The Annam leaf turtle recovery project, Vietnam

Text by Henk Zwartepoorte

Since 2001 the Vietnam freshwater turtle (Mauremys annamensis) is kept at the Rotterdam Zoo collection. It is a less striking species. The fact that the species was supposed to be extinct in the wild was however a good reason the take the species into the collection. From different private collections 3 pairs could be formed. Already in 2003 the first births could be reported. Between 2003 and 2011 28 animals hatched. Reproduction in captivity and as such conservation of the species can be considered a success already. A recovery project in the original habitat however is another challenge for a modern zoo like Rotterdam Zoo.

Annam leaf turtle at Rotterdam Zoo (Photo: Henk Zwartepoorte)

Annam leaf turtle at Rotterdam Zoo (Photo: Henk Zwartepoorte)

The status of the species in Vietnam
Until 2007 the original habitat of the species was not exactly known. It was presumed to be central Vietnam, an area being a war zone for many decades. The species was supposed to be extinct in the wild and described based on specimens from the human food markets. Main reason for its decline is human consumption not only in Vietnam but also in surrounding countries with China as main importer. In 2007 a study started on the status of the species by the Turtle Conservation Centre at Cuc Phuong in Northern Vietnam. Inquiries among local people and several field surveys showed the species was not extinct. Luckily a few very small scattered populations were confirmed.

A turning point
For conservationists in Vietnam this was a good reason to set up a broad conservation and recovery program together with local authorities and global NGOs. Support from the Turtle Survival Alliance was also granted. As TSA Europe is settled at the Rotterdam Zoo the commitment was quickly assessed. In the course of 2011 and 2012 Rotterdam Zoo started to play a coordinating role between the different international partners.

Subadult Annam leaf turtle at Rotterdam Zoo (Photo: Henk Zwartepoorte)

Subadult Annam leaf turtle at Rotterdam Zoo (Photo: Henk Zwartepoorte)

The conservation and recovery project
One of the aims was to send captive born animals to Vietnam. This could not happen without exactly determining and protecting the original habitat as well as assessing the numbers of turtles still living in that habitat. Staff members of the Cuc Phuong Turtle Centre plaid a vital role in these components. Subsequently the original habitat, in use by local farmers, existed out of rice fields had to be restored. These lands had to be bought from the local people. This turned out to be not so easy and took some time. IUCN Netherlands played an active role and by tactic negotiations this was brought to a good end for both partners. IUCN Netherlands also contributed financially. Local authorities developed an awarenss program in close cooperation with Education for Nature Vietnam . Involvement by local people is an indispensable component in projects such as this.

Status December 2012
Next to obtaining animals and availability of original habitat an additional aim is to build a breeding centre in the original habitat. The habitat also needs to be protected and secured and fenced. The Rotterdam Zoo and Friends of the Rotterdam Zoo financially contributed to the building of the fences. Reintroduction of captive born animals is only possible after thorough veterinary and genetically screening. The Europe born animals at the zoos of Munster in Germany and Rotterdam as well as at the private collection of Mr. Herbert Becker has been DNA tested and they all proved to be 100% sure Mauremys annamensis. As soon as the CITES import documents in Vietnam are issued early 2013 around 80 animals will be shipped to the Cuc Phuong Centre near Hanoi where they will remain for veterinary screening before transferring them to central Vietnam. The animals already kept and bred at Cuc Phuong as well as wild caught animals will be genetically tested as well. The DNA-testing is already prepared and budgeted in Vietnam. Rotterdam Zoo will financially support these DNA tests. Also in the USA collecting of suitable captive born animals is currently executed and these animals will be genetically tested in the USA prior to a future shipping to Vietnam.

Partners in this conservation and recovery project
IUCN Netherlands, Turtle Survival Alliance, Rotterdam Zoo, Munster Zoo, Education for Nature Vietnam, Turtle Conservation Centre Vietnam (TCC), Friends of Rotterdam Zoo, private breeder and sponsor of shipping costs Herbert Becker and last but not least Tim McCormack and Bui Phong and their staff at the Cuc Phuong Centre and Dough Hendrie and his wife at Education for Nature Vietnam. Also important to mention is the awareness and initiative by the Vietnamese authorities to initiate the recovery of a critically endangered species and its habitat.