Giant “royal” turtles, thought to be extinct in Cambodia for more than a century, have been rediscovered along the Sre Ambel River in Koh Kong province.
Wildlife officials estimate about 50 adult estuarine terrapins, which can weigh up to 31 kg, live in the area. During a survey of the area last month, officials found several nests and examined a large female.
“This is a discovery of major conservation importance. It is one of the world’s most endangered turtles,” said Steve Platt of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the New York-based organization that participated in the survey with officials from the ministries of Environment and Agriculture.
Five of the estuarine terrapins, called andeuk sarsai in Khmer, were confiscated from wildlife sellers in November, and are now kept at the provincial fisheries department in Koh Kong, according to Nao Thuok, director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Department of Fisheries. The turtles are scheduled to be released in March.
“We didn’t know then that they were estuarine terrapins,” Nao Thouk said.
The turtles were once considered to be the exclusive property of the royal family, with adult turtles protected by royal decree. But the last recorded sighting of the giant terrapin in Cambodia was in the 1890s by French explorer Auguste Pavie, according to Colin Poole of the WCS.
The turtles once thrived along the Tonle Sap lake, but disappeared from the shore because their eggs were regularly caught for food, Nao Thuok said. Ten years ago, two fossilized shells were found near the lake, he said.
Poole said that one large turtle was found in the private zoo of a government official last year. Officials thought that it had come from a Thai wildlife trader.
Less than 30 of the terrapins are thought to exist in India and only scattered populations remain in Malaysia, according to Poole.