Khiri Reach: Helping to Save Myanmar’s Indigenous Tortoises and Turtles
I am very excited to share with you one of our new Khiri Reach projects that is up and running since September 2017.
I will be honest, I have always loved the members of the Chelonian* family and grew up with a pet common tortoise whom had been rescued from the side of the road after being hit by a car. His name was ET (Ernie Tortoise) and I quickly realized, that despite their appearance and reputation for being slow and cold, that ET was a friendly, affectionate, loving character that made himself very comfortable in the midst of all the other animals we had in our home. He learnt to come when his name was called, would wander around the house, but always knew to return to his box when it was feeding time. He would even come along for a tickle under his neck and a little snuggle whenever I was sitting on the floor of the living room.
So, naturally, when Edwin Briels, the GM of Khiri Travel Myanmar told be about the breeding program of the Burmese Star Tortoise (which is an endangered species originally from the dry zone in Myanmar and in urgent need of protection) running at the Minzontaung Wildlife Sanctuary, I got very excited and wanted to see what could be done to help.
The project, which was set up by the Myanmar Government and is supported by WCS and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), has been running since 1999. Their initiatives also include other flora and fauna conservation projects involving 45 kinds of plants, 30 kinds of butterflies and 70 kinds of birds. However, conservation and breeding programs are not cheap and we quickly realized that they needed help in different ways. After discussions and meetings, we finalized that the important points we could help with included:
- Setting up the information center, creating informative and factual presentation boards in English and Burmese to help educate the local villagers as well as visitors to the center.
- Bringing visitors to the center so that funds could be generated in a sustainable and responsible way.
- The center was is disrepair and they needed some equipment to help improve the welfare of the animals in the reserve.
Step 1: We created a mascot named ZOZO and he is featured on 20 large information boards with infographics and more pictures to explain about the tortoises, their history, the program and other details about the conservation project that we knew would be interesting for both local and foreign visitors. We also shared the laws and punishment for illegally trafficking or catching these endangered creatures. According to the 1994 protective law, punishment is seven years in prison and fines of 50,000 kyat (US$36) or more. The boards were printed on large vinyl posters and are now installed in bamboo frames around the visitor area. Total cost was 840,000 kyat ($615).
Step 2: We developed a 1 ½ hour’s excursion that allows visitors to come to the center. They get to visit the ranger station and learn more about the Burmese star tortoise. The unique part of the project is the walk with the rangers through the forest with a tracking device to locate some of the tortoises in the wild and see them in their natural habitat. The walk then continues to the breeding center to see more of the tortoises. Here visitors can also help feed the tortoises and to see how they are kept pre-release in special areas where they learn how to fend for themselves, before their actual reintroduction into the wild. To complete the cycle and see how the whole system works, visitors are then taken to the baby tortoise pens for a glimpse of these cute little creatures.
With Khiri Travel’s assistance – and hopefully other tour operators will join soon too – clients are now being brought to the center as part of our packages that run overland between Mandalay and Bagan. By including a stop at the wildlife center for every client travelling, a regular source of funding and income has been created that benefits the reserve, the rangers and other staff, as well as the conditions for the tortoises themselves.
Step 3: With funds from Khiri Reach, a new generator was purchased for the tortoise center. Due to very poor water conditions, especially in the dry season, the lack of clean water was affecting both the tortoises in the center and those that have been released. The generator runs a water pump, bringing in clean water from the nearest lake in the park; providing a guaranteed supply of water and greatly improving conditions. The cost was 675,000 kyat ($500).
Step 4: Over 200 special souvenirs and products were donated to fill the information center to sell to the clients who visit and generate further income. A list of contact details and producers of the items, along with the purchase price and recommended selling price was produced, so that the center could be in charge directly and could restock when the items sold out. We also had a local Burmese artist Mr. Htin Lynn Nyo, create gorgeous tortoise designs that have been printed on t-shirts and fabric bags which are being sold at the center. The cost of this set up was about 969,500 kyat ($720).
The ultimate objective is to restore viable populations of star tortoises in every protected area within the dry zone of central Myanmar (their natural historic range). The Burmese star tortoise is found only within the dry zone of Myanmar, a desert-like region in the center of the country. The tortoises are vegetarians but eat animal carrion on occasion. They lay fairly large clutches (for a tortoise) of eggs and lay several times during a prolonged breeding season. The hatchlings remain underground until the seasonal rains begin, allowing them to dig out of the nest chamber.
Although small and often over-looked when compared to larger and more glamorous animals such as elephants and tigers, tortoises and turtles are just as important to natural ecosystems in ways that we do not yet understand. For example, star tortoises are very important as seed dispersers and grazers in dry zone forests and no doubt play a role in nutrient cycling. It is important that we gain a better understanding of star tortoises and restore them as functional members of the dry zone ecosystem.
The Minzontaung Wildlife Sanctuary has really been doing an excellent job in breeding tortoises and releasing them back into the wild. In addition to Burmese star tortoises, TSA and WCS are also breeding Burmese roofed turtles for release. This turtle is even more endangered than the star tortoise and fewer than 10 survive in the wild. The turtle is endemic to the larger rivers in Myanmar and was once hyper-abundant. The center now has about 700 in captivity and a trial release was conducted in 2015 with mixed results. Other species the center is breeding in captivity include Asian giant brown tortoises, Arakan forest turtles, Burmese eyed turtles, Burmese peacock softshell turtles, and narrow-headed softshell turtles.
* Any of various reptiles of the order Chelonia (or Testudines), which includes turtles and tortoises. Chelonians lack teeth and usually have a hard shell that protects the body and consists of bony plates fused to the vertebrae and ribs.