Unknown risk of extinction
What are the chances of animals, sought-after in the global animal trade, escaping the snares of greedy poachers? For the Roti Island snake-necked turtle, its population reflects its odds. One of the rarest reptiles in the world, it has not even been seen in the wild since 2009.
Though very rare, this turtle can be found on Roti Island, which is part of the Lesser Sunda chain of islands off Indonesia. An area of only 27 square miles – less than one tenth the size of Singapore, much of the island has been converted for agricultural purposes. As farmers source water for their crops from the lakes, the turtles are also losing their wetland habitats. Pesticides and herbicides used for farming are also killing off the turtle’s natural food sources. Apart from this, the turtle has also been hunted by humans for its supposed medicinal value, while its meat and eggs are also consumed as food.
Recognising the need for human intervention, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) have retrieved a few founding groups of the turtles in order to create assurance colonies in the United States, Europe and Australia. These colonies will give turtles a chance to grow their numbers in safety – away from human and animal predators.
First, a genetic study of the species and its sub-species was conducted to determine how much genetic diversity remained in this captive population. Then the turtles were divided into colonies that are as genetically diverse as possible – no siblings in one colony – so that they could breed viable offspring.
WCS and TSA have also been assessing alternative wild habitats, where the turtles can be eventually reintroduced. Ideally, the colonies should be scattered in as many places as possible to increase the chances of the species’ survival.
In partnership with WCS, TSA and Turtle Island Austria, Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) is housing an assurance colony in Singapore Zoo to safeguard the species, making us the only assurance colony for the Roti Island snake-necked turtle in Asia. We have 26 turtles under our care, sent to us from breeding programmes in the United States and Austria. In the spirit of continuing coordinated efforts towards the conservation of the species, our keepers and veterinarians have engaged in capacity building to train visiting teams from Roti Island, showing them what is involved in captive husbandry and how regular, rigorous checks are performed to ensure the turtles remain healthy. The hope is that our resident turtles and their offspring will eventually be released in appropriately identified safe habitats on Roti Island.
In 2017, WRS also co-hosted a workshop along with the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) tortoise and freshwater turtle taskforce. This meeting highlighted how these reptile species around the world are being threatened by illegal wildlife trade. This taskforce is constantly working on improving strategies for the conservation of freshwater turtles and terrapins in Asia as well.
It’s too early to brand the programme a success. Also, we don't have numbers to boast about at this point. However, it's sufficient to say that the turtles in the colonies are maturing and growing. In time, they'll be introduced back into the wild, but in a habitat where they can live in relative safety.
At the same time, we'll continue to engage and educate the community about the rarity of these turtles, in order to discourage poaching.
Just like the turtles it seeks to save, our programme is making progress – slowly but steadily.