Hunted turtles find sanctuary at golf course and primary school in Siem Reap

Hunted turtles find sanctuary at golf course and primary school
Written by KYLE SHERER
Thursday, 25 June 2009

The private sector is working with a wildlife conservation NGO to
safeguard Siem Reap's population of endangered turtles, which are
being traded on the black market as food.

The Angkor Golf Resort and the Jay Pritzker Academy are working with
the Angkor Centre for the Conservation of Biodiversity to provide safe
havens for critically endangered turtles that have been confiscated
during government raids from markets where the animals were being sold
by the kilo to turn into stew.

Turtles are considered a delicacy by Cambodians, and the demand for
their meat is high enough to support an illegal trade, pushing many
species toward extinction. While police can confiscate turtles from
poachers, the more difficult task is finding a safe area to release

Putting them back in their habitats just replenishes the population
for poachers, so to establish a permanent home for the turtles
requires a little imagination.

Jim Gubricky, golf course superintendant at the Angkor Golf Resort,
said the resort started fostering turtles about 18 months ago. "The
wife of a guy who used to work here saw a bunch of turtles being sold
in the market. She bought them all - probably about 50 or 60 - brought
them to the course and released them."

Gubricky and Markus Handschuh, animal collection manager at the Angkor
Centre for the Conservation of Biodiversity, also decided to work
together to release turtles taken in by the wildlife centre.

The Angkor Golf Resort has three wetland areas and a large lake system
that is a frustrating area to lose a ball in, but the perfect habitat
for a reclusive turtle. Gubricky said the course, which also has
several designated "natural areas" with indigenous trees and
uncultivated grass, is designed to attract native animals. "It's all
about trying to make this course a natural haven - whether it's for
turtles, birds or whatever."

Making the course environmentally friendly was an important part of
the Angkor Golf Resort design, Gubricky said. As soon as the course
was completed, Gubricky joined Audubon International, a nonprofit
organisation that works with golf courses to create environmentally
friendly areas. In March, Gubricky said that the Angkor Golf Resort
earned a certificate for environmental planning from Audubon after
conducting bird surveys at the course with the Sam Veasna Centre
conservation NGO.

The bird survey found that the resort is home to 37 different types of
birds, and the Angkor Golf Resort is now working with the Sam Veasna
Centre to increase the bird population at the course.

But with the turtles, Handschuh said, "At the Angkor Golf Resort,
we've released Asiatic softshell turtles, giant Asian pond turtles and
yellow-headed temple turtles. All these species are red-listed by the
International Union for Conservation of Nature and face a high risk of
extinction in the wild. The turtles will do well in their new
locations, as we assessed the habitat suitability before deciding
which species to release and how many. And the turtles are regularly
observed by the property owners and staff."

Monitoring by the staff is an important part of the programme, but
initially, Gubricky was worried that the staff were observing the
turtles a little too closely. "The staff took a little training,
because they think of turtles as food," he said. "Now we're at the
point where we don't have to worry about the staff, but when we
brought the turtles in at first you could see their eyes light up."

Now the only real problem, Gubricky said, is the turtles leaving the
water and wandering off, possibly into open traffic or the open arms
of passersby. "Sometimes turtles will leave the wetlands and crawl out
of the course, there's no stopping them really," said Gubricky. "My
staff told me I should sign my name on the shells. Apparently, it's
bad luck to eat a turtle when someone has done that. So that'll be
standard procedure from now."

Three weeks ago, the Angkor Centre for the Conservation of
Biodiversity started to release turtles at a new location, the Jay
Pritzker Academy.

The prestigious free primary school is surrounded by large wetland
areas that are now home to four Indochinese snail-eating turtles.

Handschuh hopes that the turtles will start breeding at the school,
and if he sees evidence that they're thriving, he plans to introduce
more vulnerable species.

Gubricky and Handschuh said that the turtle releases at the golf
course are a success, but expanding the programme to other species
might be problematic. "There's a limit to what you can put on a golf
course," said Gubricky. "Crocodiles are out. But maybe we could take
some of the bigger lizards, creatures people won't be afraid of."