Efforts to save the critically endangered Northern River Terrapin (Batagur baska) in Myanmar recently took a great leap forward when the TSA/Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Turtle Team was granted permission to transfer a large adult turtle living in a pagoda pond to more equitable quarters. The pond, at Botataung Pagoda in downtown Yangon, has been home to the turtle since at least 1987, but probably longer. Although its origins remain clouded in mystery, we suspect the turtle was brought from the lower Ayeyarwady Delta many years ago and released into the pond by a traveling pilgrim. The symbolic release of fish, turtles, and small birds is commonplace at Buddhist temples throughout Asia; by liberating a captive animal, a person is believed to earn karmic merit.
Convincing pagoda officials to relinquish the turtle, a large female the Team christened Phwar Phwar Gyi (=Big Grandmother) was not easy. We had to not only assure them that no harm would befall the turtle during capture and transfer, but also guarantee that measures were in place to safeguard the welfare of the many fish and other turtles sharing the pond. Eventually our arguments prevailed and permission was granted to conduct the capture operation on the weekend of 25-26 October 2014.
Our first action was to drain the pond, which required a full 24 hours. By late Saturday afternoon, only a shallow basin at the center of the tile-lined pond still held water. In this shrunken pool writhed hundreds of large catfish armed with dangerous spines, together with softshell turtles (Amyda cartilaginea, Nilssonia formosa, and Lissemys scutata), red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta), and Burmese eyed Turtles (Morenia ocellata). Our quarry occasionally made an appearance, poking her head above the surface for a few moments before disappearing again into the coffee-hued water.
Sunday morning, the Team deployed at the pagoda, ready for action, our numbers augmented by a group of experienced netsmen on loan from the Myanmar Fisheries Department. Ignoring the likelihood of a nasty encounter with one of the many catfish, the netsmen waded into the inky water pulling a large seine behind them. We envisioned day-long exercise with repeated pulls of the bulky seine across the pond until the terrapin was finally in hand. How wrong we were! Within ten minutes, following a single pull of the net, Phwar Phwar Gyi was securely ensconced within the folds of the seine – along with a massive haul of thrashing catfish and several large softshell turtles. In keeping with our promise to the pagoda officials, this “by-catch” was released unharmed in a matter of minutes.
Getting Phwar Phwar Gyi out of the pond and into a waiting 250-gallon fiberglass tank filled with clean water proved more of a challenge. For starters, the turtle is obese with rolls of fat extruding around her head, neck and legs, her condition no doubt due to a steady diet of bananas and rice cakes that rain into the pond every day, purchased by well-meaning pagoda goers from pondside vendors. Fortunately her great bulk was balanced by a pleasant demeanor – she made no attempt to bite when hauled to the bank. But getting her on the bank required the efforts of three burly fishermen. Once out of the water, we quickly measured her (interestingly her carapace length had increased by 4.0 mm since she was last measured in 2004), and then carried her to the waiting tank.
At the time of this writing, Phwar Phwar Gyi remains in the fiberglass tank while we await permission from the pagoda and Myanmar wildlife officials to transfer her to a designated quarantine facility in Mandalay. Assuming she gets a clean bill of health, Phwar Phwar Gyi will then be moved into a more spacious pond at Lawkanandar Wildlife Sanctuary where we hope to introduce her to a male and begin breeding these incredibly rare turtles. In the meantime she is adjusting to life outside of the pagoda pond and slowly being weaned onto a diet of aquatic plants appropriate for a large herbivorous river turtle.
The conservation significance of these recent developments cannot be understated. As far as we know, Phwar Phwar Gyi is the sole surviving representative of her species in Myanmar. Once abundant in tidal rivers and creeks everywhere along Myanmar’s lengthy coastline, populations declined steadily over the past 100 years in the face of chronic egg collecting, mangrove clearance, and destruction of critical nesting habitat. An on-going survey by Team has so far failed to find any evidence that wild River Terrapins survive in Myanmar, even in areas where the species was confirmed present as recently as 2005. Given the apparent extinction of wild populations in Myanmar, aggressive ex-situ conservation must soon be undertaken lest the River Terrapin go extinct. With this in mind, we will soon begin a survey of pagoda ponds throughout southern Myanmar in hopes of finding additional River Terrapins with which to form a captive-breeding group. It might also be possible to obtain a mate for Phwar Phwar Gyi from a TSA-funded conservation program in neighboring Bangladesh, which currently enjoys a surfeit of males. Although our fight to save these magnificent creatures is certainly an uphill struggle with no guarantee of success, we must – to quote Lone Watie, the disposed Cherokee Chief in the classic Hollywood Western Outlaw Josey Wales – “endeavor to persevere”. For if fail to do so, the Northern River Terrapin is sure to join ranks with the Dodo, Passenger Pigeon, Thylacine, and other doomed species.