I returned to Yangon last weekend after spending two weeks with Htun Thu (WCS Myanmar Program) and our NWCD colleagues in western Rakhine State of Myanmar. Our mission: capture Arakan Forest Turtles (Heosemys depressa) as part of a long-term radio-tracking and life-history study. Easier said than done! Arakan Forest Turtles are active only during the rainy season and inhabit one of the wettest regions in Southeast Asia (rainfall averages 635 cm [250 inches] during the five-month wet season). What’s more, the Arakan (Rakhine) Hills are extremely rugged terrain that can for the most part, only be accessed on foot. The hills are covered in thick bamboo intermixed with tracts of dense jungle and abandoned and overgrown taungya fields (shifting cultivation). These turtles occur at low densities and are incredibly cryptic; about the only way to consistently find them is with motley village curs that exhibit a knack for hunting turtles.
Our two-week excursion was “unpleasant” to say the least. We arrived at the beginning of the wet season and the rain was coming down in torrents, day after day without let-up. Nothing dried. My hat quickly became encrusted in mildew, four days into the trip I developed a serious case of immersion foot, and shortly thereafter itchy skin fungus covered my right arm. Food was scarce and our diet consisted of a steady monotony of rice, dried noodles, and eggs, along with an occasional fresh mango. The one saving grace was the house we leased in the village. As I can attest from past experience, having a roof over our heads was far preferable to having to dwelling in tents during the wet season. Although the house was nothing more than an elevated, open-sided platform with a metal roof, these were five-star accommodations compared to a tent. Radisson in the jungle! A small herd of water buffalo usually spent the night below our sleeping platform. Amazingly, mosquitoes were non-existent and in stark contrasts to my previous experiences, we came across only a few leeches. That said, we shared our outdoor latrine with some of the largest cockroaches I have ever seen. I guess the pickin’s were good? One night while attending to my business, I watched a large scorpion emerge from the woodwork and take down an even larger roach. Even a trip to the latrine could be interesting.
Each day began with a two mile boat trip up a rain swollen river (luckily “someone” thought to include life jackets when packing for the trip!) to a small hamlet where we met our guides and their collection of surly canines. From there we hiked into the surrounding hills and then spent hours combing the jungle – always in the rain – looking for turtles. Ultimately we prevailed. By the end of the trip we had found nine Arakan Forest Turtles and three Yellow Tortoises. One of the Forest Turtles appeared to be just out of the egg and obviously too small for a transmitter. The other turtles will be followed for as long as the transmitter batteries last, gradually revealing their secrets to us. In the meantime we’re drying out in Yangon.
Steven G. Platt, Ph.D.
Associate Conservation Herpetologist
Wildlife Conservation Society-Myanmar Program