How much is an egg worth? For some Cambodians, an egg from a Cantor's giant softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) could mean part of a meal. If the turtle is allowed to hatch, however, it could represent a better job, a healthier river and even — according to Buddhist beliefs — good luck.
Together with the Cambodian Fisheries Administration and the Association of Buddhists for the Environment, today Conservation International (CI) opened the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center in central Cambodia with the ceremonial release of 50 captive-raised turtles into the new facility. The project is poised to make great strides in expanding the threatened turtle's wild population while improving livelihoods for local communities.
Protecting the Giants of the Mekong
One of the world's most critical freshwater fisheries, Southeast Asia's Mekong River is no stranger to large creatures. Compared to species like the Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) and freshwater stingray (Dasyatis laosensis), the Cantor's giant softshell turtle is actually on the smaller side, only growing up to 1.2 meters (4 feet). The species is almost extinct in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam; it was thought to be lost in Cambodia as well, until a 2007 survey by CI and WWF discovered a small population of turtles on a stretch of the Cambodian Mekong.
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Although habitat loss and nest disturbance have played a role in the turtle's decline — this stretch of river remains unprotected — the main threat comes from the poaching of turtle eggs for human consumption. Although the eggs have modest nutritional value, they provide a rare alternative from fish protein for poor communities.
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"All the Cambodian people involved in this project have stopped eating turtles. I personally hope that many Cambodians as well as tourists will come to our center and learn about the importance of turtle conservation and how they can help to save this precious species."
– Yoeung Sun, Mekong
project associate for CI
Fortunately for both turtles and people, there is now another option. Since 2007, CI-Cambodia has been paying fishermen and other villagers to protect turtle nests on the river's sandbars. Nest guardians are compensated for each nest and each hatchling they protect; not only have these financial incentives reduced turtle poaching, but fishermen now also release turtles accidentally caught in their nets.
So far, the nest protection program has helped to successfully hatch and release approximately 1,000 turtles. A small number have been temporarily taken into captivity for research purposes, but thanks to the success of the captive rearing program, they're now in need of a bigger home.
Pagoda Pond Will Bring Tourists and Jobs
H.H Nao Thuok, Delegate of Cambodian Government in charge as Chief of the Fishery Administration at the MTCC opening
Photo: © Sun Yoeung / Conservation International
The newly-opened Mekong Turtle Conservation Center in the riverside village of Sambar sits on the grounds of the historic 100 Pillars Pagoda, a 450-year-old religious site. A man-made pond on the pagoda grounds will be home to about 100 hatchlings and three older turtles for about 10 months, at which point they will be large enough to evade predators like waterbirds and large fish, and will be released back into the river.
The opening of this center will have significant benefits for all involved. Located near the habitat of the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), an ecotourism site that brings in 30,000 visitors a year, the pagoda is also a popular tourist attraction. Through center entry fees, donations, sponsorship of turtles and the sale of handicrafts and other souvenirs, tourist income will provide local villagers with stable employment opportunities. In an effort to increase local awareness about the turtle's importance, however, the center will be free to visit for all Cambodians.
As for the turtles, the population temporarily kept in captivity will be part of an assurance colony which could protect the future of the species in case of a sudden collapse in the wild population.
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H.H Nao Thuok releasing a mature softshell turtle with Chan Sokpov, Chief Monk at the 100 Pillar Pagoda, and CI staff.
Photo: © Emmeline Johansen / Conservation International
Turtles + Spirituality
Turtles play an important role in the history and symbolism of Buddhism; the second incarnation of Buddha was said to be a turtle.
Yoeung Sun, a Mekong project associate who has been working closely on the Cantor's turtle project since it began, explains this spiritual connection. "Due to the Buddhist belief that associates good life with the slow movement of the turtle, when Cambodian people see a turtle cross their path, they often catch it for good luck prayers, mark the turtle with a Buddhist symbol and then release it. When other people see the sign on its shell, they won't harm the animal because of the Buddhist properties associated with it." The Mekong Turtle Conservation Center also plans to mark their turtles in this way before releasing them back into the wild.
Yoeung believes more education around turtle conservation can make a huge difference in local attitudes towards the turtles in the future. "All the Cambodian people involved in this project have stopped eating turtles. I personally hope that many Cambodians as well as tourists will come to our center and learn about the importance of turtle conservation and how they can help to save this precious species."
READ THE PRESS RELEASE: New Home for One of the World's Largest and Rarest Freshwater Turtles Opens in Cambodia