PHNOM PENH – One hundred rare turtle hatchling’s have been released into the Mekong River in Cambodia as part of conservation efforts, after receiving a traditional Buddhist blessing from monks.
Listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and found mainly in Southeast Asia, the critically endangered Cantor’s giant soft-shelled turtle was believed to be extinct in Cambodia until it was rediscovered in the Mekong River in northeastern Kratie province in 2007.
Since that rediscovery, Conservation International (CI), a US-based environmental NGO, has made inroads into protecting the species and ensuring its continued survival in Cambodia.
Two years ago, CI set up a hatchling program, raising baby turtles in its Mekong Turtle Conservation Center and then releasing them back into the wild.
Since last year, 200 new turtles have been raised at the centre.
“Pelochelys cantorii, or Cantor’s soft-shell turtles, are the main species we focus on protecting here at the centre,” said Tracey Farrell, the technical director of CI Cambodia.
“They are under severe threat of extinction, and they may disappear from the Earth altogether without strict conservation intervention.”
Through the efforts of the Mekong Turtle Conservation Centre, as well as local fishermen, who have helped protect wild turtle nests, CI has protected over 100 nests and produced over 4,000 turtles.
“Over time local turtle consumption has reduced, so we believe the message is spreading,” said Yoeung Sun, CI’s Mekong project leader.
Friday’s hatchling release, which was attended by officials from Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration, marked the beginning of what CI wants to become a popular eco-tourism activity.
During the turtles’ breeding season from May to June this year, visitors will for the first time be able to take part in the turtle releases.
“As well as getting the public directly involved in conservation, we hope this activity will raise essential funds for the turtle conservation work under way here,” Sun said.
Monks from the 100 Pillar Pagoda, which donated the land that the conservation centre is built on, have been instrumental in educating the local community about protecting the turtle nests. They bless the turtles before their release, praying for their protection and a long life.
The monks also mark the blessed turtles, which CI said it hopes will reduce the likelihood of them being hunted for food. This is based on the Buddhist belief in karma, and that if you save an animal’s life, in the future someone may save your life.