Cambodian Conservation Center Helps Turtles, Draws Tourists

© Kristin Harrison & Jeremy Ginsberg

A year ago, Conservation International and our partners launched the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center (MTCC) near the town of Kratie in northeastern Cambodia to support the conservation of the endangered Cantor’s giant soft-shell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii). When I visited the MTCC recently, I was amazed to see how much has changed in the past year.

Food stalls have popped up outside the center to feed and (coconut) water the many tourists making the hot and humid trip. Tuk-tuk and motodop drivers now extend their travels beyond the established Irrawaddy dolphin platform (which is conveniently on the way to the center), providing a great day’s excursion for tourists that want to see some of Cambodia’s rarest species — and a great day’s business to the drivers.

It’s clear that thanks to the tourism generated by the center, this conservation project isn’t only benefiting turtles — it’s improving the livelihoods of local people, too.

The MTCC is the only dedicated turtle conservation facility in Cambodia. It was launched as a head-starting facility to increase the survival rate of hatchlings from the ongoing, highly successful community-led nest protection program on the sandy banks of the nearby Mekong River. The program incentivises the community to protect turtle nests, and has led to increased turtle hatchlings and nest numbers each year since it began in 2007.

Coordinating the media coverage for the center’s opening last year was my first major project with Conservation International, and a very exciting one for us all in Cambodia. A year later, we are now launching a website to provide more information about the project to potential tourists and donors. Only through public support can this fantastic program become a self-sustaining model and move away from donor dependency toward local management and stewardship.

In this first year, tourist numbers have soared above our expectations, with over 2,000 people visiting. The vast majority of these visitors have been Cambodian, coming from far and wide to see the turtles. At the center, they are educated about turtle conservation by Khmer-speaking guides from the local community who have been trained about turtle care and conservation.

Visitors see a range of magnificent rare species not commonly seen anywhere else in the world. There are now over 200 turtles at the center — mostly Cantor’s turtles, which nestle in the sand and poke their heads out curiously watching the visiting tourists. So far, 150 turtles have been head-started and released back into the Mekong. In addition to the head-started turtles, over 2,300 turtle hatchlings have been released back into the river directly from the nest protection program.

In an unexpected outpouring of community support, other turtle species — most of which were previously kept as pets — have been donated to the center. There are now more than 10 species available for viewing, representing over half of Cambodia’s native turtle species, all of which are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Donations have not been limited to turtles; the MTCC staff have had to decline various crocodiles, snakes and lizards, which though offered with the best of intentions, cannot be cared for.

For the schoolchildren who come to learn about this very strange-looking turtle and its value to Cambodia’s freshwater ecosystems, it’s a special experience. Many students have said that after visiting the center they now won’t eat turtles or their eggs, and that they’ll take this message home to their parents and others in their community.

Growing this local awareness and stewardship is essential for the Cantor’s turtle’s long-term survival. It also plants the seed for the next generation of Cambodians to support the conservation of other endangered animals in Cambodia. There are many local species that are heavily threatened by the actions of humans, so a change in attitude could lead to a big win for biodiversity. Needless to say, this is an excellent outcome for the center.

The center is built on the grounds of the beautiful and historic 100 Pillar Pagoda and supported by the monks living there. There is now a monk working at the MTCC to educate visitors about turtle conservation and environmental issues; soon he and Conservation International’s project lead Yoeung Sun will visit nearby villages, to engage communities and raise awareness. The monks of the pagoda also have conducted Buddhist ceremonies to bless the turtles that are released back into the river.

When visiting the MTCC, I’m always struck by the unity of religious figures, community members, local leaders, scientists and donors who have all come together to conserve this species and raise awareness about conservation. Thanks to their support and vision, we hope that the people of Kratie and Cambodia’s future generations will always have the opportunity to enjoy this amazing giant turtle in its natural environment.

Emmeline Johansen is the communications manager for Conservation International-Cambodia.