The game was almost up for the Cantor’s giant soft shell turtle but, thanks to a pioneering Cambodian conservation project, life is looking up for the rare breed. Marissa Carruthers and photographer Charles Fox travelled to Kratie to find out more.

A group of monks chant a blessing moments before a sea of tiny turtles waddle into the water. Within seconds they bury themselves beneath the sand to start their new lives in the wild, as part of a project that is fighting to give the critically endangered breed a chance of survival.

It is hoped the button-size babies will happily live out their potential 100-year life span in the Mekong River, but the future wasn’t always so bright for this rare breed. A decade ago, fears were raised that the Cantor’s giant soft shell turtle had been wiped off the planet after decades of poaching. The reptiles and eggs are eaten by both humans and wild animals, and are used in traditional medicine.

A shock 2007 survey of the Kratie to Stung Treng section of the Mekong River revealed a surviving pocket of freshwater turtles, which can grow to up to six feet in length and are called the ‘frog head turtle’ in Khmer. The reptiles, which look like they’ve been squashed by a bulldozer and have large, flat shells, broad heads and eyes set close to the tip of their snouts, had last been spotted in 2003.

Since then, the NGO Conservation International (CI) has made preserving one of the largest freshwater turtles on earth one of its top priorities and has sought to boost one of the only remaining wild populations in the Mekong.

“Cantors are recognised globally as critically endangered species, which means they are under severe threat of extinction and they may disappear from the earth altogether without strict conservation intervention,” says Tracey Farrell, technical director for CI in Cambodia.

The Mekong Turtle Conservation Centre (MTCC) was launched in 2011 to house a ‘head-starting programme’, where hatchlings are reared in captivity, protecting them from predators and other threats in the wild. “This way, they have a much better chance of surviving when they are otherwise typically most vulnerable,” Farrell adds.

Housed in the 480-year-old 100 Pillar Pagoda in Kratie province, MTCC is a hub of activity. Inside sit more than 40 baby turtles flapping about happily in tanks filled with water and sand, which the shy animals spend 95 per cent of their lives buried beneath. Kept in the safety of the warm water, they are fed for 10 months before being released into the wild.

The project has also protected more than 100 nests from potential pillaging through a programme that offers villagers an incentive to protect eggs, by giving them a small sum of money for each nest that successfully hatches. The babies are then taken to the centre. More than 4,000 turtles have been raised and released into the wild so far, including some from eggs produced in a breeding pond full of giant adults.

The release of the 100 baby turtles in May celebrated the centre’s second anniversary and was the first event of its kind to be opened to the public, adding to Cambodia’s eco-tourism map. The centre has also been working with the local community to educate them on the dangers of poaching the rare turtles.

“Many of the eggs and baby turtles are poached either for food or for use in medicine, and this practise was rampant when we first started,” Farrell says. “This is traditional behaviour and we had to be sensitive because we didn’t want to barge in and say what you’re doing is wrong, so it has taken time.”

CI and MTCC have launched an educational programme, visiting schools and teaching children about the importance of the turtles — a message the organisations hope will be passed onto parents and other relatives.

“We wanted locals to understand that if they want their children to live alongside these fascinating turtles, then they need protecting,” Farrell says.

“CI, together with the monks, who donated the land to house the centre, have been working with the community to educate them about conservation and to reduce their impacts on these species,” adds Yoeung Sun, CI’s Mekong project leader. “Over time, local turtle consumption has reduced, so we believe this message is spreading.”

Between May and June, visitors can attend hatchling releases in Kratie.
For further information, visit: www.mekongturtle.com/index.html