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Rare soft-shell turtle found in Cambodia


Phnom Penh, Cambodia – One of the world’s largest and least studied freshwater turtles has been found in Cambodia’s Mekong River, raising hopes that the threatened species can be saved from extinction.

Scientists from WWF, Conservation International, the Cambodian Fisheries Administration and the Cambodian Turtle Conservation Team captured an 11-kilogramme (24.2-pound) female Cantor’s giant soft-shell turtle during a recent river survey.

“This incredible discovery means that a unique turtle can be saved from disappearing from our planet,” said David Emmett, a wildlife biologist at Conservation International.

“We thought it might be almost gone, but found a number of them on this one pristine stretch of the Mekong, making the area the world’s most important site for saving this particular species.”

Stuck in the mud
Instead of an exterior shell commonly associated with turtles, the Cantor’s giant soft-shell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) has a rubbery skin with ribs fused together to form a protective layer over the internal organs. To protect itself from predators, it spends 95 per cent of its life hidden in sand or mud with only its eyes and nose showing.

The turtle can grow up to 2 metres (6 feet) in length and weigh more than 50 kilogrammes (110 pounds). It also possesses long claws and can extend its neck with lightning speed to bite with jaws powerful enough to crush bone.

“It has the fastest strike of any animal I’ve ever seen, including cobras,” Emmett added.

The researchers also found a nesting ground for the species and brought back eggs that have since hatched. The hatchlings were released into the wild on 8 May, together with another adult turtle and additional hatchlings captured by fishermen.

Last observed by scientists in the wild in Cambodia in 2003, only a few records of the species exist for Laos, and it appears to have disappeared across much of its former range in Vietnam and Thailand.

It is currently classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the same status as tigers and pandas. Threats to its existence include over-harvesting by hunters for its meat and eggs, as well as habitat destruction from dams, irrigation and dredging.

River survey
The stretch of Mekong River where the turtles were found is an area that had been closed for many years to scientific exploration because it was one the last strongholds of Cambodia’s former Khmer Rouge regime. The river survey was the first detailed study of the area since security restrictions were relaxed in the late 1990s.

“Our survey work to date has documented some of the highest freshwater biodiversity values in the entire Lower Mekong Basin,” said Mark Bezuijen of WWF’s Mekong Programme, who led the team.

“During our survey we also discovered an entirely new plant species, Amorphophallus Sp., along with populations of such threatened species as terns, fish eagles, green peafowl, otters and silvered leaf-monkeys. More than 180 fish species were recorded, including one identified as a new species of spiny eel.

Bezuijen described the area where the turtle was discovered as “a near pristine region of tall riverine forest, waterways and island archipelagos where further exciting biological discoveries will almost certainly be made.”

A further survey of the area by an international team of flora and fauna experts is planned for July 2007.


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