For more than seven years, I have been leading Conservation International’s turtle project in Cambodia’s Kratie province, which works with local communities and Buddhist monks to increase the wild population of Cantor’s giant softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii), a species that until recently was believed to have disappeared from Cambodia.
During this time, I have been proud of the progress we’ve made and inspired by many of the people I work with. However, I am also constantly reminded of an important lesson: behavior change does not happen overnight.
Here’s an example. Chann Ne is a 52-year-old mother of six living in Yeav village in Kratie province. Her family members sustain themselves mainly through fishing and farming. Since she was 16 years old, Ne has taken eggs out of turtle nests almost every year for food. During nesting season (from November to June every year), her mother showed her how to find nests by following the turtle tracks along the Mekong River near her house. Ne continued to do this for decades.
In late December 2014, Ne found a turtle clutch with 32 eggs near her boat. This time, instead of collecting the eggs for her family, she informed Conservation International.
Ne had heard about our program through which we have traditionally paid local people for each nest they find and protect (with Conservation International’s help) until it hatches successfully. After the turtles hatch, we count all hatchlings from each nest before releasing most of them back into the river.
Ten percent of the hatchlings are brought into the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center for our turtle head-starting program. We feed the hatchlings in the center for about 10 months, allowing them to grow large enough that when we release them back into their habitat, they will be less likely to be targeted by predators and have greater odds of surviving to adulthood.
This year, reduced funding for this program meant that we had to limit the number of individuals paid for protecting the turtle nests. We created three turtle conservation teams (two in Kratie and another in Stung Treng province) made up of villagers that were among the most skilled at finding and protecting the highest number of nests. Unfortunately, Ne was not among them.
When she heard that she could not be paid for the eggs, Ne backtracked and said she wanted to keep the eggs for her family to eat instead. Conservation International gave her a counteroffer: What if she could exchange the turtle eggs for an equal number of domestic duck eggs? After discussing this option with her husband, she agreed to this deal.
Small decisions like this one could go a long way to boost numbers of this unusual species, which only remains in parts of Cambodia and Laos. Ultimately we hope to help the community establish livelihoods which encourage turtle conservation. For example by giving tourists the chance to release hatchlings from the MTCC back into the wild, we hope that tourism will soon generate more income for communities and act as an economic incentive for local people to conserve their turtles.
Ne told me she wants these turtles, which also play an important role in Buddhist tradition, to be around for future generations to see and benefit from. “If I have another choice, I will not eat them anymore,” she added.
This underscores what may be one of the most important lessons about conservation: Most people want to protect their environment and the creatures that live there, but when they’re not sure how to feed their families tomorrow, these wishes are often the first to go.
Conservation International has long understood the importance of helping people help nature, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy process. Survival of ecosystems and species like the Cantor’s giant softshell turtle — elements of nature that have innumerable direct and indirect benefits for people — depend daily on conversations like the one between me and Ne.
It’s a lot of effort, but as I see the number of turtle nests continue to continually grow, I can see that we’re gaining traction.
Yoeung Sun leads Conservation International Greater Mekong’s involvement in the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center.