ZSL/Asian Turtle Program of Indo-Myanmar Conservation

Developing viable release strategies for highly threatened turtles seized from the illegal wildlife trade in Vietnam

ZSL - London Zoo - 8th Jul, 2022

In the late 1990s, the Asian turtle crisis, driven by unsustainable harvesting of freshwater turtles to supply Chinese markets, was recognised by the IUCN as a significant threat to turtle survival. Turtle harvesting remains at unsustainable levels and there is substantial need to develop regional in and ex-situ conservation efforts. The number of turtles seized by the local authorities is more than can be adequately housed in rescue centres and these centres are already stretched for resources; the ongoing seizures have the potential to overwhelm rescue centres and jeopardise animal welfare. Seized animals may be the only potential source population to restore highly threatened turtles into areas from where they have been extirpated. Currently, translocations following IUCN best practice guidelines are largely precluded in many countries in Asia, as robust disease risk analysis and genetic screening cannot be undertaken due to a lack of baseline pathogen and genetic data and in-county capacity. Moreover, funds are lacking for robust genetic screening of animals intended for release and subsequent post release monitoring. 

Our project aimed to develop in-country capacity to translocate big-headed turtles (Platysternon megacephalum) following IUCN best practice guidelines in Vietnam. The big-headed turtle is assessed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN and is recognised as a priority for conservation by the EDGE of Existence Programme due to its global endangerment and evolutionarily distinctiveness. There are currently three recognised subspecies, all occur in Vietnam.  Big-headed turtles are restricted to hill streams in moist montane subtropical forest. They are also territorial and aggressive and in a rescue centre setting they must be maintained individually and provided with clean, cool water. Recently there has been a huge increase in the number of big-headed turtles seized by local authorities in Vietnam and caring for these seized animals presents a significant challenge. 

We worked with the Asian Turtle Program of Indo-Myanmar Conservation (who lead on the project), Hanoi National University and European zoos. Together, we developed guidelines to rescue and release of big-headed turtles that had been seized from the illegal trade. We built local capacity in molecular diagnostics to undertake genetic and pathogen screening. We carefully selected release sites and release cohorts, undertook the first pathogen screening of wild turtles in the region, undertook disease risk analyses and engaged with local communities and protected area managers at release sites and went on to release over 300 big-headed turtles in four protected areas in Vietnam. A subset of these animals were monitored post-release, many were still surviving more than a year later. Furthermore, we built local conservation capacity through training and an EDGE Fellowship. We improved translocation pathways and reduced associated translocation risk. The Asian Turtle Program of Indo-Myanmar Conservation worked with the relevant ministry to revise and strengthen laws protecting big-headed turtles. Our model has been implemented by other NGOs translocating other threatened turtles in Vietnam and anticipate that this model may be applied to other taxa currently held in rescue centres. The project was highlighted via a big-headed turtle exhibit at ZSL London Zoo.

This projected was submitted to the BIAZA Awards Field Conservation category 2022 and won a Gold award. 

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