Cambodia offers a home for one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world

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Kratie, Cambodia — One hundred miles northeast of the capital city of Phnom Pehn, scientists from Conservation International (CI) have partnered with local Buddhist monks from the 100 Pillar Pagoda and the Fisheries Administration (FiA), in a grand-opening ceremony for the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center (MTCC), releasing more than 50 Cantor's softshell turtle adults and hatchlings into a protected conservation pond.
The goal of the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center (MTCC) is the long-term sustainable conservation of the wild population of one of the world's rarest and largest fresh water turtles — the Cantor's softshell turtle, (Pelochelys cantorii) of which the largest known wild population survives in the nearby Mekong River.

Cantor's softshell turtle can grow to over 50kg (110lbs) and more than one meter (four feet) in length. This Endangered species is almost extinct in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, however its 2007 re-discovery in the Kratie province of central Cambodia offered new hope to retaining this rare species for future generations.

To mark the opening of the Center, Buddhist monk Chan Sokpov gave a blessing, and a mature turtle was jointed released into the pond by the partners, as monks marked select turtles with Buddhist symbols in a traditional ritual which they hope will strongly decrease the likelihood of capture by fishermen.

The MTCC is built on the grounds of the 480-year-old, 100 Pillar Pagoda in Kratie province, and is fully supported and co-funded by the monks that still use this site. Constructed in the Chan Reachea king era in 1529, the Wat is already a popular tourist destination and well-known throughout the country. It is 35 km from the town of Kratie and approximately 15 km from the main Irrawaddy dolphin viewing site.

Focusing on a fifty-kilometer stretch of the Mekong River where the turtles habituate, the project is located in an area considered one of the richest freshwater biodiversity areas in Southeast Asia: listed on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.

The outdoor protected pond, formerly a traditional pagoda pond, was reconstructed and converted through funding from the local monks for the MTCC. This pond will be populated with mature turtles, donated by local fishermen to protect an assurance colony of fertile adults and to facilitate captive breeding, for which an adjoining sandbar for nesting was built.

"The Mekong Turtle Conservation Center is a fantastic example of the benefits of partnerships in conservation through the active participation of community, government, religious leaders and conservationists," said Conservation International Greater Mekong Program's Executive Director David Emmett. "Our goal is to conserve Cantor's turtle populations in their natural habitat, the Mekong River, through the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center and the community-led nest protection scheme."

Today, P. cantorii is nationally protected in Cambodia and listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Endangered, (currently under consideration for up-listing to Critically Endangered). Identified threats to the turtle's conservation are fishing for sale into the wildlife trade and the raiding of nests for consumption by locals, as well as increased gold mining along the nest protection sites and the grazing of buffalo leading to nest and habitat damage.

The MTCC is designed primarily to headstart turtle hatchlings, but also to secure what is known as an assurance colony through captive breeding. Headstarting offers hatchlings the opportunity to be raised in captivity where they can mature a size that will increase their survival rate when released. Over time, organizers say, this initiative will facilitate a significant increase in the wild population.

Additionally, the Center seeks to generate revenue to sustain the project and support the neighboring community with its role as an ecotourism attraction and education centre for turtle conservation, teaching Cambodians and tourists alike about the importance of turtle conservation, and the links between healthy ecosystems and healthy communities. Other native species will be kept at the facility to help incentivize tourism, and all entry cost proceeds will go towards the project and flow into the local community to improve the livelihoods of the local community.

The MTCC is the latest development in Conservation International's Cantor's turtle conservation work, following the successful and ongoing community-led "nest protection program" started in 2007. The program offers monetary incentive to villagers who discover nests, and protect those nests while the eggs incubate. Since the project began over four years ago, over 1000 turtles have hatched successfully — with more than 300 alone hatching in the 2010-2011 nesting period alone.

Emmett emphasized the benefits of turtle conservation on communities, describing "the positive effects of ecotourism, the flow on effects of increased income and livelihoods for locals, and the Buddhist beliefs around the importance of turtles and the release of wildlife back into nature."
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