Keepers at ZSL London Zoo are celebrating the hatch of three Critically Endangered big-headed turtles, whose parents were given a new home at the Reptile House after being rescued from the illegal wildlife trade.
Four aptly named big-headed turtles (Platysternon megacephalum) arrived at London’s conservation zoo at the end of 2018, after being rescued from smugglers trying to illegally import them into Canada labelled as toys - and have been in the care of the Zoo’s expert herpetology team ever since.
Having settled well into their new environment, the turtles - two males and two females, who live in separate custom-built enclosures due to their naturally territorial nature - were slowly introduced to each other, resulting in one pair laying the eggs, which hatched last month.
ZSL reptile keeper Kimberley Carter said: “We knew we had the expertise at ZSL London Zoo to give this solitary species the specialist care they individually needed, and we’re pleased that this dedicated work has paid off with these three hatchlings.”
Big-headed turtles’ heads are so large that unlike others they can’t retract them into their shells; to compensate, nature has given them armour plating from head to tail and a very sharp beak to fend off predators – as well as a feisty attitude to go with it.
Kimberley added: “Big-headed turtles may not be conventionally cute to most people - with their oversized heads and long, whip-like tails - but they represent a vitally important and unique branch of the evolutionary tree and have much to teach us about animal adaptions. There is literally no other species like them on earth.”
Hailing from the upper mountainous regions of Central China and mainland Southeast Asia, big-headed turtles are threatened by hunting for their meat and the international pet trade and are classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species.
They’re ranked No.19 on ZSL’s EDGE of Existence reptile list, which puts unique and threatened species at the forefront of conservation attention - and are part of a collaborative conservation initiative that reintroduces rescued wild big-headed turtles back into the wild.
ZSL’s curator of reptiles and amphibians, Ben Tapley, explained: “ZSL works with the Asian Turtle Program of Indo Myanmar Conservation, who help to rehabilitate the hundreds of big-headed turtles seized by local authorities and housed at the Turtle Conservation Center in Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam.
“This collaborative project has implemented a vital health and genetic screening protocol at the centre, helping to safeguard wildlife at reintroduction sites from the spread of any pathogens that may be carried by the rescued reptiles - this has resulted in more than 220 rescued turtles having been safely released into protected areas over the past two years.
“Our international team is also working with local communities to help them understand how vitally important these amazing animals are, so that together we can bring them back from the brink.”
The turtles have been named after three colleagues from the Asian Turtle Program in Vietnam, in recognition of the collaborative efforts taking place to save this unique species; Thuy Thu Nguyen, Tim McCormack and Ha Hoang, who is also a ZSL EDGE Fellow.
ZSL EDGE Fellow Ha Hoang said: “Having these turtles hatch at the Zoo not only adds to the global numbers of this unique species, but allows us to learn more about them and their breeding habits – vital information shared between colleagues that informs the turtles’ rescue and rehabilitation.”
While Ha, Thuy and Tim will remain behind-the-scenes for now while they grow, visitors can see one of the original rescued turtles on a visit to the Zoo’s historic Reptile House.
Kimberley added: "These turtles have a lot to teach our visitors about the illegal wildlife trade as well as the many other dangers facing reptiles and amphibians in the wild.”