Cambodian monks help protect rare turtles

New conservation project launched to help save rare giant soft-shell turtle from extinction.

June 8, 2011

KRATIE, Cambodia - Cambodian monks and environmentalists launched a new conservation project on Wednesday to help save one of the world's rarest and largest freshwater turtles from extinction.

A centre for the endangered Cantor's giant soft-shell turtle has been set up on the grounds of a temple near the central town of Kratie on the Mekong river, with support from wildlife group Conservation International.

"The turtle faces serious threats in its natural habitat," said Conservation International's Sun Yoeung, explaining that the centre would look after baby turtles.

"We hope they will have a better chance at survival when they are bigger and can protect themselves," he said.

The turtle, capable of growing up to 50 kg (110 pounds), was thought to be nearly extinct until it was rediscovered on an isolated stretch of the river in 2007.

At the opening ceremony for the centre, an orange-clad monk blessed a female Cantor's turtle weighing 18 kg (40 pounds) and released her into a large pond inside the temple complex, a popular tourist attraction in the area.

Staff at the facility hope to find her a mate soon to kick-start a breeding programme.

The centre is also home to nearly 100 baby turtles who were moved from their nests for their own protection.

"In one or two years we will release them back into the river," Sun Yoeung told AFP. "Now they are too small and they can be eaten by birds or fish."

The Cantor's turtle is also under threat from hunters and from the destruction of its habitat.

The animal spends 95 percent of its life hidden in sand or mud and is listed as endangered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the same status given to tigers and pandas.

It was discovered in an area closed off to scientists until the late 1990s because of decades of civil conflict in the country.

It is not known exactly how many of the creatures are left but since 2007, CI has protected 51 nests on the Mekong river and watched more than 1,000 turtles hatch successfully.