Rare ‘Royal’ Turtle Eggs Due to Hatch Soon

Cambodia’s fledgling population of rare “royal” turtles should once again experience a growth spurt when at least 30 emerge from the banks of the Sre Ambel River in Koh Kong province, fisheries officials said.

“We are just waiting for them to hatch,” said Heng Sovannara, senior manager for the Ministry of Agriculture’s royal turtle protection project.

The species of giant turtles known as estuarine terrapin, often called “andeuk sarsai” or “andeu luong” in Khmer, was rediscovered in 2000. This is the second year the ministry’s Fisheries Depart­ment and conservation officials from the Wildlife Conser­vation Society have monitored and controlled the hatching. In 2002, 30 turtles crawled from their eggs, nearly doubling the number of turtles, which can live to 100 and weigh up to 31 kg.

Last week Heng Sovannara was in Koh Kong with a team of ex­perts from the Fisheries Depart­ment and Wildlife Conservation Society ready to guard the hatchlings, as well as to inspect and insert microchips in each, before they make their way from sandy nests to the river.

The turtles could hatch any time, they said, causing the current number of about 50 to grow by 60 percent. However, officials said, only about 10 percent are expected to reach the adult age of 25 years, which is when the turtles begin mating.

Heng Sovannara says he hopes the controlled hatching will help revive the royal turtle, which was once considered the property of the royal family. Small populations also exist in Indonesia, Malaysia and along the border between Bangladesh and India.

“Turtle rangers” have been retained by the Fisheries Depart­ment to keep an eye out for female turtles as they crawl from the river to lay their eggs, said Colin Poole, country program coordinator with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

“It’s pretty obvious when they come up to lay their eggs because they are pretty big,” he said.

The female turtles lay their eggs in January, and it usually takes at least 112 days for the eggs to hatch. Once the rangers, who are hunters and fishermen living in the area, notice the eggs, the nests are then fenced off to protect them from predators, both animal and human. After the eggs hatch, “we release them off into the rivers and off they go to become big turtles,” Poole said.

The baby turtles aren’t re­leased, however, until each is inserted with a microchip to help researchers and conservation experts track their growth, said Rohan Holloway, an Australian doctoral student who is working with the turtle protection project.

Although the turtles still fall prey to fishermen, conservation officials have tried to dissuade locals from catching the turtles or snatching their eggs for food, he said.

The turtle protection project now trades villagers one sack of rice for one turtle. It’s not a huge payoff, only about half of what a fisherman can earn on the market for one of the big turtles, but an incentive not to hunt the turtles, Holloway said.

It’s believed the royal turtles, once a regular sight in Tonle Sap lake, disappeared for more than 100 years because their eggs were too-frequently collected for food.

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