ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
Near-extinct Vietnam native turtles return home to safety
Publication Date : 06-09-2013
Sarah Wahl meticulously counts the red spots and jots down the exact size of each of the 71 Annam leaf turtles.
When her careful examination is over, she reunites them with the other 200 captive-bred individuals living in the conservation centre.
"It can be difficult working with primates or carnivores, but turtles are always relaxed," she says.
German-American Sarah is a turtle expert who has dedicated the last three years of her life to working at Cuc Phuong National Park's Turtle Conservation Centre. Sarah mostly works with hatching, collecting eggs, observing incubation and caring for the babies when they first hatch.
Today though, she is examining the Annam leaf turtles which have recently been sent to Cuc Phuong via an air shipment from two European zoos. The zoos have been running a turtle breeding programme since 2001.
The captive turtles were born after several individuals were confiscated from smugglers in Europe, says Nguyen Thu Thuy from the Asian Turtle Programme.
The species, which is close to extinction, originally hails from the wet rice paddies and ponds of central Vietnam and the 271 turtles are expected to be brought back to their native land next year.
A conservation area based in central Quang Ngai Province and covering over 100 hectares has been built by the Asian Turtle Programme and the provincial People's Committee, as it has been found to be the most natural habitat available.
Around US$30,000 has been provided for the project from international organisations, including the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.
Timothy Mc Cormack, programme co-ordinator, says that the population of Annam leaf turtles has been seriously reduced since the late 1980s due to illegal hunting and trading.
Unfortunately there was no scientific research about the species between 1939 and 2006 and so the population reached critically low numbers in the 1990.
During that time, the turtles were illegally trafficked as meat or for traditional ‘medicine' to China and as pets to Europe and America.
The habitat of the turtle has narrowed over time because of agricultural expansion and development.
"I think the turtle situation here is very severe, there are now very few left in the wild," McCormack says ruefully.
Deputy Head of Quang Ngai Province's Forest Management Department Nguyen Dai says that an electronic chip will be inserted under their skin of the turtles before they are released into the conservation area so that they can be tracked.
Dai notes that the area requires two turtle care-givers, two security guards, two technicians and one forest ranger. He pledges that the local authority will be able to cover their salaries even if international organisations later reduce their financial support, giving the turtles all the time in the world to adapt to life back in the wild.
Back at Cuc Phuong, Sarah reflects, "although they are relaxed animals, turtles can be very stressed or weak when they have come from the illegal wildlife trade. We still have to learn a lot about looking after them."
It is hoped by all that, in time, these rare and remarkable turtles will flourish back where they belong.