21 July 2005

Microchip saves rare turtle

They're calling him "the lucky royal turtle" a rare and endangered reptile that was saved from a likely fate in a Chinese soup pot by keen-eyed wildlife officers and a tiny microchip.

Poachers snatched the animal, a species called "Royal Turtle" in Cambodia because its eggs were once fed to kings, from a Cambodian river two months ago and toted it across the Vietnamese border on a motorbike along with a stash of other, more common, turtles.

Conservationists said that at 15kg, the animal was sure to have fetched a good price when it reached the smuggler's destination food markets in China, where turtle meat is a delicacy often made into soup.

But a raid on the smuggler's house in southern Vietnam's Tay Ninh province was the turtle's first stroke of good luck.

About 30 turtles were confiscated and transported to a local wildlife inspection centre, where workers noticed there was something different about this one.

"My staff said they had never seen a turtle that big," said Ta Van Dao, head of the forest control bureau in Tay Ninh. "Its head and eyes were also different from the regular turtles."

'I was very surprised...'
The Vietnamese wildlife officials consulted an endangered species book, then called Doug Hendrie, an Asian turtle specialist in Hanoi for the New York-based World Conservation Society, and told him they thought they had a Batagur baska, or Asian river terrapin.

At first, Hendrie thought the wildlife officers must be joking.

"I was very surprised when I heard they had a Batagur baska down there," said Hendrie, who also works for the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. "Initially I said, 'What else do they have? A lion? A zebra?"'

But a photo soon confirmed it was a Batagur baska, a species thought to have disappeared in Cambodia until it was rediscovered in 2001. Conservationists later began tagging the animals with tracking devices and monitoring their nests, and King Norodom Sihamoni personally ordered their protection.

That led to the captured terrapin's next good fortune. When officials inspected it in Ho Chi Minh City, they found a microchip implanted under its wrinkly skin, pinpointing its exact home on the Sre Ambel River in southern Cambodia.

Hendrie said there are only about two to eight females remaining there, making this adult male turtle's return even more vital. It was tagged for research two years ago and had not been seen until its discovery in Vietnam.

Vietnamese and Cambodians officials worked together to repatriate the turtle. He was shipped back to Cambodia last week and is undergoing health checks before being released back into the wild.

Source: www.news24.com


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