A member of one of the world's most endangered turtle species is being tracked by satellites as it swims the rivers of Cambodia, helping scientists to learn more about how it navigates and the threats it faces in its native waters. With a satellite transmitter glued to her shell, the female southern river terrapin (Batagur affinis edwardmolli)—one of the last 200 wild members of a species which was once treasured by Cambodian royalty—was released into the Sre Ambel River on January 16 in a ceremony attended by dozens of cheering local residents, government officials and international conservationists.

The terrapin's travels will be monitored by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in conjunction with Wildlife Reserves Singapore and Cambodia's Fisheries Administration. This is the first satellite study of the southern river terrapin, offering a rare opportunity to learn more about this species, which was named one of the world's 25 most endangered turtle species in February 2011.

You might think that with a species this rare, it would be worth keeping this turtle in captivity to protect it. But in a prepared statement, Heng Sovannara, deputy director of the Fisheries Administration's Conservation Department, explained that the scientific information to be gained by tracking the animal is even more important. "By identifying areas [of the river] that are most utilized by the turtles, we can pinpoint our efforts to reduce the turtles being caught as fishery bycatch as well as targeted hunting." The species was heavily overexploited for its meat and eggs after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, and nearly became extinct.

Working with local fishermen has been a key WCS initiative for more than 10 years, and in fact resulted in this turtle's rescue in April 2011. She was accidentally caught by a fisherman working in the Sre Ambel River who voluntarily turned her over to the Batagur conservation project, which in turn brought her to the Angkor Center for Conservation of Biodiversity in Siem Reap, where she was cared for her until she could be fitted with a satellite transmitter and released. (The Angkor Center posted several photos of the terrapin on Facebook after her arrival.)

Brian Horne, a WCS conservationist working on the project, told me about their efforts to preserve turtles in the Sre Ambel River. "We have a good rapport with the local fisherman," he says. "We have installed large billboard-like signs along the river detailing the plight of the turtles. In addition, the turtle team makes regular patrols to discourage the use of illegal fishing nets." The project also employs local community members as nest site wardens. "These wardens know that if there are no turtles they are out of a job, hence they help 'police' the rivers as well."

WCS also has an exchange program for any fishermen who make an incidental turtle capture in their fishing nets. "In exchange for turning over a turtle they receive a 50-pound bag of rice and are not prosecuted by the local wildlife police," Horne says.

It's too early to report on any information gained from the satellite transmitter, but WCS is also working meanwhile on breeding the rare turtles. "We are currently head-starting just over 100 juvenile turtles in a modest facility near Sre Ambel," Horne says. "Some of these will be maintained as part of an assurance breeding colony while the others will be released back into the wild." Any turtles released will be monitored with acoustic telemetry, because they are still too small to be fitted with larger satellite transmitters.

WCS Cambodia and the Angkor Center are also building a new breeding facility near Siem Reap. "We plan to build a number of ponds that can house adult turtles and provide them with nesting areas," Horne says. "Offspring from this captive breeding will be released back into the Sre Ambel in hopes of increasing the number of wild turtles."

The population of southern river terrapins in Cambodia needs the boost. Only about 10 of the turtles live in the wild in Cambodia, with the rest living in Malaysia and Indonesia. They used to exist in Vietnam and Thailand, too, but there are no current records of them nesting in those countries.

WCS posted this footage of the terrapin's release ceremony:


Photo by Eleanor Briggs courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society