Chan Nin has lived for a long time by the Mekong River in Kratie province, about 280 km northeast of Phnom Penh. In her younger years, she learned to do what other villagers did: she hunted turtle eggs for food.
In those days, Nin often paddled her boat to islets in the river. There she scoured the sandy beaches, looking for turtle nests, and if she found one, she took the eggs home. But soon, it became harder to find nests as the aquatic reptiles, one by one, disappeared.
Not long after, Nin’s life changed. Since 2010 she has worked for Conservation International (CI), an American non-profit organization, as a turtle nest hunter. This time, though, she hunted them not for food but to rescue the animals.
This is a story about a soft-shell turtle that has made a heroic comeback from near extinction.
A local lore has it that there was once a giant turtle that lived in the Mekong River. The locals call this turtle “Romech”. But it has other common names: frog-headed turtle, frog-faced turtle, soft-shell turtle or cantor soft-shell giant turtle (sp. Pelochelys cantorii). The turtle can grow to the length of 70cm and up to 100cm and weigh up to 100kg or more.
For a long time, the turtle had disappeared from sight. It became so rare that in 2003 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified it as an endangered species. But in 2007, a CI research team discovered a mother frog-headed turtle. The discovery led to an intense, collaborative effort to recover the species. Governmental and non-governmental partners joined hands to establish a breeding program and a conservation center.
But the road forward is not all smooth. Conservationists must first overcome locals’ long-held beliefs and practices that had caused the decline of the species in the first place. Locals have long hunted turtles for food. They also believe that consumption of turtle flesh could provide cure to various illnesses, leading to over-exploitation of the species.
The Mekong River Basin, one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world, is also home to the frog-headed turtle – one of the rarest and largest freshwater turtles. The sandy beaches along the river that flows past Cambodia’s Kratie Province provide an ideal habitat for the reptiles.
Frog-headed turtles normally keep themselves hidden from view by burying their large bodies in the sand, leaving only their noses and eyes exposed. The soft sand allows the turtles to move easily into the water to feed.
The sandy beaches are also where they lay their eggs. Each nest contains between 20 to more than 50 eggs, depending on the size and age of the turtle. It takes 55 to 60 days for the eggs to hatch without their mother’s care. After hatching, the baby turtles immediately find their way into the water and live on their own.
Without human intervention, the fate of the turtles would have been bleak. The discovery of the frog-headed turtle in 2007 has drawn wide public interest. Unfortunately, it has also attracted hunters who would take their flesh and eggs.
With cooperation from government authorities, Buddhist monks and local people, CI has launched a campaign to educate the public of the importance of turtle conservation. Local people are encouraged not to poach turtles and their eggs but to help protect them. CI compensated them for their efforts.
In May 2011, CI established the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center (MTCC) in the courtyard of the 100-Pillar Pagoda, a former capital city and a religious center. Turtle eggs are brought here to hatch, where they are raised until they grow big enough to be released into the wild.
Earlier this year, CI handed over the center management to Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which continues to receive support from the Kratie provincial authority and local communities.
Sun Yoeung, a wildlife advocate who had worked under CI and now is working for WCS, said local communities play a crucial role in the preservation and protection of the environment and wildlife in the Mekong.
Since the frog-headed turtle was discovered a decade ago, he said nearly 4,000 nests have been preserved and about 8,500 baby turtles released into the river.
But he warned that, while good progress has been made, the turtle population is not out of danger.
Humans continue to be the main threat to the turtles’ survival, Yoeung said, adding that young turtles also face many predators in the wild, such as snakes and lizards.
Furthermore, climate change has an impact on the life of the turtles. Long periods of drought or too much rain could prevent turtle eggs from hatching.
Despite potential threats, Yoeung is cautiously optimistic. He says that the conservation of the giant frog-headed turtles in Kratie Province could serve as a good example that can be emulated by other communities along the Mekong, which may harbor other turtle populations.
Chan Nin also shares his optimism. “CI has educated me to help preserve the turtles,” said the turtle hunter-turned-conservationist. “I don’t want them to go extinct. I want to preserve them so the younger generations have a chance to see them.”