- The Critically Endangered painted terrapin (Batagur borneoensis) is one of the 25 most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles on earth, according to the Turtle Survival Coalition — with surviving numbers in Indonesia and Malaysia unknown.
- The species is under tremendous pressure from poaching for eggs and by agroindustry which is degrading and converting its river and ocean beach and mangrove habitat for fish and shrimp aquaculture and oil palm production.
- Joko Guntoro and the Satucita Foundation — with help from the UK’s Chester Zoo, the Houston Zoo in Texas, and the Turtle Survival Alliance — have built a head starting facility in Indonesia and successfully incubated more than six hundred hatchlings which are scheduled for release this autumn.
- A mysterious species, scientists know next to nothing about painted terrapin migration, juvenile and adult behaviors — key to conservation. Unfortunately, under-funded researchers lack the money for satellite tracking of the species.
For much of the year, the painted terrapin’s name doesn’t make much sense. The carapace of this large Asian river turtle is usually an unremarkable grey/brown. But during the breeding season, the male undergoes a stunning transformation. Its shell lightens in color to boldly show off flashy black markings. As if that weren’t enough to entice the ladies, its head turns pure white and a stunning red strip develops between his eyes — turning it into one of the most strikingly and uniquely beautiful turtles, says the Turtle Survival Coalition, which ranks the painted terrapin among the 25 most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles on earth.
When Joko Guntoro sees those bright hues, he thinks of the similarly colored Indonesian flag and his country’s extraordinary biodiversity. “Indonesia has lost many species, for example the Javanese Tiger. I don’t want my region, my country, to lose the painted terrapin. So I do what I can.”
Guntoro is the founder and program director of the Satucita Foundation, a small, grassroots organization working to save the painted terrapin in what is likely its last major Indonesian stronghold — an area within the northwestern tip of Sumatra called Aceh Tamiang, a regency of 1,939 square kilometers (1,205 square miles). His foundation is currently preparing for the historic release of hundreds of hatchlings into the wild.
Struggle to survive
Back in 2009, no one was even sure if any painted terrapins (Batagur borneoensis) were left in Aceh Tamiang. At that point, the IUCN had already been listing the species as Critically Endangered for thirteen years. So Guntoro went looking for the animals on nesting beaches and in fishermen’s nets.
His almost yearlong survey found just nine adults.
Indonesia’s painted terrapins, he discovered, had fallen victim to the all too familiar litany of assaults that the species has met throughout its historic range, which includes Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand, where it’s now extinct. Like chelonians the world over, its meat and eggs are delicious, and its beauty is much valued by the pet trade, while its habitat is rapidly vanishing.
Though females nest on ocean front beaches, the painted terrapin does most of its living in mangrove forests and river estuaries. That’s where it finds logs to bask on. And that’s where it plucks up riparian vegetation that falls like manna-from-heaven into the water. Hence the upturned snout that makes eating at the surface easier.
But Aceh’s mangrove forests have been logged for charcoal production or converted into oil palm plantations. And on the nesting beaches that the painted terrapin shares with sea turtles, its offspring (laid in small clutches of about 10 to 12 eggs) are particularly vulnerable to an age-old, albeit now illegal, tradition and trade.
“Painted terrapins are stereotypic nesters, which means they use the same nesting sites year after year, and they nest about the same time [too],” says Rick Hudson, the President and CEO of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA). “Historically, for hundreds of years, locals have known where they nest, so it’s easy to go out and harvest their eggs.”
After Guntoro discovered those nine terrapins, he committed himself to conserving the species — decidedly a long shot considering the funding and logistical obstacles. He quit his job at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program and took up the cause for the considerably less charismatic chelonian because, as he puts it, “someone must do something to help this species.”
Initially, his efforts were simple and low tech. He gathered a few dozen eggs — most purchased from fishermen — and incubated them in sand-filled Styrofoam boxes indoors at a nearby house to prevent predation. Only ten eggs hatched that first year.
