Between thick stands of bamboo in an impenetrable forest of Myanmar, the Arakan forest turtle reared its small brown head. The lucky team of Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) scientists was the first to find the species in the wild. Previously, the turtle had been known only by a few museum specimens and a few individuals in zoos.

In fact, the team discovered five of the critically endangered turtles, while working in a wildlife sanctuary in this remote swath of Southeast Asia. Few people ever visit the sanctuary, which was originally established to protect elephants.

Adult Arakan forest turtles measure less than a foot in length. Their shells are light brown with some black mottling. Locally, they are called “Pyant Cheezar,” which literally translates to “turtle that eats rhinoceros feces.” But the name is a tad timeworn, since the Sumatran rhinos that once lived in the area vanished half a century ago due to overhunting.

The Arakan turtle was believed to be extinct until 1994, when conservationists found a few specimens in a market in China. Many Asian turtles, highly sought as food, have been driven to near extinction. Trade also threatens the yellow tortoise and Asian leaf turtle, two other species the WCS team found in the sanctuary.

“Throughout Asia, turtles are being wiped out by poachers for the illegal wildlife trade,” said Colin Poole, Director of WCS-Asia. “We are delighted and astonished that this extremely rare species is alive and well in Myanmar. Now we must do what we can to protect the remaining population.”

The report of the discovery was prepared by Dr. Steven Platt of Sul Ross State University, Alpine, Texas and Khin Myo Myo of WCS. They recommend several steps to ensure the turtles remain protected in the sanctuary. Local protected area staff, conservation groups, and graduate students should be trained to collect additional data on the species; and permanent guard posts should be established on roads leading into and out of the park to thwart poachers.

The research was supported by Andy Sabin and the Turtle Conservation Fund.

Read the press release: Scientists See Rare Turtle for the First Time in the Wild