TSA President Visits Project Sites in Myanmar

by Rick Hudson 

TSA President Rick Hudson recently visited Myanmar to evaluate the TSA's conservation programs there. This is his trip report - enjoy!

I arrived in Bangkok on 24 September, overnighted, and flew into Mandalay the next day. I was met by Dr. Kalyar Platt, Director of TSA's Turtle Conservation Program, and her colleagues Me Me So and Myo Myo, with our partner organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). We left the hot dry plains surrounding Mandalay, and drove up into the mountains of the Shan Plateau, to the town of May Myo (or Pyin Oo Lwin), 4,000 ft above Mandalay and a former cool-climate retreat for British officers during colonial times. This was my first trip back since we opened the Turtle Rescue Center (TRC) in December 2012, and the most obvious change I noted in my nearly two year absence was the number of people were carrying smart phones. There was better-than-expected cellular coverage in the cities, and wireless internet access was available in most hotels.

September 26: We drove to the TRC, about 17 miles outside May Myo, with plans to meet our architect to design a series of ponds to accommodate the growing number of softshell turtles that we continue to see in confiscations heading for China. We were unable to include facilities for aquatic turtles in the Phase I of the TRC due to lack of funds; with new potential funding on the horizon, we needed to get plans and a budget prepared. Upon arrival, as irony would have it, we were notified that there had been a softshell turtle confiscation that morning and that they were on the way! We worked with the architect on the available land for building, and plans quickly came together. We inspected our breeding facilities for the 30 adult Burmese mountain tortoises (Manouria emys) at the facility, all of which were received from a confiscation back in 2007. It's the rainy season so the enclosures are muddy and we discussed ways to improve drainage in this area.

Then the confiscated turtles arrived. The baskets and bags into which they were crammed reeked with the smell of death, and we prepared ourselves for the worse.

We unpacked 69 turtles including 60 Lissemys scutata, one Nilssonia formosa, one Amyda ornata, four Cyclemys and three Indotestudo elongata. Fortunately there was only one dead specimen that accounted for the smell, and all the others appeared to be in fairly robust condition. Kalyar's team went to work quickly and within 15 minutes had the whole lot sorted out and placed in temporary holding containers with water for rehydration. The turtles had been seized by a mobile crime unit ‚Äì composed of Police, Customs and Ministry of Commerce ‚Äì during a routine inspection of a bus load of passengers heading for China.

After instructions were given to staff on caring for the turtles, we prepared to leave. WCS veterinarian Dr. Tint Lwin will visit soon to evaluate the group, and most will eventually be released once appropriate sites can be identified and their health confirmed. The N. formosa, or Burmese Peacock Softshell ‚Äì so named for the prominent ocelli on the carapace - is an Endangered endemic species and will likely be retained for the development of an assurance colony. We already have other N. formosa housed with Batagur elsewhere, and will acquire more soon when a temple pond is drained in Yangon.

At 1:00 PM, we began the five hour drive to Bagan to rendezvous with the WCS medical team who was there conducting pre-release health exams on 300 Burmese star tortoises (Geochelone platynota) destined for reintroduction. About an hour outside of Mandalay we stopped  at the Minsontaung Wildlife Sanctuary, home of one of three breeding facilities managed by the Forest Department for star tortoises. This is the first of three facilities for G. platynota that TSA built, in 2009. Breeding success was marginal when we first started work here, but with improved facilities and husbandry, hatching has improved dramatically. In fact, 794 hatchlings have been produced in 2014!!

We arrived in Bagan in time for dinner and met the WCS team that included Drs. Brian Horne and Bonnie Raphael, long-time ,valued TSA colleagues.

September 27: We visited the assurance colony for both Burmese roofed turtles (Batagur trivittata) and star tortoises at the Lawkananda Wildlife Sanctuary in Bagan. The TSA built these facilities in 2011 and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. There are young star tortoises of all size classes, so many so that a new juvenile rearing unit had to be built this year.

430 hatched in 2014, and we hope that with this rate of rapid growth, that our release program will be able to keep pace. Star tortoises are prolific, with females reaching sexual maturity in as little as six years and laying multiple clutches of eggs.

Our B. trivittata facility is a beautiful earthen pond, with fresh water pumped in straight from the Ayeyarwady River, lots of grass for grazing, fruiting fig trees on the bank, a basking platform and two sand banks for nesting. 100 turtles are being raised here, hatched on the Chindwin River in 2007, and they are growing rapidly. The turtles are exhibiting the typical sexual dichromatism that this species is known for, with the males showing yellow heads and pale carapaces with bold markings. The Forest Department warden at this park is very diligent in assuring that the turtles and tortoise are cared for properly and we always discuss ways to improve their husbandry. We returned to the hotel where the WCS was wrapping up their work ‚Äì two mobile labs were set up in hotel rooms and it was hard to believe that this much equipment would need to be packed up by the next day! They were ready for a break and to unwind - a sunset boat trip was just the ticket.

September 28: We shared lunch with the warden at Lawkananda Park, then spent the rest of the day working on a grant proposal with the team. 

September 29: We said goodbye to most of the WCS veterinary team, and left Bagan at noon for the 4-5 hour drive to Mandalay where we would overnight.

