Protecting Nature's Hotspots for people and prosperity

Improving the outlook for turtle species through community involvement along the Mekong

Releasing young Asian giant softshell turtles with local residents, monks and CI staff along the Mekong River. © Kristin Harrison & Jeremy Ginsberg
Innovative Features

One of the world’s most critical freshwater fisheries, Southeast Asia’s Mekong River is home to many threatened turtle populations, including the Asian giant softshell turtle, the yellow-headed temple turtle and the Indochinese box turtle. To improve the outlook for these turtle species, Conservation International (CI), with support from CEPF, implemented conservation activities from November 2009 to October 2012 in four priority outreach sites in Cambodia – Kratie, the Cardamom Mountains, Tonle Sap Lake and the coastal zone.

In 2011, CI built the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center in Kratie, which sits on the grounds of the historic 100 Pillars Pagoda, a 450-year-old religious site and popular tourist attraction. This program increased income for local participants, through employment opportunities and the sale of handicrafts and souvenirs to visitors, and provided a location for a head-start program – a nest protection program that provides pay to locals who protect turtle nests on the Mekong’s sandbars.
During the period of the CEPF grant, the community nest program resulted in 103 Asian giant softshell turtle nests protected, with more than 2,000 hatchlings born from the protected nests.

  • Combating illegal trade of tortoise and freshwater turtle – CI’s team participated in Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) meetings, arguing that all Cambodian turtle species (Cyclemys) be listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and protected under CITES Appendix II. CI also proposed the update of the Asian giant softshell turtle into Critically Endangered and the giant Asian pond turtle and yellow-headed temple turtle into Endangered.

    CI worked closely with the Cambodian Fisheries Administration (FA) and Forestry Administration (FiA) to encourage them to include all turtle and tortoise species on the national protected list, but the government plans to update the species status in three to five years. However, following discussions, the FA and FiA agreed to consider protected all turtle species in the interim.

    Release and rehabilitation protocols for animals confiscated from illegal trade were developed to train FA and FiA rangers. These rangers were then able to better assist with enforcing protection, monitoring releases, and increasing local awareness about turtle biology and conservation. A training manual was also created to provide the rangers with a permanent resource.

  • Creating behavior change critical to the long-term survival of tortoise and freshwater turtles – Turtles and tortoises were commonly eaten by most local populations, and changing these attitudes through a better understanding of their importance and value required a significant amount of time invested on the ground.

    Communities now recognize how turtles and tortoises support ecosystem function and help bring revenue through tourism and nest protection. Threats from habitat loss, nest disturbance and the poaching of eggs for human consumption have decreased.

    According to Yoeung Sun, CI’s Mekong project associate, “All the Cambodian people involved in this project have stopped eating turtles. I personally hope that many Cambodians as well as tourists will come to our center and learn about the importance of turtle conservation and how they can help to save these precious species.”

    CI also worked with local communities to develop incentive agreements linking agricultural development to the protection of turtles. Community patrols were established at key sites to do regular patrols to remove tortoise snares and turtle bait-hooks and to protect habitats for the species.

Keys to Success
  • Developing a better understanding of the importance and need for tortoise and freshwater turtle conservation – To increase enforcement of habitat protection and stop poaching to reduce threats, awareness activities were implemented and information generated about turtle species and conservation was widely communicated.

    Turtle conservation notebook provided to locals and students, © CI/photo by Yoeung Sun
    In many cases, there had been no conservation education in the project areas, so 400 students in the four priority areas were engaged. A notebook was produced in 2009 to distribute to locals and students for training on turtle importance and conservation. The remaining notebooks are sold to tourists at the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center.

    Pre- and post-education testing revealed that students learned how to identify turtles, and learned about the intrinsic value and ecosystem function of turtles and tortoises. Subsequently, CI has seen a marked decrease in the number of turtle carcasses/evidence of poaching, as well as an exponential increase in the number of turtle nest sites and hatchlings discovered.

    To further draw attention to the project from potential tourists, educators and other audiences, a website was created for the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center.

  • Utilizing traditions and lore around the spiritual value of turtles – Turtles play an important role in the history and symbolism of Buddhism, as the second incarnation of Buddha was said to be a turtle. Many Cambodians therefore believe that releasing a turtle back into the wild brings them luck.

    CI worked closely with the monks at the 100 Pillars Pagoda, where the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center was built. “The center is well known in the area now as the rescue facility for turtles and tortoises, which further increases education and awareness of Cambodians about turtles,” said Sun.

  • Encouraging ecotourism at the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center – CI linked visitation to the turtle center with river dolphin tourism, working with a Cambodian tour operator. Through the center, results and understandings obtained from the conservation efforts were shared with close to 3,000 tourists visiting the center in its first year (a number that is expected to grow). To further increase ecotourism revenue for local communities, homestays and village tours were created.
Research and Conservation Action for Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles in Indo-Burma
Purpose: Improve the conservation outlook for highly threatened turtles in Cambodia by expanding a community nest protection program for the Asian giant softshell turtle; increasing protection of yellow-headed temple turtle breeding sites through community ranger programs; identifying priority sites for Indochinese box turtle in northeastern Cambodia; initiating community incentive programs for conservation of the impressed tortoise; and enhancing legal protection for tortoises and turtles under Cambodian law.

Conservation International

Building upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, Conservation International (CI) empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature and its global biodiversity to promote the long-term well-being of people. Founded in 1987, CI is headquartered in the Washington, D.C. area. CI employs more than 800 staff in nearly 20+ countries on four continents and works with more than 1,000 partners around the world.

Contact: Yoeung Sun, Mekong project associate