The Asian turtle crisis

by ZSL on

Vietnam is exceptionally rich in biological diversity. With only 4% of total land area accorded protected area status, high levels of habitat loss, unsustainable wildlife harvesting, climate change impacts and emerging disease, there is pressing need for on the ground conservation action.

The tropical Asian region has a greater tortoise and freshwater turtle diversity than any other biogeographic realm, with more than 90 of the worlds known 335 turtle species found in the region. Seventy eight per cent of these species have been assessed as threatened by the IUCN, the highest number of threatened tortoise and freshwater turtle species anywhere in the world. While a 2011 review of global tortoise and freshwater turtle species placed 17 Asian species in the top 25 most endangered globally and 25 within the top 40 (Turtle Conservation Coalition, 2011).  

Vietnam is also home to a number of Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) reptiles, including the big headed turtle (Platysternon megacephalum), Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) and the Annam leaf turtle (Mauremys annamensis). In Vietnam, habitat loss, intensive hunting and trade means that 16 of the 25 species of tortoise and freshwater turtle confirmed for the country are highly threatened. The combination of threats and priorities makes the country an important nation for both in situ and ex situ conservation efforts.

Endangered big headed turtle
Endangered big headed turtle

In early 2013 the herpetology team from ZSL London Zoo met with Tim McCormack from the Asian Turtle ProgramIndo Myanmar conservation and Luong Van Hao, Director of the Centre for Rescue and Conservation of Organism in Hoang Lien National Park to see if there was some way we could assist ongoing efforts to conserve turtles in the region. It was immediately apparent that there were a number of passionate and skilled people in Vietnam already combatting the Asian turtle crisis but these people could do so much more if they had more resources. We also learnt that there were certain areas where we could, as a team, assist in Vietnam.

The Centre for Rescue and Conservation of Organism had recently received a group of big headed turtles that had been seized by the local authorities and Mr. Hao was keen that we worked with his team to provide husbandry training and to build research and conservation capacity within his team. To this end we worked with the Asian Turtle Program and Australian Museum to design and deliver an intensive workshop on turtle and amphibian husbandry, research and conservation. This was held in September 2015 in Hoang Lien National Park and after the workshop we made a number of turtle husbandry recommendations which were subsequently implemented by the team at the Centre for Rescue and Conservation of Organism.

Turtle workshop participants at Hoang lien National Park 2015
Turtle workshop participants at Hoang lien National Park 2015

After the workshop ZSL London Zoo’s herpetology curator Benjamin Tapley was fortunate enough to spend five days with the Asian Turtle Program at Cuc Phuong National Park (also home to Saving Vietnam’s Wildlife, Endangered Primate Recue Centre and the Turtle Conservation Centre). The Cuc Phuong Turtle Conservation Centre (TCC) was established in 1998 and is supported by the Asian Turtle Program, serving as a flagship for efforts to conserve turtles in the southeast Asia region. The TCC is involved in a range of conservation activities including establishment of assurance populations for priority species, raising awareness, training of enforcement officers, research, and building interest and expertise, particularly amongst students in research and conservation of Chelonians.  The centre encompasses an area of 2,000 m2 comprised of a visitor centre, enclosures, aquatic tanks, and specialised breeding and holding facilities for more than 1,000 turtles, representing 23 of Vietnam’s 25 native species.

The TCC had just received a confiscation of big headed turtles. Historically, this species has not thrived at the TCC due to the local climate as during the summer the TCC is too hot for big headed turtles which are an upland species. We designed and installed a chilling system for big headed turtles at the TCC, the first time that an aquatic life support system had been installed at the centre. Many animals have to be maintained for long periods whilst criminal cases are awaiting prosecution before they can be released and the centre also is developing breeding programs for some of the highly threatened species.  It was great to use the skills I had acquired as a zoo keeper at the TCC.  In June 2016 ZSL London Zoo’s herpetology curator Benjamin Tapley returned to Vietnam and visited the TCC with the Asian Turtle Program team and looked at providing UV radiation for hatchling turtles and started discussing potential exit strategies for the increasing number of big headed turtles that were being seized and subsequently housed at the TCC. 

Black breasted leaf turtle
Black breasted leaf turtle at the Turtle Conservation Centre in Cuc Phuong National Park

ZSL’s Benjamin Tapley left Vietnam feeling inspired by the people he had worked with and was very keen to develop an exhibit at ZSL London Zoo to show the reality of the Asian turtle crisis to the visiting public. He and colleagues at ZSL therefore set about designing a kitchen themed exhibit for the Zoo’s three Annam leaf turtles (one of the priority species the Asian Turtle Program is working with). The exhibit evaluation demonstrated that our visitors clearly understood the threats faced by turtles in the region after seeing the exhibit.

Annam leaf turtle exhibit at ZSL London Zoo
Annam leaf turtle exhibit at ZSL London Zoo

ZSL is not the only zoo collection that maintains Asian turtles and there are also other teams equipped with the skill set to care for them. The herpetology team looked to get other zoo collections around the UK involved in the Asian turtle crisis and raised several hundred pounds for the Asian Turtle Program at an annual BIAZA reptile and amphibian working group meeting. These funds supported emergency rescue efforts for a number of highly threatened Asian turtles that had been seized by local authorities in Vietnam.  It is ZSL’s hope that zoos can continue to raise awareness and educate visitors about the Asian turtle crisis and encourage visitors to support on the ground conservation initiatives.  

Mr. Hao Do Thanh and Ms. Nguyen Thu Thuy visiting ZSL London Zoo
Mr. Hao Do Thanh and Ms. Nguyen Thu Thuy visiting ZSL London Zoo

In January 2017 the herpetology team at ZSL London Zoo invited Mr. Hao Do Thanh (manager of the TCC) and Ms. Nguyen Thu Thuy from the Asian Turtle Programme over to the UK where they held a freshwater turtle husbandry workshop. Mr. Hao and Ms. Thuy presented on their work in Vietnam and it was a fantastic opportunity for BIAZA’s reptile and amphibian working group members to meet and discuss husbandry techniques and share ideas and a few of the participants even signed up to volunteer at the TCC in 2017. Mr. Hao and Ms. Thuy were then hosted by a number of other zoos, including Bristol Zoo, ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, Paignton Zoo and Newquay Zoo so that they could see, first hand, how we manage our reptile populations. The experience was invaluable to all involved and ZSL will continue to work with the organisations such as the Asian Turtle Program, Turtle Conservation Centre and Hoang Lien National Park to ensure a brighter future for Vietnam’s charismatic and highly threatened reptiles.

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