Mud turtles of the Mekong

On arrival in Stung Treng we headed straight to the Mekong Turtle Conservation Project –a place I was extremely excited about visiting. Those who know me will know of my love for turtles, but these turtles are particularly special. The Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle, Pelochelys cantorii, to most is probably not the prettiest creature on the planet, but with its soft shell, wrinkly neck, flat packed body and odd pig like tubular face, it instantly had my affection. As a mud lover, this turtle spends most of its time burrowed in the muddy banks of the river.

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But what is so special about this mud dweller and why the excitement? Well, it was thought to be extinct in the Cambodian section of the Mekong river until it was rediscovered in 2007 by Conservation International (CI) and it is currently known to survive only on one particular stretch of the Mekong River -the area extending from Stung Treng through to Kratie province in Cambodia. This reach of the Mekong is also critically important for one of the last viable populations of the critically endangered Irrawaddy river dolphin. Classified as Endangered, the pig faced mud dweller is also one of the rarest fresh water turtles and one of the largest: reaching over four feet (1.5m) in length.

Female turtles lay eggs once a year between November to June, laying around 50 eggs at a time.In the wild, turtle eggs and hatchlings have a naturally high mortality rate due to consumption by predators but this species also faces additional external threats from invasive tree species, Mimosa pigra, and of course, us humans, due to the trade and consumption of turtle meat and eggs which we were told is very tasty.

The Mekong Turtle Conservation Center (MTCC) was opened in June 2011 by CI with the cooperation of the Cambodia Fisheries Administration, the Monks and Committee of the Historical 100 Pillar Pagoda (Wat Sor Sor Mouy Roy) and the Association of Buddhists for the Environment. Monks have been trained to look after the turtles at the centre and work with the community to spread the conservation message. Since the project began, many pet or captive turtles have been handed over to the centre, another great example of how religious influence can lead to positive conservation outcomes.

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The 100 Pillar Pagoda

The centre was established with two main objectives; to head start turtle hatchlings and to raise awareness of turtle conservation. ‘Headstarting’ is the captive care of turtle hatchlings in their initial stages of life to reduce predation risks once they are released into the wild. In the wild, hatchling mortality rates are highest in the first 10 months, so by enabling hatchlings to successfully see through this period, the hope is that more turtles will make it to adulthood and the population will have a better chance of increasing. After headstarting, the turtles are released into their natural habitats along the Mekong River.

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Since the rediscovery of P.cantorii in 2007, the MTCC has been working with local communities in the area and have created ‘turtle nest protectors’ who have been trained on how to protect the turtle nests and new hatchlings.

We went to stay with one such family involved with the project as ‘turtle nest protectors’. Once upon a time, Mum and brother in law used to collect eggs for everyone to eat, then MTCC team came along and the family instead began working to protect the nests in exchange for a monthly salary. As ex hunters, they know where the turtles might nest and how to locate the nests once tracks or signs are found. They now patrol the local area for turtle tracks and work with MTCC to protect the nests and hand over hatchlings to the centre to headstart, with a financial reward for each hatchling. Additional benefits (for example, us being directed to their house to stay the night) work as extra money making schemes which provides a further incentive for people to work with conservation organisations such as CI. We were warned that the family speak no English so were expecting an evening full of sign language and us trying to pronounce Khmer with little avail.. Instead, we were greeted by the daughter of the family who was a Le Tonle graduate (the training centre run by CRDT in Kratie), trained in hospitality skills with a great level of English. We therefore had a brilliant evening wandering around the village, chatting to the family (despite an English speaker being present we were determined to practice more Khmer which had the family in stitches with puzzled looks on their faces) and were treated to a Thai rom-com on a portable DVD player which the whole extended family joined us to watch. The next morning we had a scrumptious plate of pancakes for breakfast which were devoured far too quickly. The training by CRDT is clearly working and it is great to see the benefits of one project having knock on benefits for another.

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Tash very happy to see the plate of pineapple pancakes!

Anyway, back to turtles. When the hatchlings reach 10 months, the centre organises a special Turtle Release which sees tourists and local communities come together to release the turtles, raising awareness of the need for conservation and funds from tourism fees to support the project. With limited funding for these kinds of projects and conservation in general, diversifying and sourcing an income through tourism can be very important and we saw various forms of turtle merchandise at the centre, from t-shirts to postcards, to handmade turtle toys. It is clear that conservationists can no longer be pure biologists to have a successful NGO, business skills and innovative thinking is essential. It is evident, both from this project and elsewhere in Cambodia, that by increasing these skills it can certainly benefit conservation.

The MTCC is a great example of a project that is working on various levels to achieve its goals; with tourists, with local communities, with monks and religious associations. Collaboration at all levels is key and through this multi level partnership, this project offers a new pillar of hope for the mud turtles of the Mekong.