WITH likely fewer than 10 individuals left in the wild, Cambodia’s Royal Turtle is on the brink of extinction, due to threats to its habitat such as sand dredging and illegal deforestation in flooded forests.
International conservation group Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) said in a statement that despite the small success of its joint project with the Cambodian government in protecting the remaining population in the Sre Ambel river system, a recent increase in development works along the river is putting the species at great risk.
This year, the project team reported a decline in the turtles’ nests, as only one nest had been found, compared to the four they had located last year, said its project coordinator In Hul.
“We believe this is caused by increased sand dredging, wood transportation along the nesting habitat, and illegal clearance of flooded forest disturbing the females during the breeding season,” he said.
He added that this trend was very worrying and if it was allowed to continue, it would put the species “at high risk of extinction”.
The Royal Turtle, also known as the Southern River terrapin, is one of the world’s 25 most endangered tortoise and freshwater turtle species, and is listed as “critically endangered”.
Previously, it was believed to be extinct in the kingdom until 16 years ago, when a small, surviving population was discovered.
It is considered a local delicacy, and the species was named as such because historically, only the royal family could consume its eggs.
Since 2001, WCS and Cambodia’s Fishery Administration have been running a community-based conservation project for the species that helped turn turtle egg poachers into its protectors by hiring them to search for and protect nests, than harvesting the eggs for sale.
They have so far saved 39 nests with a total of 564 eggs that produced 382 hatchlings.
Although the hatchlings are taken into captivity to be raised and later released into the wild, experts say the loss of habitat reduces their chances to survive.
In an attempt to heighten awareness for the protection of the species, the Royal Turtle was also designated as Cambodia’s national reptile in 2005.
But turtles aren’t the only wildlife species at risk in Cambodia – earlier this month, tigers were declared “functionally extinct” in the country by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) due to widespread poaching and unregulated deforestation.
Yesterday, it was reported that animal lovers set up an online petition to put an end to elephant riding at one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions, Angkor Wat, after the death of a female elephant named Sambo.
Additional reporting by Associated Press