Last weekend we returned to Yangon after spending almost two months at the WCS/TSA Base camp (Camp Batagur) in Limpha Village, a remote hamlet on the Chindwin River. Our mission was to collect eggs from the Critically Endangered Burmese Roofed Turtle (Batagur trivittata). Less than five females remain in the wild (and probably fewer males) and each February and March these turtles emerge from the river to deposit their eggs in sandbanks. We employ a network of locally hired “Beach Guards” to monitor these sites. When evidence of nesting is found (usually at daybreak), they send word to us and we immediately travel to the sandbank, unearth the clutch, and transport the eggs to a fenced-off area on a sandbank adjacent to Camp Batagur. Here the eggs complete incubation.
Finding all of the eggs in a clutch can be challenging because unlike most turtles that deposit their eggs in a single hole, Burmese Roofed Turtles excavate numerous holes and deposit a few eggs in each. This is probably a mechanism to insure at least a few eggs escape the notice of predators. To locate the eggs, Zaw Zaw follows the trackway of the nesting female, gently probing the sand with a blunt stick. When eggs are found, he marks the spot with a stick and the rest of the crew moves in, digging out the clutch by hand, which usually involves moving a tremendous volume of sand. Once the clutch is exposed we mark the topside of each egg with a pencil to insure the eggs are correctly positioned when we rebury them. The eggs are then weighed and measured, placed in a sand-filled plastic box, and reburied at the incubation area, a process that usually takes all morning.
This year we recovered three clutches, two of which contained viable eggs. We now have a total of 44 viable eggs incubating at Camp Batagur with hatching expected in late May or early June (barring any unforeseen catastrophe). Two clutches of 44 viable eggs might not seem like much, but last year (2016), we recovered only a single viable clutch and in 2014 and 2015, the turtles produced not a single viable egg. At that point we feared a Doomsday Scenario – a small population consisting of only female turtles. In 2015 we released a number of head-started turtles (both males and females), most of which we assumed were not yet sexually mature. But given the recent trends, I feel certain that one of these males is inseminating the females. Promising yes, but we still have years of work ahead of us before the Burmese Roofed Turtle is out of danger.
Associate Conservation Herpetologist
Wildlife Conservation Society-Myanmar Program