Tattooing tortoises and breeding storks

Did you know you can tattoo a tortoise?” We stare at Mike our open mouths indicating a definite no. And so it turns out you can. Some turtle conservationists have perfected the technique in different countries as a means of identifying released tortoises. Chips are often prone to failure and move around in the body and notching living shell is no longer ethical. It also turns out that it is helpful to team up with local monks to tattoo appropriate religious symbols onto the tortoises next to their unique ID code. This hopefully makes people think twice about selling or eating a “religious” tortoise.

This was our second lesson of the day; monks are very, very important in community life here in Cambodia and across South East Asia, and in 2014, ACCB launched a project that aims to raise awareness within villages of the need to protect wildlife and not collect, sell, eat or keep endangered animals as pets. “The speed of loss and destruction is too fast to only educate children”, explains Mike, “by the time they grow up and are in positions to influence anything there will be nothing left. This is why we decided to work with the monks. Even if only one acts on what we advise it’s better than none.”

To illustrate this scale of destruction, in the last 15 years the forest leading up to Phnom Kulen National Park has all but gone, replaced by fields.A recent report by Global Witness states that 2000 sq km of forest is lost each year in Cambodia. Leaving the next generation to sort out these problems is therefore likely to be too little too late.So, in an attempt to overcome this, every year the ACCB team tours the area presenting educational night shows, playing environmental games and promoting conservation.


In addition to their community awareness programmes, the centre also provides educational programmes for schools in the area-it’s free for Cambodian schools while the international ones are encouraged to make a donation. The same applies for the twice daily tours round the facility. All in an effort to spread awareness and knowledge.

A children’s mural – part of the school educational programme


As with all these initiatives funding is required and the monk program has had to be put on hold while further grants can be found to support it. The centre is funded by Munster Zoo, with matched funding from private funders and support from GOETZ.

As we go round we meet a variety of animals. The centre currently holds around 350 individuals, 250 of which are turtles and tortoises. The animals are here because they were rescued from the pet trade, had been shot or injured, confiscated from homes or traditional medicine suppliers, restaurants and temples. Many are threatened by loss of habitat.
Mike came to the centre two years ago as an intern and is now in charge of the animal department. His incredible enthusiasm, energy and deep faith in what he is doing came across during the three hours he spent showing us round the centre. It soon became clear that the work here is a 24/7 balancing, juggling and tightrope act involving sudden unexpected appearances of rescued animals, not enough space, the odd technical glitch, yet another macaque being handed in, dealing with paperwork and emergencies at all hours. All this set against a backdrop of staggering biodiversity loss. We asked the inevitable question –how do you keep positive? “Ah some days things just go right, animals breed or a monk brings in his first confiscated animal. All these small steps make me feel it’s worth it.”

Caring for rescued animals is not easy. Many have specific dietary requirements, are very sick on arrival and find captivity very stressful. One inmate we met was an Indochinese silver langur who had arrived sprayed bright pink. When babies they make cute pets being orange balls of baby monkey fluff only going silvery grey as they age –sound familiar? They are leaf eaters so their digestive system can’t cope with the usual diet of bananas and milk that they’re usually fed on. Many die and those that are rescued have to be carefully nursed back to health and, if still babies, a special formula is required.

Pangolins are also difficult to keep in captivity and nurse back to health. There’s currently only one at the centre, he was asleep, and Mike believes there are pretty much none left in the wild in that particular part of Cambodia, shipped in vast numbers and terrible conditions to feed Chinese and Vietnamese demand.

So what are Mike’s ambitions for the centre? “I’d like to fight for the ignored and neglected animal groups.” By this he means storks, turtles and tortoises. “They are just as threatened as pandas and tigers but receive very little attention.” The centre has a number of Greater and Lesser Adjutant storks, Woolly Necked storks, Black-necked Storks and Green Peafowl (not a stork but a really beautiful bird similar to the peacock but this time the female is also brightly coloured –just lacks the big tail) and ACCB is attempting to breed them all with varying levels of success.

Storks are not easy to breed and it often takes a lot of effort to establish a matching pair. They can easily kill each other with their long pointed bills so mating is a delicate business. The Greater Adjutant male has got the idea –he’s been practising hard on the bucket and even built a nest. The female on the other hand has enjoyed ripping the nest apart and with holding all favours. A couple of pairs of Lesser Adjutants have it all figured out so Mike thinks he’ll move them to a neighbouring enclosure to show the Greater ones how it’s done. The green peafowl has got a stage further. She lays eggs but refuses to incubate them. Mike’s team aware of this, found a chicken to be surrogate mum but she laid and hatched her eggs before Mrs Peafowl got round to laying hers…. Captive breeding is a fascinating, if not exasperating, game of trial and error, at least in the early stages.


On the other side of the site, the Box turtles and Elongated tortoises are breeding away. Numerous tiny ones marching about their pens. Mike has grand plans to build more pens so there’s space to house hundreds as they wait for them to grow big enough to be released into the wild. Like the crocodiles this is slow. The Cambodian turtle or “Royal” turtle gets up to 35kg in weight and only breeds after at least 20 years. He has two of these in a big enclosure which has just been refurbished, thanks to support from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), to provide a suitable sandy beach for nesting. Sadly we didn’t see them as again it was midday so they were deep underwater.

The best thing about breeding these species is your money can go a long way. Enclosures can be well built with easily available local materials and small scale donors can see something concrete for their cash –excuse the pun!

The centre also carries out a number of conservation projects on the ground. For example, waterbird surveys in the Tonlé Sap floodplains and vulture counts. The latter is in collaboration with other conservation organisations and each month a dead cow is used as a lure to create a “Vulture Restaurant”.

Our tour leaves us with an overall impression of a small, flexible unit with a clear vision and goal for the future currently getting their facility and team operating in such a manner that they can begin to work efficiently and effectively towards this goal. Of course unexpected things will continue to happen, but Mike believes “if things are set up so we are less reactionary and more proactive these random events will be less disruptive.”

A little money could go a long way here, and with a little help, who knows, we could be seeing the start of Cambodia’s largest turtle and tortoise reintroduction programme. If you are in the area, we urge you to stop by and support ACCB, or if you are reading from afar through the powers of the internet, take a little time to keep up to date and support this forward thinking project.

By Natasha and Lucy

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