At first glance, the centre in which the world’s last viable population of the Cantor’s giant softshell turtle is preserved looks rather underwhelming. A few fish swim lazily above the sand in small fish tanks, and a rusty bicycle squeals in the distance.
Occasionally, monks from the 100-Pillar Pagoda quietly walk past the building’s weathered metal gate in Sambor district, Kratie, where the Mekong Turtle Conservation Centre (MTCC) is located.
Hiding beneath the sand in the 20 square fish tanks are the reasons the centre was built. A hand is swiftly plunged into the fine granules and one of the beasties is out of the water, tasting the air. The Cantor’s giant softshell turtle is critically endangered, limited to this single population five hours’ drive from Phnom Penh.
As Phuong Chantha, a 35-year-old monk and caretaker at the centre, lifts the turtle out of the tank and splashes its body with water, he uncovers its tiny black eyes, long, pointed snout and large, brownish shell that is soft around the outside.
“I love them,” Chantha says as the turtle wiggles its webbed feet rapidly, begging to be released back into the sand where it can hide for up to 12 hours.
These turtles might not be the most aesthetically pleasing creatures at the centre, but they are its pride and joy – and for good reason. Five years ago, the species was thought to be extinct in Cambodia.
“We categorised them as extinct because nobody had seen one [for four years] until 2007, and then suddenly we found one in a fish trap so we started conserving them,” says Yeoung Sun, technical supervisor at the MTCC.
A sustainable solution to preserve the turtles needed to be found, particularly because of the high mortality rate among hatchlings, who fall prey to birds, fish, snakes and monitor lizards. The majority of the 50 or so eggs in every nest are destroyed in just a few days.
“We categorised them as extinct because nobody had seen one [for four years] until 2007, and then suddenly we found one in a fish trap so we started conserving them,”
Giving the turtles a headstart by breeding them for several months before releasing them into the Mekong River seemed a viable way for Conservation International (CI), the NGO that heads the effort, to save the Cantor’s giant softshell turtle.
The MTCC was opened in 2011 and now welcomes several visitors a day, allowing for money to be allocated to conservation efforts. Tourists can also participate in a blessing ceremony before releasing their own turtle into the Mekong.
For the past two years, Chantha has got up in the morning not only to pray inside the historic 100-Pillar Pagoda, but also to lovingly tend to the turtles: A beautiful garden surrounds a large pond, designated for breeding older specimens, and needs to be carefully looked after. The water in the fish tanks requires regular changing and visitors expect informative tours of the small premises.
Chantha enjoys his duties. Two years ago, he had never heard of the Cantor’s giant softshell turtle.
“I was surprised but interested in the project because, growing up, I saw people smuggling turtles to Vietnam and I felt sorry for the animals,” he says.
So far, CI has released about 4,500 hatchlings into the Mekong River. By this stage, they are usually big enough to defy most natural predators. Humans, however, remain the biggest threat to the endangered turtles.
Turtle meat is considered a delicacy in Cambodia, and many turtles are exported to Vietnam, where they are used in traditional medicines. Tea Sok Nay, who lives next to steep sand banks across the Mekong just five minutes by boat from the MTCC, says that many turtle species lay their eggs in the sand adjacent to her home. The prints they leave in the sand make their nests easily detectable; since she was young, turtle eggs were either sold or eaten.
“They are very delicious: much better than chicken or duck eggs. You just boil them. It’s all soft and you can eat the whole turtle [embryo],” Sok Nay says.
About four years ago, after CI established an endangered turtle education program for local villagers, Sok Nay changed her mind.
“First, CI came to educate us, and I told them about a nest that I had found. They asked me if I wanted to take care of it, so I did,” she says of her first endeavour into conservation.
Since then, Sok Nay has cared for three nests for the 50 days it takes for the turtles to hatch. Stored in the back of her stilt house is a long, finely woven net that she uses to enclose the nests, thus protecting them from snakes and monitor lizards.
When the breeding season begins this month, Sok Nay will set out again, sleeping next to the nests before the turtles hatch. She will then release the majority of the turtles into the Mekong and pick out a handful for the headstart programme at the MTCC. For each of the turtles admitted into the programme, she gets $8 from CI.
For some Mekong locals, however, the financial incentive from CI is not enough for them to stop selling turtles for their meat.
A five-minute walk along a narrow dirt path from Sok Nay’s house is the home and small grocery shop belonging to 23-year-old Neng Channa. Selling turtles, the woman admits, is her main source of income.
“Last year, I sold about 300 turtles. Usually, I sell them from here to Vietnam, and I get $10 for one kilogram,” she says, adding that softshell turtles bring in twice as much cash. Chantha, from the MTCC, looks on dumbstruck as Channa speaks about her business.
CI, he says, had asked to build the MTCC on the grounds of the historic 100-Pillar Pagoda in the hope that people would stop hunting the turtles out of respect for the monks who protect them.
By visiting schools and sharing with children the importance of the turtles and their significance to Buddhism, Chantha hopes to educate a new generation of potential poachers.
But people, he adds, are poor, and selling turtles is the only business many of them know.
“I will report Channa to CI. Maybe they can come and talk to her. Maybe they can ask her to be a conservationist as well, and give her some money,” says Chantha.
Channa says she would consider compensation if CI was able to pay her the several thousand dollars she makes by selling the turtles to Vietnam. “It’s a lot of money,” she says.