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Endangered turtle destined for soup pot gets new start

  • The Asian giant softshell turtle is considered a delicacy; it is also listed as Endangered by the IUCN.
  • A sharp eyed, animal loving woman named Serene Voo Nyuk Wei saw one in a Malaysian Borneo market in July and took immediate action.
  • She purchased the turtle for the Malaysian equivalent of $165 US, and made sure it got released back into the Kinabatangan River.

For one Asian giant softshell turtle, a single person’s kindness meant the difference between life and death-as-soup.

In July, Serene Voo Nyuk Wei stumbled on a 15 kilogram (33 pound) Asian giant soft shell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) at a market in her hometown of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah.

“I love and respect all living creatures. I knew that buying that animal would encourage the trade, but I could not face the fact that this poor turtle was going to end in someone’s soup,” said Serene Voo Nyuk Wei, who paid RM 700 or about $165 U.S. dollars for the massive freshwater turtle.

Serene Voo Nyuk Wei and the freshwater turtle that she rescued. Photo credit: Sabah Wildlife Department and Danau Girang Field Centre

She then took it home and contacted Sabah’s Wildlife Rescue Unit (WRU) for aid in setting the endangered turtle free.

“Once we received the animal, a full medical check up was carried out to evaluate the health condition of the poor turtle,” said Diana Ramirez, WRU’s assistant manager and a wildlife veterinarian. “It had a slight malformation on the carapace, but after a few days on observation and receiving vitamin supplements, we decided that it was a good candidate to be released back into the wild.”

Things moved fast after that. Within a few days, officials drove the turtle from the bustling metropolis of Kota Kinabalu to the rural quiet of the Danau Girang Field Center and the forests on the Kinabatangan River.

Samsir Bin Laimun, the honorary wildlife warden of Danau Girang, set the turtle free.

The Asian giant softshell turtle is in trouble: it is not only killed for its meat, but its eggs are often dug up and sold as a delicacy. The species is listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List — although this designation hasn’t been updated for 15 years. It is also listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The species is not, however, yet protected in Sabah.

“The only two specimens that I previously encountered were animals we found drowned in fishing nets in the Kinabatangan River,” Girang said. “It was a nice feeling to release that animal back to the wild, where it belongs.”

Dr Sergio Guerrero, wildlife vet at the Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC), inserting a microchip in the turtle’s skin before release.

Before letting the turtle go, scientists implanted a microchip under its skin so it can be identified if found later.

Although the turtle was large, it was by no means as big as they come. According to Benoit Goossens, the Director of the Danau Girang Field Center, Asian giant softshell turtles can weigh up to 100 kilograms (220 pounds). The species, also found in mainland Southeast Asia, is popularly known as the frog-face softshell turtle for its distinctly amphibian-shaped head.

“Like many other freshwater turtles in the region, the greatest threat to the Asian giant softshell turtle is hunting for trade, followed by habitat destruction due to deforestation, logging, forest fires, and conversion of land for agriculture, settlements and transmigration areas,” noted Benoit Goossens, the Director of the Danau Girang Field Center.

Although turtles and tortoises receive less press than many other traded species, chelonians across Asia have been decimated by demand for turtle meat and eggs. Many Asian turtle species are on the brink of extinction, yet efforts to stop the slaughter lag far behind those to protect more charismatic species like tigers, rhinos and orangutans.

Samsir Bin Laimun, DGFC’s Honorary Wildlife Warden, releasing the turtle in Danau Girang.

“Like many other wildlife species in Sabah, such as pangolins, porcupines, civets, and pythons, freshwater turtles are traded for meat, sold in local markets and end up in restaurants,” said Goossens. “Sabah is blessed with so much biodiversity. Tourists from all over the world come to our state to see our wildlife.”

With luck, some future Sabeh tourists might one day come across the progeny of that single Asian softshell turtle, saved from the soup pot thanks to the sharp eyes and caring heart of Serene Voo Nyuk Wei.

“We are all responsible for protecting [wildlife and for making] sure that the future generations will benefit from it,” Goosens said.

The freshwater turtle seconds before being set free in Danau Girang. Photo credit: Sabah Wildlife Department and Danau Girang Field Centre