Nature and the Environment
in the News

Source: Myanmar Times
Date: September 14-20, 2009

Critically endangered turtles found in Rakhine State
By Sann Oo and Phyu Phyu Zin

A TEAM of surveyors has discovered five specimens of a rare turtle species in the forests of Rakhine State that was last seen in the wild nearly a decade ago.

The team consisted of scientists from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), as well as staff from the WCS Myanmar office and the Forest Department’s Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division.
The Arakan (Rakhine) forest turtle is categorised as “critically endangered” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

The turtles were thought to be extinct until 1994, when conservationists found a few specimens in captivity in a Chinese food market.


In 2000 a team consisting of WCS scientists from the US, local WCS staff and Forest Department staff found an Arakan forest turtle in the northern Rakhine Yoma mountain range.

Then, on May 31 of this year, members of a WCS survey team found five of the turtles in the Rakhine Yoma Elephant Sanctuary, according to a WCS report released on September 7.

The 175,000 hectare sanctuary, established in 2002 and administered by the Forests Department, lies in the heart of the Rakhine Yoma Priority Corridor, a contiguous block of lowland semi-evergreen, evergreen and mixed deciduous forest that stretches from Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh to the Ayeyarwady delta.

“We are delighted and astonished that this extremely rare species is alive and well in Myanmar. Now we must do what we can to protect the remaining population,” Colin Poole, WCS director of Asian programs, said in the statement

He added that turtles were being wiped out throughout Asia by poachers for the illegal wildlife trade.
The report documenting the turtles’ discovery was prepared by Dr Steven Platt of Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas; and Khin Myo Myo of Myanmar’s WCS office.


The discovery of five of the brown-and-tan-spotted turtles, each less than one foot in length, was made by Mr Platt and WCS staff during a survey of wildlife in the sanctuary. The team reached the area using a small boat and endured torrential rains and leech infestations before they found the first turtles, the report said.
Daw Khin Myo Myo from the WCS office in Myanmar told The Myanmar Times that the survey team had travelled to sanctuary for the specific purpose of trying to find Arakan forest turtles.

“We picked late May and early June as the time for the expedition because the turtles are more active in the rainy season and easier to find,” she said.

“We found five turtles and after we recorded them, we released them back into nature. We plan to go back and conduct a survey to determine the exact number of turtles, but we don’t know when that will happen yet,” said Daw Khin Myo Myo.

The WCS report recommended several ways to ensure that the turtles remain protected in the sanctuary. These include training local staff, conservation groups and graduate students to work in the protected area collecting additional data on the species, and establishing permanent guard posts on roads leading to the park to stop potential poaching.

The Arakan forest turtle (Heosemys depressa) was named after its native habitat in the Rakhine Yoma, which were formally called the Arakan Yoma. But locals call it pyant cheezar, which means “turtles that eat rhinoceros faeces”. Sumatran rhinos were once found in the area, but vanished about 50 years ago due to hunting, according to the WCS.

Listed by IUCN as one of the 25 most threatened turtles in the world, Arakan forest turtles are difficult to establish in captivity. There are only 14 at institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in the United States.

Zoo Atlanta, the only facility in the world that is successfully breeding the turtle, announced in May 2007 that it had hatched an Arakan forest turtle for the fourth time since 2001. The turtle, hatched on April 25, was small enough to fit in a serving spoon, according to the zoo.

The turtles are very delicate and mate only once a year, with the eggs taking about 100 days to hatch. Few hatchlings survive for more than a few days, either in captivity or in the wild.

Mr Dwight Lawson, the vice president of animal programs and scientists at Zoo Atlanta, told The Myanmar Times at that time of the hatching that biggest threats to Arakan forest turtles were from local hunting as a food source, and trade to food markets in China.

He said little was known by scientists about the natural habitat of the species.

“There have been a few reports from the field that indicate that they live in forested valleys near streams. To my knowledge only a few surveys have been done to determine the status of the species in the wild, and there are no conservation plans in the works,” Mr Lawson said.

The Arakan forest turtle is not the only rare turtle in the Rakhine Yoma Elephant Sanctuary. According to the WCS report, researchers have also found Asian leaf turtles, which are classified as “near threatened”, and yellow tortoises (also know as elongated tortoises), which are also considered endangered.

According to the Asian Turtle Conservation Network, there are 23 confirmed native turtle species in Myanmar and three unconfirmed species. One non-native species has been found in temple ponds and parks but its presence in the wild is unconfirmed.

All tortoises and freshwater turtles are protected under the Myanmar Wildlife Protection Law (1994) and Fisheries Law (1993), which prohibit the hunting and trade of any of the species.