inspiring, and we have some serious conversations about getting TSA established in Thailand.  A team building workshop is being planned for early 2010 and I believe we may be seeing the genesis of a TSA Thailand.  This was a nice UP after last night‚Äôs ‚Äúdescent into darkness.‚Äù

On the move to Malaysia
Lonnie McCaskill and I meet Bill Zeigler at the Bangkok airport on September 3. We all fly to KL, then on to Terengganu where we are met by Dr. Engheng Chan and her former student Pelf Nyok. We all have dinner in China Town and begin discussions for Chan‚Äôs dream for the Turtle Conservation Center. With the formal endorsement of the Sultan Mizan Royal Foundation (King‚Äôs trust), Chan has already prepared a compelling case for support and outlined the goals and structure of the facility.  We are here to help advance the concept, evaluate some sites and begin some conceptualizing some designs and ideas.



The next morning, we visit one of the Government Wildlife Dept Batagur facilities on the Terengganu River where there is a serious need to build new breeding and headstarting facilities.  This facility is situated near two active Batagur nesting beaches and nests are collected for hatching, headstarting and later release.  However, current facilities do not meet the husbandry needs of the terrapins and require improvement.  Our idea is to build a facility that can demonstrate good husbandry practices and serve as a model for other facilities.  We take measurements of the available space, discuss filtration and design, and depart.  From there we drive to the Setiu River and take a boat to see the river and process some terrapins that fishermen have collected for Chan and Pelf.  The Setiu River is an interesting ecosystem in that it supports nesting and breeding populations of both Batagur affinis and B. borneoensis. From a conservation perspective, this makes it a very important site. Then, we head up stream to the mouth of the river where it meets the South China Sea and visit a WWF hatchery for the painted terrapins.  It is close to the nesting sites on the beach.



September 5 turns out to be a great day! We drive out from Terengganu again to the Setiu River to evaluate sites for the Turtle Conservation Center. One site is over five acres, is located near Batagur nesting banks and could work nicely. We would prefer eight acres to allow greater expansion, but this will work if the land can be purchased. The high point of the day is meeting a fisherman, Robi. Chan and Pelf work with him on a regular basis, and he brings them terrapins that he captures. He arrives with two painted terrapins ‚Äì a large 17 kg female and a sub-adult - and five river terrapins (B. affinis). All the affinis turn out to be recaptures ‚Äì meaning that they have microchip tags verifying that they were released over the past four years by Chan and Pelf. All have grown considerably and look good ‚Äì representing valuable data to support the practice of headstarting and release. We believe this is a useful conservation tool, but this can only be confirmed when follow up monitoring is done to monitor survival. We got photos of processing and releasing the terrapins, and the fishermen enjoyed seeing the new TSA magazine. In fact, there is a photo of Robi the fisherman on the back cover and he was delighted to see it.  We have dinner with a reporter from the Malaysian newspaper (New Times Strait) to discuss the state of terrapin conservation in Malaysia and the need for a Turtle Conservation Center.


We meet with an architect from KL on September 6 ‚Äì Leonard Wee - to discuss designs for a new terrapin headstart facility at Terengganu and the Turtle Conservation Center.  He works for a Blue Technologies, a group that manages the aquarium in KL and has extensive experience with aquatic systems.  Lonnie takes him to the Batagur facility at Bukit Kaloh to review our plans and get his input.  Bill Zeigler spends the morning working on writing the specifications for all components of the Turtle Conservation Center that we discussed yesterday.  When Lonnie, Leonard, Chan and Pelf return, we go to visit the Director of Wildlife and National Parks (PERHILITAN) for the State of Terengganu, Rozidan Bin md Yasin.  We propose collaboration between TSA and the terrapin program in Kuala Terengganu (KT), and discuss ways that we can assist and improve the facilities and all aspects of the headstart and release program.  He lets us know that he has some funding this year to improve hatchling rearing conditions (which are presently abysmal) and we agree to help source (with Leonard‚Äôs help in KL) large plastic tanks for hatchlings.  We discuss our proposed breeding ponds and new headstart units, and promise diagrams within two weeks; these can then be cost estimated. We also discuss developing his terrapin facility into a model program that can be emulated in Malaysia and the region ‚Äì an idea that appeals to him. We raise the idea of a Batagur workshop in KT that could lead to a National Terrapin Conservation Strategy, and he requested a letter of intent /inquiry that he can take to his DG.  We came away with a good sense that we may be close to developing a working relationship with PERHILITAN in KT, which is at least a start.  After the meeting, we return to the hotel and continue working on site plans with Leonard for the Turtle Conservation Center.

Bill and I fly tonight to KL, then on to Manila, arriving at 5:00 AM. From there, it’s on to Palawan– it’s gonna be a long day!

The next posting will have news from this final leg of the trip - The Philippines.

- Rick Hudson, TSA President