SAMBOR DISTRICT, Kratie Province – A sharply dressed usher in a crisp black shirt, black pants and a shiny black tie escorted guests to one of several bungalow-style, private booths at the Mloub Dong restaurant on a recent evening.
While the privacy the restaurant offers is an important part of its popularity in Kratie town, it is Mloub Dong’s exclusive menu, recited by the black-clad usher, which attracts the discerning guests who step out of luxury vehicles in the car park.
Wild pig, monitor lizard, featherback fish and several species of turtle are offered in soup, steamed or stir-fried—with chili or without.
Serving a plate of fried, softshell turtle, a waiter was unambiguous about its culinary status: “Maybe it’s not legal,” he said with a grin.
Cantor’s giant softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) was thought to be extinct in the Mekong River until 2007, when Conservation International (C.I.) staff found a specimen in a fisherman’s net in Kratie province.
The discovery received international attention, and their apparent abundance in Kratie was labeled as the last viable population, vital to saving the species from complete extinction.
Protecting the pointy-nosed turtle, which can grow up to 2 meters across and can weigh up to 45 kg, is not easy, said Phuong Chantha, a monk who works at the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center (MTCC), which opened in 2011 on the grounds of the historic 100-pillar pagoda in Sambor district.
When Conservation International “first told me that they wanted to protect and conserve Cantor’s giant softshell turtle, I didn’t know what it was,” admitted Phuong Chantha, who remembers the turtles being hunted and smuggled to Vietnam when he was growing up.
Due to its popularity in Chinese medicine and as a delicacy, C.I. realized that simply telling locals to stop hunting the turtles wasn’t going to work.
So, they enlisted the monks in the pagoda.
“We chose the pagoda to build the center because Cambodian people believe in Buddhism, and when we coordinate with the pagoda and cooperate with the monks, people will obey what the monks say,” said Yoeun Sun, a technical supervisor at the turtle conservation center.
Under a corrugated metal roof at the center, softshell turtles and other species have found a temporary home in small aquariums containing water and sand.
The turtles typically hide under the sand, where they can remain for 12 hours at a time—unless Phuong Chantha skillfully delves his hand into the aquarium to dig up a specimen.
With tiny black eyes and a brownish, rubbery shell, the specimen caught by the monk moved its webbed feet back and forth, struggling to be put back in the sand.
Hunting turtles, Phuong Chantha said, was good business in Kratie, and relying solely on people’s respect for monks wouldn’t stop hunters unless there was a financial incentive.
A hatchling delivered to the center will earn a reward of $8, a figure that has turned some turtle hunters, such as Tea Sok Nay, into turtle protectors.
The steep, sandy riverbanks nearby Ms. Sok Nay’s house in Kratie’s Kompong Cham commune are the ideal places for softshell turtles to lay eggs. Up to 50 fill one nest, which is easily detectable by the footprints left in the sand by female softshells.
When Ms. Sok Nay used to find turtle eggs, they would go straight into her pot, she said.
“They are very delicious, much better than chicken or duck eggs. You just boil them, it’s all soft and you can eat the whole turtle.”
Little had she thought of the turtles beyond a food, until C.I. told her about the significance of the small population on this stretch of the Mekong River, she said.
“First, C.I. came to educate us, and I told them about a nest that I had found. Then they asked me if I wanted to take care of it and so I did,” she said.
A finely woven net stored in the back of her stilt house is ready for January, when the softshell turtles start to lay eggs again. The net protects the eggs from monitor lizards and snakes, but offers little protection from local residents. For the two months until the turtles hatch, Ms. Sok Nay will watch them—during the day and at night.
In an unguarded moment, a neighbor once stole some of the eggs she was taking care of.
“I told him if you continue, we will lose all softshell turtles in the future. But some people don’t respect that, or they just don’t understand,” she said.
Since 2007, the number of softshell turtle nests found by conservationists increased from an initial three to a healthy 83 last year. The majority of newborns fall prey to birds, snakes and fish, so when hatchlings are taken to the conservation center, they are reared for several months before being released when they have a better chance of survival.
Although it is not known how many turtles have survived to maturity, the MTCC prides itself on having released about 4,500 hatchlings into the wild.
A short walk on a dirt path from Ms. Sok Nay’s home, a neighbor, Neng Channa, 23, said that turtles also help support her family, but not in the same way.
“Last year I sold 300 turtles. Usually, I sell them from here to Vietnam, and I get $10 for one kilo,” she said, adding that she had also sold her first softshell last year.
“It is good business, because for the softshell, I get twice as much,” Ms. Channa said.
That poor people will catch the turtles and rich people will pay a good price to eat them is something that has to be accepted, said Phuong Chantha, the monk from the conservation center at the 100-pillar pagoda.
But, for restaurants like Mloub Dong to openly sell endangered wildlife, he said, shows how laws are randomly enforced.
“What the restaurants do is illegal…. But the authorities and police don’t take care and there is no police investigation,” he said.
“Maybe, the police also want to eat the turtles.”