TSA Expands Turtle Rescue Program in Myanmar

by Rick Hudson 

On May 14, a ceremony was held to dedicate the expansion of the Turtle Rescue Center (TRC) near May Myo. Organized by the TSA and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and attended by more than 80 Forest Department officials and workers, policemen and border inspectors, the event was highlight by a ceremonial passing of the deed from the TSA to the Head of the Regional Forest Department. Myanmar's leading TV station was on hand to cover the story.

Kalyar at new juvenile tortoise grow out facility at Lawkananda
TSA WCS tortoise team at Minsontaung
a marked and transmittered tortoises at Minsontaung
Rick with giant female Burmese Star tortoise

Since the TSA first opened the TRC in December 2012, more than 500 turtles and tortoises have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade and treated and rehabilitated here. The TRC lies along a road that is one of the major trade routes into China, and is a key smuggling conduit. Many involved with border inspections were on hand for the ceremony as a means of reinforcing the existence of the TRC and to encourage officials to use it. When we originally build the TRC we realized it would be inadequate for all the species we would see from the trade, and we were prepared to handle primarily tortoises and small turtles. But large softshell turtles ‚Äì Amyda sp. and the endemic Nilssonia formosa - were being confiscated with increasing frequency. The TRC expansion includes three large deep rock/concrete ponds that are stream-fed with overflows, and including an area for nesting and basking. With assurance colonies being developed for two of the large endemic softshell turtles (N. formosa and Chitra vandijki), we now have the opportunity to help build these colonies from animals rescued from the trade. These new ponds are part of a concerted softshell conservation initiative being undertaken by WCS and TSA jointly, with funding support from the Harry and Leona B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

Also located at the TRC is a large assurance colony of Burmese Mountain tortoises, Manouria e. phayrei, which is finally starting to nest successfully and laying fertile eggs. This group was confiscated and handled by a WCS/TSA team in 2007 and is now divided among three breeding groups throughout Myanmar. However the TRC provides the best climatic conditions of those sites as May Myo is located in the mountains, where the temperatures are cool and moderate, a pleasant respite from nearby Mandalay and the stifling heat of the central dry zone.

I also had the opportunity to visit the largest two breeding centers for Burmese Star Tortoises, Geochelone platynota, at Minsontaung and Lawkananda. Both of these Centers are now experiencing unprecedented breeding success, and all told there are ~5,500 star tortoises living in four official assurance colony facilities, and another ~4,000 eggs in the ground expected to hatch in 2016. This explosive growth can be largely attributed to improved husbandry and more spacious enclosures, the result of TSA's investment in infrastructure and facilities starting in 2006. The staff at these facilities are also some of the best and most dedicated tortoise keepers in the world and the pride they take in their work is impressive. Overseeing all of the Myanmar turtle conservation programs and facilities is Kalyar Platt who helps promote the exceptional level of staff training and motivation.

The Burmese Star Tortoise recovery story is one of the most successful conservation stories in all of Asia, having gone from functionally extinct in nature, with only a handful of tortoises remaining in captive centers in Myanmar, to numbers in captivity that now effectively guarantee the species' survival. Releases of head-started tortoises got underway in 2014 at Minsontaung Wildlife Sanctuary and to date, 450 tortoises have been repatriated. The results have been impressive and based on monitoring via radio telemetry, ranging from 9 months to 2 years, we have seen a survival rate of 97.6%. We believe we owe much of this success to a soft-release technique that encourages site fidelity, i.e. tortoises remain close to the release site. Tortoises are acclimated in large enclosures set in natural habitat for 6 months to 1 year, and then soft-released by knocking sections of the fence down. Evidence of their having adapted to their new environment is that 7 females have already nested in the wild and produced offspring – a good metric of success for any reintroduction program. We spent time tracking a few tortoises and meeting the staff who monitor this new wild population on a daily basis. This is a community-based project in every sense of the word and most of the staff that help protect the tortoises and habitat live in and around the reintroduction site. They know where nearly every tortoise lives and where to find them. This part of Myanmar, known as the central dry zone, was experiencing a serious heat wave when we were there with afternoon temperatures reaching 115 F (46C). The tortoises we located were hunkered down in subterranean retreats along depressions that are likely stream beds in the rainy season.

Given the burgeoning size of the Burmese Star Tortoise captive population, it is important that we expand the reintroduction program to include another larger sanctuary. For example at the Lawkananda facility, home of the largest star tortoise that any of us have ever seen (a female, pictured), reproduction is so rampant that they had to build another large juvenile grow-out enclosure in 2014, thanks to the generosity of a WCS trustee, and another one is already under construction. We are paying for our success as the saying goes, but it's not a bad problem to have. Stay tuned for more news on the impressive conservation victory as it unfolds.

I want to extend special thanks to my wonderful hosts in Myanmar, the joint TSA/WCS turtle conservation team of Kalyar Platt, Tint Lwin, Win Ko Ko, Khin Myo Myi, and Me Me Soe. You always make me feel at home in your country, the people are warm and smiling, which is why Myanmar remains one of my favorite places on earth.

Finally, we just completed another successful hatching season for Asian River Terrapins, Batagur, and we will report those exciting stories in two weeks summarizing results from Myanmar, India, and Indonesia.