September 30: We flew from Mandalay to Khamti , the farthest point north I have ever been in Myanmar. There we met Kyaw Moe, Director of Field Operations here, then boarded a boat for the Linphar Base Camp - headquarters for the B. trivittata field recovery program. The team now consists of Steve and Kalyar Platt, Brian Horne, Bonnie Raphael and myself. Linphar Village lies far up the Upper Chindwin River and is accessible only by boat, and is downstream (south) from Khamti. It's the wet season and the river is up and swift, so traveling down river to see the program makes good sense. This is the first opportunity that some of us have had to travel up the Chindwin, and I am immediately impressed by the beauty and remoteness of the area. It was not long before we began to see exposed sand banks, which Steve says are much larger in the dry season when the river is lower, and I can only speculate as to how many female Batagur historically may have used these for nesting. After a three-hour boat ride, we arrive at Linphar, where we walk across a sand flat to reach the steps up to the village. Trying to do this barefoot at 3 PM turns out to be a huge mistake! Linphar is a charming little village that has apparently remained relatively unchanged since WWII, and is reminiscent of any small town where everyone knows everyone. The accommodations at Base Camp and much better than I expected, with generator power after dark, and good food thanks to the manager's wife. There is no phone or internet which is refreshing, but the times they are a-changing and a new cell tower has just been erected, visible from the village, just waiting to be connected. 

October 1: I got my first good look at the headstarting facilities for Burmese roof turtles. Currently 249 turtles are being reared here, hatched from 2011 – 2014, all growing rapidly and in need of more space. Fortunately, two large concrete pools have just been completed for grow out, with deeper water to encourage improved swimming abilities. We have long questioned the wisdom of releasing turtles into a large swift-moving stream that have been raised in a small pool, and how their swimming musculature might not be as well developed as needed for survival. These pools will expand our capacity to headstart terrapins from hatchling to release size, at one location that is close to their natal beach and natural habitat, and not move them to Mandalay for headstarting as we have in previous years. Considering the remoteness of this location, I am impressed with the scope of the operation all that the team has managed to achieve here, which is certainly a testament to their fortitude and CAN DO attitude.

Aside from the 249 B. trivittata here, we have another 100 at Lawkananda and 265 at Yadanabon Zoo in Mandalay ‚Äì 614 total. This is an amazing achievement when one considers that this species was only rediscovered in 2001 and our captive population started with just three specimens rescued from a temple pond. This rapid population growth was fueled by an aggressive nest beach protection / egg incubation / headstarting program that was, without question, started in the nick of time to prevent this species' slide into extinction. The efficiency and scale of this program is even more impressive when one considers that the first turtles will be returning to the wild in 2015. 

October 2: We packed up and left Linphar early and headed downstream by boat to the town of Htamanthi and the Tamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary (TMS), one of the largest protected areas in Myanmar. Sitting on the eastern bank of the Chindwin River, the sanctuary is a biodiversity mecca, for large mammals especially, and is home to tigers, elephants, gaur (Asiatic bison), leopards, serow, gibbons and bear. Kyaw Moe, our WCS colleague who manages the B. trivittata project, is on staff here and splits time with the Linphar Base Camp. We had two goals for the day: First, travel up the Nanthalat Chaung, a tributary of the Chindwin, to see one of the proposed Batagur release sites; second, look at the site where a third assurance colony for B. trivittata will be developed.

The Nanthalat Chaung is smaller than the Chindwin and not as heavily utilized, in fact there was evidence of Batagur nesting on this tributary in the not-too-distant past. Aside from its remoteness, many of the typical threats that make life on the Chindwin difficult for Batagur ‚Äì gold mining, electro- and dynamite fishing ‚Äì are not visible here. Sand bars are available for nesting and overall the river has a very verdant feel to it - more pristine, less used. Prior to my arrival in Myanmar the WCS / TSA selected 60 B. trivittata for release from the stock at the zoo in Mandalay, primarily hatched from 2007 ‚Äì 2009. Radio-transmitters were placed on 30 of them and the plan is to release 30 turtles at each of two sites - here and at Linphar - during the upcoming dry season in 2015.

We returned to Htamanthi, had lunch and rested up till the temperature began to drop around 5 PM. Then we walked to a site just outside town, where a spring-fed stream winds across a beautiful meadow. This is the water source for the town and is hence protected from disturbance. A high bank already exists on one side and the idea is to build levees on the other side as the pond is excavated, and tap into the stream to fill the pond, and keep it overflowing with fresh water. The plan is to move many of our sub-adult B. trivittata from the zoo at Mandalay, and create another assurance colony, this one much closer to the natural range of the species and just down the river from the project base camp and release sites.

We returned (hot and sweaty!) to a well-deserved bucket bath, had dinner, and spent the night in the new guest house at TMS.

October 3: We traveled by boat downstream, four hours to Homelin, and enjoyed the scenic and lazy pace of life on the river. Though not as heavily populated as areas downstream near Bagan and Mandalay, the Upper Chindwin is still heavily utilized and gold mining operations are surprisingly evident. The river winds through some incredibly picturesque scenery with the beautiful Naga Hills in the background. We arrived by 1 PM, had lunch, and checked into a hotel where we experienced our first AC in many days, but the pleasure is fleeting: the generators are soon shut down and won't be on again till dark. But there is a shower and life is good. We had dinner here and spent the night. 

October 4: Flew to Yangon in the afternoon and spent the night. Enjoyed real hot water and AC!!

October 5: Flew to Bangkok in the afternoon and overnighted here, before an early morning return flight to Tokyo and then the US.