TSA and WCS sponsored workshop provides blueprint for turtle conservation in Myanmar

From 7 – 10 January 2009 the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), in conjunction with the Myanmar Forestry Department, conducted two workshops in Mandalay. A Species Recovery Plan (SRP) workshop for the Myanmar roof turtle, Kachuga (Batagur) trivittata, was followed by a comprehensive trade workshop entitled “Developing an Integrative Strategy for Handling Confiscated Turtles in Myanmar.”

Around 50 people participated in the four-day workshop including the Director General of the Forestry Department and representatives from universities, wildlife sanctuaries and captive chelonian facilities in Myanmar. A multinational contingent, or Team Burma, included representatives from TSA (Rick Hudson, Gerald Kuchling, and Brian Horne), TFTSG (Peter Paul van Dijk), WCS (Bill Holmstrom, Steve and Kalyar Platt, Bonnie Raphael) and the Asian Turtle Conservation Program (Tim McCormack). The workshop produced documents on potential release sites for confiscated chelonians, release strategies, prioritized list of species for assurance colonies and special handling, recommended sites for assurance colonies and rescue facilities, captive and wild management strategies for Myanmar roof turtles (Batagur trivittata) and a captive management plan for Myanmar star tortoises (Geochelone platynota). Concurrent with the general workshop, a half-day training workshop on identification, husbandry and medical management of chelonians rescued from the trade was conducted at Yadanobon Zoo.  A post-conference facility assessment tour was conducted 11 ‚Äì 20 January 2009 with site visits to at least eight sites that either maintain captive chelonians or have the potential to do so.

The final report provides a clear strategy for turtle conservation in Myanmar for the next five years. Currently Myanmar is considered ground zero for turtle conservation in Asia, and the volume of turtles pouring across the border into China is staggering. Bordering five nations, and with porous borders lacking adequate enforcement capacity, Myanmar has become a prime trade route for illegal wildlife, particularly chelonians.  Fortunately, Myanmar still has some healthy turtle populations remaining that can be saved but swift action is required. With 27 species of chelonians, seven of them endemic, Myanmar is a true turtle diversity hotspot and one of the highest priorities for turtle conservation globally. We believe that this workshop successfully launched a process to protect this important resource. This workshop was generously supported with grants from the Turtle Conservation Fund (TCF), Andy Sabin and the Batchelor Foundation, and with major funding from WCS and TSA. Following the workshop, Team Burma embarked on a ten-day tour to assess the needs and potential of the various chelonian facilities throughout Myanmar. Six Forestry Department-run facilities and two privately-owned ventures were inspected and the following recommendations made: 
‚Ä¢ Expansion of the Myanmar star tortoise (Geochelone platynota) facilities at Lawkananda Wildlife Sanctuary in Bagan and Shwesettaw Wildlife Sanctuary 
‚Ä¢ Construction of new and expanded Myanmar roof turtle (Batagur trivittata)  facilities at Yadanabon Zoo and Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary 
‚Ä¢ Development of three new turtle rescue facilities in Lashio, Myitkyina and Mandalay ‚Äì all along major trade routes into China 
‚Ä¢ Building three Asian mountain tortoise (Manouria emys) facilities to distribute the group of 60 that was rescued in August 2007 and still resides at Yadanabon Zoo 
‚Ä¢ Building two facilities for the Arakan forest turtle (Heosemys depressa) within the natural range of the species 
This first round of recommended construction projects addresses immediate needs related to handling confiscations, and expands the size and scope of assurance colonies for several critically endangered chelonians.  However, it fails to address the need to develop new facilities for managing both of Myanmar‚Äôs endemic softshell species, Nilssonia formosa and Chitra vandijki.  Softshell turtles present their own unique set of husbandry challenges, and we must plan this phase carefully.

In addition to captive facility construction, the Myanmar turtle conservation strategy will require capacity building in the form of training workshops to be successful, along with hiring new dedicated staff positions. A full-time turtle conservation coordinator and a veterinarian will be required to effectively manage the diverse scope of proposed activities. Within the next few months we will be receiving cost estimates on the construction work and start the prioritization process for funding. The price tag for this program will not be unreasonable ‚Äì estimated at $1.2 million over five years ‚Äì but it will require that the TSA launch a full-scale fundraising drive.  For the strategy to be successful it will be necessary for Steve and Kalyar Platt to move to Myanmar and head up this program full-time.  A five-year salary commitment is now being sought from private sources.  Mobilizing this strategy is certainly one of the boldest and most ambitious ventures that TSA has embarked on to date, but one that is completely necessary if we are to avoid massive losses to Myanmar‚Äôs remarkable turtle fauna. We will be meeting this challenge with a strong team approach composed of foreign NGOs, private donors and government, and we are confident that if we can find the funds for salaries, the rest of the pieces will fall into place.

- Rick Hudson, Win Ko Ko, Khin Myo Myo and Steve Platt