Elevate survival prospects for river terrapins

Project Title:
Elevate survival prospects for the critically endangered southern river terrapin (Batagur affinis) of Terengganu, Malaysia, through research, conservation, local community participation, public outreach and education.

Funding Agency:
United States Fish and Wildlife Service

Project Duration:
January – December 2010

The objectives of the project were:

  1. To provide a record and assessment of the current nesting density and conservation status of B. affinis in all the river systems of Terengganu.
  2. To continue with current conservation and research activities on B. affinis conducted by the project manager in the Setiu River and to initiate similar activities in the Besut River.
  3. To elucidate major threats to the species in the different river systems.
  4. To involve and engage local communities in conserving the species and securing a future for them.
  5. To raise public awareness on terrapins in Terengganu and to involve the general public in protecting them.
  6. To develop a recovery plan for B. affinis in Terengganu. This will include the need to revise and upgrade existing legislation.

Specific project activities included the following:

Survey river systems in Terengganu for presence of B. affinis where there is no official record of its occurrence and identify additional rivers for implementation of conservation programs.

The ten major rivers found in Terengganu, i.e. Besut, Keluang Besar, Setiu, Terengganu, Marang, Merchang, Dungun, Paka, Kerteh and Kemaman Rivers were surveyed to determine the presence, current nesting density and conservation status of river terrapins in the respective rivers. From the interviews, we found that apart from the Setiu, Terengganu and Dungun Rivers, the river terrapins also exist in the Besut, Kerteh and Kemaman Rivers. However, the river terrapins in the Kerteh and Kemaman Rivers have not been documented.

Fishermen from Sungai Keluang Besar

Fishermen from Sungai Keluang Besar

Si En, student volunteer at work

Si En, student volunteer at work

Serious discussion taking place

Serious discussion taking place

Group picture with fishermen from Kampung Bukit Keluang

Group picture with fishermen from Kampung Bukit Keluang

Determine and assess threats to the survival of B. affinis in the rivers systems where it occurs.

Questions on the major threats to the survival of B. affinis in the rivers of Terengganu were incorporated into the questionnaire. The threats are attributed to traditional fishing methods in the river such as hooks and lines (pancing), large hooks suspended from tree branches (tauk), drift nets (pukat hanyut), long lines (rawai), cast nets (jala), fish traps (bubu) and prawn traps (gogoh). Other threats identified from the interviews with the fishermen included agricultural practices near rivers, sand-mining and large scale shrimp farming in the Setiu River.

We found that the threats to the survival of the river terrapins are similar throughout the rivers in Terengganu, with the exception of the Setiu River where the construction of a 1000-hectare shrimp farm has begun despite numerous complaints filed by the Kampung Beris Tok Ku Coastal Fishermen’s Alliance, resort operators in the area and NGOs such as TCS and WWF-Malaysia.

In the other rivers, the most apparent threats to the river terrapins are related to fishing activities. Most respondents agree that the large hooks that are suspended from tree branches are fatal, as are long lines and drift nets. However, it was also agreed that the mortality of river terrapins could be significantly reduced if the nets were checked regularly enough. Apart from fishing activities, sand-mining is the single most destructive activity that not only alters the course of the river in which the river terrapins inhabit, but also destroys potential nesting banks.

Intensify purchase of B. affinis eggs in the Setiu River, optimize hatch rates and head-starting processes, with local community participation.

This year, we talked to all the villagers and fishermen involved in the collection of river terrapin eggs during the nesting season (from January to March). We also held two dinners in two villagers in order to forge a closer relationship with them. Out of the 30-odd clutches of eggs that were deposited, we have only managed to purchase four clutches (91 eggs) for incubation and produced 56 hatchlings.

Forty-three hatchlings have been released upon emergence, and the remaining 13 hatchlings are being head-started by Malek b. Yunus and his family. They have also been helping us head-start 100 river terrapins in the compound of their house since December 2009. Ten terrapins were released by sponsors from Nestle Malaysia, 60 terrapins were released with the children of Mangkok Village, in conjunction with “World Turtle Day” and 20 terrapins were released with Joey, a yoga instructor and her students.

Spectators watch kids releasing terrapins

Spectators watch kids releasing terrapins

Excited over releasing terrapins

Excited over releasing terrapins

What a joy to behold these happy faces

What a joy to behold these happy faces

To many children, this is the first time they are releasing a terrapin

To many children, this is the first time they are releasing a terrapin

Continue monitoring work on growth, distribution and performance of head-started terrapins in the Setiu River through recaptures from fishers and tracking studies.

The B. affinis mark-and-recapture activity in the Setiu River has been carried out since January 2010. To date, a total of 109 B. affinis have been sampled from terrapins caught in fishermen’s nets. Ninety of them were those head-started by our project and had been microchipped at the time of release. The remaining ten terrapins that did not bear microchips were of various sizes and were duly microchipped before release. Of the 109 terrapins sampled, 75 were recaptured once and 12 terrapins recaptured twice.

In terms of the involvement of the local community, a total of 17 fishermen and six villagers (non-fishermen) have participated in this project. Apart from those terrapins that were found or caught in fishing nets in the Setiu River, a total of eight adult female river terrapins (post-nesters) were also surrendered to the project during the river terrapin nesting season from January to March. Four of these were encountered for the first time and duly microchipped, while the remaining four already had an existing microchip.

Carry out a state-wide awareness campaign on freshwater turtles in Terengganu and secure public participation in freshwater turtle conservation.

Two turtle awareness programs have been conducted in holiday resorts during the school vacation. The educational posters were exhibited and explanations given to those interested. Turtle-related activities were carried out with children and a recently published storybook entitled “Little Turtle Messenger” were sold to raise funds. Visitors were encouraged to participate in the “Say No to Turtle Eggs” campaign by signing a petition.

Several companies/organizations have requested to use the educational posters that were developed by TCS in their premises. One such company was The Reef Dive Resort on Mataking Island, Sabah, Malaysia. The posters were emailed to Ms. Amelia Ng, who later printed and displayed the posters in the Bulletin Board at the dive resort. The posters were also developed and put up at the Juara Turtle Project and the newly-established TAT Turtle Sanctuary, both on Tioman Island, Pahang, Malaysia. Additionally, the educational posters were also printed and displayed during a month-long turtle awareness campaign organized by the staff of PriceWaterhouseCoopers Malaysia.

Turtle Awareness Programs were also conducted in primary schools located near rivers in which river terrapins are believed to occur. A total of 15 schools were short-listed for this program. The program is open to all schoolchildren in Year 5 (11-year-olds), but in schools with a small enrollment, children in Year Six (12-year-olds) were included as well. The awareness programs were concluded in October 2010, with the participation of 505 students.

Prof. Chan giving the first half of the talk to the participants.

Camp participants playing the Terrapin Action Game.

They just don't get enough camera time! :D

Camp participants posing with their bags/certificates/books.

Produce a recovery plan for B. affinis in Terengganu that incorporates the need to revise and upgrade existing legislation.

A recovery plan for the B. affinis was produced.