The Burmese star tortoise (Geochelone platynota) is a critically endangered species endemic to the dry zone of central Myanmar. High demand, first from food and traditional medicine markets in southern China, and later by global pet markets led to precipitous population declines during the late 1990s, and the Burmese star tortoise is now thought to be “ecologically” extinct in the wild (Platt et al., 2011b).
Despite the imperiled status of wild populations, technical support by WCS and TSA to captive breeding efforts in Myanmar have resulted in a remarkable increase in numbers; at this time almost 10,000 star tortoises are held at three “assurance colonies” and large numbers of hatchlings are being produced every year (about 3000 were produced during the 2014-15 breeding season).
Assurance colonies are viable breeding groups of imperiled taxa maintained in captivity as a hedge against the possible extinction of wild populations. Sometimes over-looked however, is the fact that assurance colonies are not an end unto themselves; simply stockpiling animals in captivity does nothing towards achieving the ultimate goal of restoring a species to the landscape. Instead, assurance colonies must be integrated into larger conservation programs that ultimately restore, maintain, and if possible expand ecologically functional populations of wild species. Reintroducing captive-bred Burmese star tortoises from the assurance colonies into the wild is the lynchpin of WCS/TSA conservation strategy.
Minzontaung Wildlife Sanctuary (MWS) was selected as the site of our first reintroduction attempt. We first conducted a community education and outreach program in the 13 agricultural villages surrounding the sanctuary. Then, 150 captive-bred subadult tortoises were selected from two assurance colonies, screened for infectious diseases, and permanently marked by tattooing identification numbers and Buddhist icons on the carapace. Each tortoise is also implanted with a microchip for future identification.
In late 2013, the tortoises were transferred into one of three pre-release “acclimation” pens encompassing 1.0 ha of natural habitat and held for variable periods (6, 12, and 18 months). This “soft release” approach is designed to provide a transitional period between captivity and the wild, familiarize tortoises with the release site, and dampen post-release dispersal. The latter is an especially important consideration given the sanctuary is surrounded by agricultural lands and a tortoise wandering into this area risks being purloined by poachers.
The first group of tortoises was released in May 2014, followed by a second group in November 2014, and the last group in May 2015. Each tortoise released into the sanctuary is equipped with a small radio transmitter and relocated bi-weekly by Forest Department technicians. To date, this reintroduction has been extremely successful; fewer than 10 released tortoises have been lost since being released. Of these several were killed by predators (most likely jackals, mongoose, and feral dogs), one died from unknown causes, and another could not be relocated. Most of the tortoises have remained within 1 km of the acclimation pens, suggesting a pre-release confinement period is important when reintroducing this species. Even more promising, a number of females have been observed nesting in the wild, some only days after being liberated.
Building on the success of the initial release, an additional 300 head-started star tortoises were selected from the assurance colonies, and in early 2015, released into a group of three acclimation pens constructed in a different area of the sanctuary. Unfortunately, our efforts received a setback in September 2015 when several tortoises were stolen from the acclimation pens and sold to illegal wildlife traffickers in Mandalay. Less than two weeks after the theft, a number of these animals resurfaced on websites in Thailand, which cater to the high-end pet market. An joint investigation by the WCS/TSA, Myanmar Forest Department, and the Department of National Parks in Thailand led to the arrest of two wildlife traffickers in Thailand in late December. The theft is still under investigation in Myanmar and illustrates the challenges in combatting illegal wildlife traffickers.
Despite the theft of so many tortoises, plans are moving forward to conduct a second, albeit much larger reintroduction of head-started star tortoises at a another wildlife sanctuary using the methodologies pioneered at MWS. Based on the results of an earlier survey (Platt et al., 2011), Shwe Settaw Wildlife Sanctuary (SSWS) was selected as the second reintroduction site. SSWS consists of 45,167 ha of deciduous forest on the western-most edge of the Dry Zone. Burmese star tortoises occurred in the sanctuary as recently as 1999-2000, but populations were decimated shortly thereafter by rampant poaching (Platt et al., 2001).
As a first step towards reintroducing star tortoises at SSWS, an intensive community outreach and education program was undertaken in the 36 villages surrounding the sanctuary. Conservation educators from WCS/TSA, in company with SSWS staff visited each village, conferred with community leaders, and conducted a series of educational presentations targeting school children as well as adults. Additionally, teams of Community Conservation Volunteers (CCV) have been recruited to strengthen local participation in conservation efforts. CCVs will participate in various aspects of the reintroduction, most importantly in post-release monitoring using radio-telemetry. CCV members also augment law enforcement efforts by providing information on illegal activities such as tortoise poaching. Our previous experience indicates that participation by CCVs imparts a strong sense of community “ownership” to conservation efforts.
A “soft-release” strategy similar to that successfully employed at MWS is being used to reintroduce star tortoises to SSWS. Three acclimation pens have been constructed deep within the sanctuary at a secluded and well-patrolled site. In late 2015, 150 captive-bred star tortoises were selected from the assurance colonies and transferred to these pens where they now await release.
Turtle Survival Alliance director Kalyar Platt holding an endangered Burmese star turtle. Her work with WCS Myanmar and dedication on saving turtles and tortoises allowed her to be the first woman to receive the Behler Turtle Conservation Award in 2015.