Then, in 2011, with funding from TSA, the Satucita Foundation built a basic head starting facility to incubate eggs and raise hatchlings. Once the young terrapins grew to about 5 inches, they were released.
These liberation ceremonies were conduced with lots of fanfare and flare. Everyone came out to see the small hatchlings scurry into the water: the chief of police and local military commander, Boy Scout troops and villagers. But this basic incubate-and-release strategy had only a minimum of success. In total, only about 300 hatchlings have been released so far, and last year only 10 percent of the eggs collected hatched.
A better route to terrapin conservation
Dr. Gerardo Garcia, the Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates at the U.K’s Chester Zoo, has a theory about that low hatchling rate. He says that the incubation facility — 12 miles from the nesting beaches — is far from ideal. “Eggs may be sensitive to any kind of shaking or rotation, or significant change in temperature, all of which can have an impact on the embryo. So a very soft, close by, move of the clutches has been the key to success.”
He’s referring to a new strategy that the Satucita Foundation is trying this year, based on guidance from Garcia and Hudson. Bolstered by funding from the Chester, UK and Houston, TX Zoos, as well as the TSA, the foundation has been able to pay for 24/7 patrols on two oceanfront nesting beaches.
No easy task: the security squad has to haul all of its food, water and supplies to the remote nesting beaches. A new team rotates in every two weeks. During the five-month long operation, even Guntoro takes his turn as a guard.
What’s the toughest part of the assignment? “We only get to talk with three people every day. Psychologically that is very stressful, confides Guntoro. “We don’t care about the food, we care about who to talk to!”
The team patrols just after dark and before dawn, walking over seven miles each night. When they find a new clutch, the terrapin squad carefully reburies the eggs in a fenced off area on the same beach. That protects them from wild boars out looking for an easy meal.
Guntoro notes that — in light of the lack of diverse human company — the boars often get offered a greeting: “Actually, the wild boars are very friendly with us. When we feel stressed and we see a wild boar, maybe we’ll say ‘hello!’”
Fishermen out to collect eggs are often not as congenial or as easily dissuaded. “We talk with them, sometimes for one hour. We ask them to please don’t collect these eggs. We tell them that we’re doing this so our children can see this species.”
It helps that Guntoro has hired fishermen as patrol members. “They come from the same village. They know each other.” This tried-and-true local recruiting technique has been successfully practiced for many decades, since renowned herpetologist and pioneer ecologist Archie Carr first employed it in remote Costa Rican beach communities to conserve green sea turtles in the 1950s.
Guntoro says he and his team have, in the end, always been able to persuade locals from taking eggs. Chester Zoo curator Gerardo Garcia says this speaks to the value of involving local people in conservation. “I think if I tried to convince the fishermen [to not take the eggs], our success rate would be very low!”
Unfortunately for the painted terrapins, a third, even more remote, nesting beach — two hours away by boat — remains unprotected, as there isn’t enough money to hire sufficient guards. There’s no telling how many painted terrapin eggs are being poached and predated from those nests.
Statistics show that the battles with boredom, boars and fishermen are paying off. Last year’s dismal 10 percent success rate seen for transported eggs, this year shot up to a 70 percent successful rate for the beachfront guarded eggs — yielding 666 hatchlings, set for release in November.
The Chester Zoo’s Garcia plans to be there when those hatchlings swim free. He hopes to involve Indonesian veterinary students in gathering pre-release baseline health data on the hatchlings. All the young animals will be marked, either with microchips or carapace notches.
Then, Garcia adds, some critical but not very sexy work begins: “Long term monitoring is generally difficult, and generally less attractive in the eyes of supporters and the media. But it’s only by monitoring these releases that you can judge if you’re really doing right.”
Terrapin migration mysteries
There is a lot researchers don’t know about the painted terrapin, including its underwater mating behavior and, most importantly, its patterns of migration.
