The European Union (EU), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and the Fisheries Administration of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, today released 51 critically endangered Royal Turtles into the Sre Ambel River system in Chamkar Luong commune, Kampong Seila district of Preah Sihanouk Province.

All the 51 Royal Turtles, globally known as Southern River Terrapin (Batagur affinis), were collected immediately after emerging from their nests along the Sre Ambel River and Kampong Leu River in Koh Kong and Preah Sihanouk provinces from 2006 to 2015 and sent to Koh Kong Reptile Conservation Center in Tuol Korki village, Tuol Korki commune of Mondul Seima district, where they have been cared for and prepared for a life in the wild, according to Som Sitha, WCS Landscape Project Manager.

The turtles, 31 females and 20 males, range in age from 6 to 15 years-old. Each turtle was implanted with a microchip, and an acoustic transmitter was attached to their shell. These measures will allow the conservation team to monitor each individual and track their movements through the river system.   

H.E Poum Sotha, Delegate of the Royal Government of Cambodia, Director General of Fisheries Conservation, said: “We highly appreciate the participation of local authorities, community and WCS team who have been working together to conserve critically endangered turtles so that they can persist in the natural water bodies. All stakeholders should continue their efforts to conserve the threatened species, and those who still trade protected species will face legal action.”

The European Union is funding this wildlife conservation project, in which WCS and the FiA partner with local communities to counter illegal wildlife trafficking and to protect endangered species. In addition to supporting this work, the European Union is also a key development partner to sustainable fisheries management in Cambodia.

“Cambodia has an incredible wealth of species and habitats. The Royal Turtle is one of the species that need protection urgently. Joint conservation efforts of communities, authorities and WCS should continue, to help the wild population to recover,” said Clemens Beckers, representative of the European Union Delegation in Cambodia. ”Today, we are glad to release these turtles into their natural habitat.”

The Royal Turtle is among the world’s 25 most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles, listed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered. It was designated as Cambodia’s National Reptile by a Royal Decree issued in 2005.

The Royal Turtle was believed extinct in Cambodia until 2000, when a small population was rediscovered by Fisheries Administration (FiA) and WCS in the Sre Ambel River. Since then, WCS and FiA have been working together to protect the species from extinction. Conservation activities include a nest protection program, head-starting of young turtles, law enforcement, research and monitoring, prevention of illegal trade, and outreach and livelihood support, all supported by several donors including the European Union and Mandai Nature.

The continued sand dredging, illegal fishing, overexploitation and loss of habitat resulting from land grabbing and clearance of riparian flooded forest, are major threats to the survival of these species which remains at great risk of extinction.

The release is part of a Royal Turtle Conservation project supported by the European Union, as well as other ongoing and past projects supported by Mandai Nature, the Rainforest Trust, the United States Forest Service, Allan & Patricia Koval Foundation, USAID Feed the Future and Turtle Survival Alliance, implemented by WCS in partnership with the Fisheries Administration (FiA).

This Royal Turtle release is the result of nearly two decades of turtle nest protection, head-starting of the young turtles in the Koh Kong Reptile Conservation Centre, and community-based protection of turtles in the Sre Ambel River, funded by the donors listed above. This is the sixth release of Royal Turtles into the Sre Ambel River system since 2015, making a total of 147 turtles returned to the wild.

Dr Sonja Luz, Deputy CEO at Mandai Nature said, “It is heartening to see yet another release of the critically endangered Royal Turtle into their native habitat which signals the success of the head-starting facility and efforts led by WCS. The strong involvement from the local authorities and communities has also been critical in ensuring the turtles released can thrive in the wild. We all have a common goal of saving this species from extinction, and Mandai Nature remains committed to working with our partners to achieve this.”

Dr. Ken Sereyrotha, WCS Country Program Director, concluded: “With the increasing number of adult in the wild through this release, we do hope that this species will breed in the wild and that annual nests will increase in the next few years.”