The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), in collaboration with Mandai Nature and the Fisheries Administration (FiA) of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF), released 20 critically endangered Royal Turtles into the Sre Ambel River system in Koh Kong Province's Sre Ambel district.

As they are globally known, the Southern River Terrapins (Batagur affinis) were gathered from their nests along the Sre Ambel and Kampong Leu Rivers in Koh Kong and Preah Sihanouk provinces between 2006 and 2015. They were then sent to the Koh Kong Reptile Conservation Center, where they were cared for and prepared for life in the wild, according to WCS Landscape Project Manager Som Sitha.

The 20 turtles, consisting of 10 females and 10 males, are between 5 and 16 years old. Each turtle was implanted with a microchip, and an acoustic transmitter was attached to its marginal scute, allowing the conservation team to monitor and track their movements through the river system.

Mr. Ouk Vibol, Director of the Fisheries Conservation Department at the Fisheries Administration, said, “The collaboration between local authorities, communities, and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in their efforts to conserve our critically endangered turtles in natural water bodies.” He added, “The Sre Ambel River System and its surrounding riparian forest are protected under Prakas No. 133, issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) in 2019, which makes cutting, clearing, and grabbing of this habitat illegal. Mr. Vibol also called on local residents to avoid capturing and trading this important species.

As one of the long-standing supporters of this conservation project, Dr Sonja Luz, CEO of Mandai Nature, congratulated the WCS team on achieving yet another conservation milestone with the essential support of local authorities and communities. She said, “The ongoing releases of these Critically Endangered turtles into their native habitat demonstrates the importance of ex situ management in species protection and collaborative efforts between the various stakeholders. Together with strong involvement and commitment from various stakeholders, we are hopeful that the turtles’ population can soon thrive in the wild.”

The Royal Turtle, among the world's 25 most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles, is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. It was designated as Cambodia's National Reptile by a Royal Decree in 2005. The species was believed to be extinct until 2000, when a small population was rediscovered in the Sre Ambel River by the FiA and WCS.

Since then, WCS and FiA have been working together to protect the species from extinction through various conservation activities, including a nest protection program, head-starting of young turtles, law enforcement, research and monitoring, prevention of illegal trade, and outreach and livelihood support. The species, however, still faces significant threats, such as sand dredging, illegal fishing, overexploitation, and habitat loss due to land grabbing and forest clearance along waterways.

The turtle release is a component of the Royal Turtle Conservation project, supported by our long-term conservation partner Mandai Nature, the European Union’s Partners Against Wildlife Crime, US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Rainforest Trust, United States Forest Service, Allan & Patricia Koval Foundation, USAID Feed the Future, and Turtle Survival Alliance. The project is implemented by WCS in partnership with the Fisheries Administration (FiA).

This release marks the culmination of over two decades of turtle nest protection, head-starting young turtles at the Koh Kong Reptile Conservation Centre, and community-based protection efforts in the Sre Ambel River, funded by the donors mentioned above. Since 2015, this is the seventh release of Royal Turtles into the Sre Ambel River system, bringing the total number of turtles reintroduced to the wild to 167.