Myanmar supports one of the most diverse, yet imperiled chelonian faunas in Southeast Asia. At least 27 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises are known to occur in Myanmar, including eight endemic forms.
Despite such high levels of diversity, the chelonians of Myanmar are among the least studied and poorly known in the world; even basic distributional and life history information is unavailable for many species. This situation is especially alarming given the threats faced by turtle populations throughout Myanmar from rampant commercial and subsistence harvesting, and habitat destruction.
Tremendous numbers of turtles have been collected, albeit illegally for food, medicinal, and pet markets in southern China. In addition to commercial collecting, rural people across Myanmar harvest turtles and turtle eggs for domestic consumption. Habitat loss to agricultural land clearance, urban sprawl, and road and dam construction also represents a major threat to turtle populations in many areas. Habitat destruction is expected to play an even greater role in the decimation of turtle populations as Myanmar moves towards a more open society and major infrastructure projects fueled by foreign investment are implemented.
As a result of these combined threats, chelonian populations in many areas are now severely depleted, and some species are approaching “ecological” or biological extinction. For example, Mangrove terrapins (Batagur baska and B. affinis) are almost certainly extinct in Myanmar, the Burmese star tortoise (Geochelone platynota) now survives only in captivity, and other species such as the Burmese roofed turtle (Batagur trivittata) survives in the wild by the slimmest of margins.
Still other species, particularly softshell turtles (Amyda cartilaginea, Nilssonia formosa, and Chitra vandijkii) are declining rapidly and will likely become critically endangered within the coming decade. Obviously, without aggressive conservation action, chelonian populations will continue to decline and many species could soon face imminent extinction in Myanmar.
Despite this seemingly bleak prognosis, considerable progress has been made by the Wildlife Conservation Society – Myanmar Program (WCS), working in partnership with Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and the Myanmar Forest Department (FD) since the “Asian Turtle Crisis” was first recognized in the mid-1990s.
Most notably, an extremely successful captive-breeding program at facilities in Myanmar has produced thousands of hatchling Burmese star tortoises since efforts were initiated less than 10 years ago. Captive-breeding has been so successful that a reintroduction program was launched in 2013 to re-establish viable wild populations of star tortoises at Minzontaung Wildlife Sanctuary (MWS). More recently, efforts were initiated at Shwe Settaw Wildlife Sanctuary based on lessons learned at MWS.
Likewise, last minute conservation action saved the Burmese roofed turtle (Batagur trivittata) from near-certain extinction, and in- and ex-situ programs are now producing hatchlings for eventual release into remote stretches of the upper Chindwin River and possibly elsewhere. Relatively secure populations of the Arakan forest turtle (Heosemys depressa) were found in two wildlife sanctuaries in western Myanmar, and an on-going ecological study is revealing new information on the life history of this enigmatic turtles. WCS and TSA are also working closely with FD staff to develop effective conservation plans for this Critically Endangered species.
Additionally, progress has been made in stemming the flow of illegally harvested turtles into southern China, and law enforcement initiatives have netted hundreds of illegally harvested turtles. In response to this upsurge in confiscations, a Turtle Rescue Facility was opened in December 2012 on the Mandalay-Lashio Highway, a major conduit for illegally harvested turtles moving into China. In the following paragraphs we discuss the background, objectives, and on-going work in each of these projects.