Conservationists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) in Myanmar have announced that this year for the first time, an isolated female Burmese roofed turtle living far upstream on the Chindwin River who has never been known to produce fertile eggs, deposited a clutch of 19 eggs, 14 of which hatched earlier this month.

The Burmese Roofed Turtle (Batagur trivittata) is considered one of the world’s most endangered turtles with fewer than five breeding females (number of males unknown) now surviving in the wild. 

Conservationist attribute this change of fortune to a group of 20 captive-reared young males released into the river in late 2018. These offspring on the Chindwin River are of inestimable genetic worth. They will eventually be incorporated into our captive breeding program to stave off the long-term genetic deterioration of the population through inbreeding.

Additional news about the captive population concerns a new breeding group of Burmese Roofed Turtles established in April 2019 at the Yangon Zoo with turtles initially hatched and reared at the Mandalay Zoo. Conservationists assumed these turtles were much too young to reproduce and hence, did not expect them to begin nesting for several more years. However, less than a year after the turtles were transferred to Yangon, the females began laying eggs in an artificial sand island in their spacious outdoor enclosure. To date four eggs have hatched (more are expected) making this the first time Burmese Roofed Turtles born in captivity have successfully nested. 

Once abundant in the larger rivers of Myanmar, Burmese Roofed Turtles were driven to near-extinction by a combination of unsustainable egg harvesting, accidental drowning in fishing gear, gold dredging, and destruction of critical sandbanks nesting habitat.  By the late 1990s, the Burmese Roofed Turtle was feared extinct until two small populations (one of which has since gone extinct) were “rediscovered” in the early 2000s.

An aggressive conservation program launched in 2007 by the Myanmar Forest Department in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Turtle Survival Alliance has now pulled the Burmese Roofed Turtle back from the brink of extinction. 

Every year in February and March eggs laid by the few remaining wild females are collected from sandbanks along the Chindwin River in northern Myanmar. They are incubated at a remote riverside village until they hatch in May and June, and then the offspring are reared for 5-6 years in captivity before returning them to the river. Captive-breeding groups have also been established at several zoos and wildlife sanctuaries in Myanmar to produce additional hatchling turtles for eventual release.

This work is supported by IUCN SOS – Save Our Species, the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation, and the Panaphil Foundation.