In December of last year, three hatchlings were released equipped with radio transmitters, a first for this species. Guntoro found that the animals initially traveled an impressive twelve miles away from the release site, but his team hasn’t picked up any signals since May.
Knowing precisely where the painted terrapin is moving and living along the Tamiang River is important. That’s because legislation, spearheaded by the Satucita Foundation, and set for a vote later this year, would designate a protected area for the species. But where exactly should that protected area be and just how big? That’s something conservationists don’t know for certain, and on which they don’t completely agree.
“They can move huge distances,” says TSA’s Hudson, concerning Batagurs, the genus to which the painted terrapin belongs. And radio tracking them is notoriously difficult and time-consuming. “We keep releasing river terrapins — Batagur baska, a species closely related to the painted terrapin — in India and Cambodia, that just disappear and then reappear,” Hudson relates. “Where have they been? One group in Cambodia went out to sea and ended up in another river.
“And in a [place] like Sumatra — where the animal goes out to sea and then finds a river channel and then migrates up it — those are complex ecosystems that don’t lend themselves well to traditional radio tracking.”
Hudson agrees that satellite tracking is the ideal way to monitor far-ranging river terrapins, but it’s expensive. “That’s how they’re learning about sea turtles. But sea turtle [researchers] have a lot of money.”
For now, the Satucita Foundation will have to make do with radio tracking the released terrapins. Garcia agrees the process is tedious, and sometimes unreliable, but says that the data yielded will be vital: “It will create no value if we protect the nesting areas, if, for example, there is a big pressure on the nursery areas. [We] don’t see the juveniles until they become quite big. So where they go is still quite a mystery. Monitoring the species is a big challenge, but that’s only going to happen by individual marking, directly trapping, working with the community if turtles are caught in nets, and by radio tracking.”
Everyone agrees that mapping the travel routes of the painted terrapin is critical to determining optimal conservation strategies. Hudson and Guntoro, for example, are engaged in an ongoing debate regarding the best place to release hatchlings: ocean front beaches versus river locales. The exposed ocean beaches are riskier for young terrapins, but those spots mimic the species’ natural cycle. River releases offer a better chance for survival, but may raise havoc with ocean nesting beach homing instincts — though no one knows for sure.
Guntoro has so far done all his releases into river waters. But for the big release planned this fall, the conservationist isn’t putting all his terrapin eggs in one basket: the foundation will be releasing at both river and ocean locations.
Painted terrapin future
Will this work enable Aceh Tamiang’s painted terrapins to recover and maybe thrive? Garcia urges patience: “That’s not something we’re going to be able to identify for ten years, since this is a long-lived species.”
What will help, he emphasizes, is the linking of conservation for this species to the health and preservation of the region’s mangrove ecosystem. “Everyone [in Indonesia] now connects mangroves with tsunami protection and healthy fisheries,” Garcia points out. “So, from a turtle that you hardly can see unless it’s stuck in a net, you’re talking about human welfare, quality of life, food.”
Based on the most recent nest numbers, Guntoro, who’s also the Associate Editor of the Asian Journal of Conservation Biology, estimates there are now four hundred painted terrapins in the Tamiang River. Elsewhere, in Malaysia on the Setiu River and other streams — where WWF-Malaysia has been working to conserve painted terrapins — numbers may still be viable.
But Guntoro isn’t relying on other organizations and countries to save the species. As part of his effort to discourage egg collection, he’s given presentations to thousands of Indonesian students and villagers educating them about the value of the Critically Endangered species struggling to survive in their midst. And the Indonesian government has recognized that ongoing work: Guntoro was a finalist for this year’s Kalpataru Award, given by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
The researcher is especially looking forward to the release of those hundreds of hatchlings this November — a milestone event for his organization, and hopefully, for the future of painted terrapins in Indonesia.
“I hope that by releasing so many, it can increase the awareness that people have about this rare species here,” he says, so the painted terrapin “can be a source of pride for them.”