Turtles are the oldest reptiles left on Earth, with the earliest species found almost 300 million years ago, but many species alive today may not live to see the next century. That is why conservation groups across the world are meeting here this week to discuss pressing plans to ensure their survival in the wild. Hosted by Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), the four-day workshop which kicked off at the Singapore Zoo yesterday aims to set the agenda for Asian turtle conservation in the next decade. It brings together delegates throughout Asia, Europe, Australia and the United States, including over 70 conservationists from 16 Asian countries, such as Pakistan, Philippines, China, and East Timor, who work closely with endangered freshwater turtles.
The event, themed ‘The Conservation of Asian Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles – Setting Priorities for the Next Ten Years’ is co-organised by Wildlife Reserves Singapore and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and is supported by San Diego Zoo Global, the Turtle Survival Alliance and the IUCN Tortoise & Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group and Kadoorie Farm & Botanical Garden in Hong Kong.
The participation of some 39 participants has been sponsored by collaborating organisations and Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund (WRSCF), an independent charity set up by WRS in 2009 with the primary purpose of conserving endangered native wildlife.
The last meeting was held 10 years ago in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and this year’s agenda will include discussions to critically assess what has worked – and what has not – in protecting chelonian1 populations and preventing extinction of the species.
Human encroachment, combined with over-hunting and the illegal wildlife trade, are decimating the world’s population of turtles at a pace faster than they can reproduce. Prized highly for their meat and medicinal value, particularly in Southeast Asia and China, nearly more than half of the species of tortoises and turtles in the region are now on the verge of extinction.
Dr. Elizabeth Bennett, Vice President of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Species Program said: “Turtles are at a conservation crossroads. Some species are truly at the brink of extinction with just a few individuals remaining. We are hopeful that the results of this workshop will help bring turtles onto the road to recovery.”
Some workshop highlights include country reports on the current status of turtle populations in different countries, an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red Listing session on individual turtle species and Trade Status Reports. An open forum on conservation priorities will be held at the end of the workshop for participants to discuss interesting ‘what if’ scenarios.
Following this event is another workshop on the conservation of large river turtles (genus Batagur) from 25 February to 2 March in Singapore and Malaysia, which will address the threats to the survival of these species. It will comprise regional presentations, round table discussions, and field trips to share ‘best practices’ in the collection of pertinent life history data, and methods for reducing adult mortality.
WRS, which operates award-winning parks Night Safari, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Zoo and the upcoming river-themed attraction, River Safari, has consistently supported the conservation of turtles through various partnerships with international wildlife institutions.
On the local front, it partners with national agencies such as Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore and National Parks Board to rescue and rehabilitate turtles and tortoises. Last year, the Singapore Zoo worked with the Turtle Survival Alliance to relocate 36 endangered Indian star tortoises, which were confiscated here, to Fort Worth Zoo in Texas.
WRS also runs a successful captive breeding programme for critically endangered turtle species like the southern river terrapin, which has produced excellent results. Recently on 10 February, a southern river terrapin had hatched from its egg after a two-month incubation period. At least 12 more Batagur hatchlings are expected to emerge from their eggs in the next two to four weeks.
Visitors will get a chance to see some 17 species of tortoises and freshwater turtles from around the world at WRS’ fourth park, the River Safari. Due to open in the second half of 2012, the collection will include the critically endangered Southeast Asian narrow headed turtle, one of the largest freshwater turtles that can grow over 1.1m in length and 100kg in weight, as well as the big headed turtle from China. These turtles are known for their impressive climbing abilities, a trait that is unique amongst the species, which enables them to cross over rocky stream bottoms and against fast current.
This scientific term is commonly used to refer to all turtles, tortoises and terrapins. Turtles generally live in the sea, while tortoises are land dwelling. Terrapins are found in fresh or brackish water.