PHNOM PENH, Nov. 13 (Xinhua) -- Twenty-five Cambodia's nearly-extinct Royal Turtles were released on Monday into their natural habitat in southwestern Koh Kong province's Sre Ambel river, the only place in Cambodia where the species is found, a conservationist group said.
After undergoing health examinations by veterinarians from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), all 25 sub-adult turtles were fitted with acoustic transmitters that will allow researchers to monitor their survival and seasonal movements, and to better understand their habitat use within the river, said a joint statement issued by the Cambodia's Fisheries Administration (FiA) and WCS.
The Royal Turtle, also known as Southern River Terrapin (Batagur affinis), is one of the world's most endangered freshwater turtles and is listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as Critically Endangered, the statement said.
The species lives only in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, and its global wild population numbers less than 500 mature individuals, it said, adding that it was designated Cambodia's National Reptile by Royal Decree in 2005.
Som Sitha, WCS's technical advisor to Koh Kong Conservation Project, said the recent ban of sand dredging along the Sre Ambel river by the Cambodian government was vital to safeguard the only known natural habitat and breeding ground of Royal Turtles.
"We will be able to monitor the movement of the released animals, their habitat utilization and survival rate," he said. "These data will allow conservationists of FiA and WCS to better plan and manage this species-a huge step forward in our ability to recover the population."
"We are optimistic about this release because we succeeded in 2015 when we released 21 Royal Turtles into the Sre Ambel system. After two years of regular monitoring, we found that over 85 percent of them are still alive," he added.
The species is still known locally in Cambodia as the "Royal Turtle" because historically the eggs were considered a delicacy protected for the king, the statement said. More recently, however, they have been pushed to the brink of extinction largely due to unsustainable harvesting of both eggs and adults.
As a result of this persecution the Royal Turtle was believed extinct in Cambodia until 2000 when a small population was re-discovered by the FiA and WCS in the Sre Ambel river.
Ouk Vibol, director of fisheries conservation department of the FiA, said that FiA, in collaboration with WCS, has been working to conserve the Royal Turtles for nearly 20 years.
He said efforts have ranged from nest and habitat protection, to education and awareness, to the construction by WCS and FiA of the Koh Kong Reptile Conservation Center for housing, rearing and breeding the turtle species.
"Collection of eggs or adults for consumption or sale is illegal in Cambodia. Everyone can help conserve the Royal Turtle by not buying or eating their meat or eggs," he said.