PHNOM PENH, April 26 (Xinhua) -- Twenty Cambodia's nearly extinct Royal Turtles were released on Friday into their natural habitat in the Sre Ambel River in southwest Preah Sihanouk province, a conservationist group said.
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 release is the result of nearly two decades of turtle nest protection and care for the young turtles in the Koh Kong Reptile Conservation Centre (KKRCC), and community-based protection of turtles on the Sre Ambel River, said a joint statement issued by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Cambodia's Fisheries Administration (FA).
It was the third release of Royal Turtles into the Sre Ambel River, following previous releases in 2015 and 2017, making a total of 66 turtles, the statement said.
All of the 20 Royal Turtles for release this year were collected after emerging from their nests along the Sre Ambel River and Kampong Leu River in Koh Kong and Preah Sihanouk provinces in 2006 and 2007, and sent to the KKRCC for care before being freed into the wild, said Etienne Delattre, European Union (EU)-Counter Wildlife Trafficking Project coordinator for WCS/Greater Mekong.
The Royal Turtle has been designated as Cambodia's National Reptile by a Royal Decree issued in 2005, the statement said, adding that due to illegal fishing, overexploitation and sand mining, the Sre Ambel River in Koh Kong and Preah Sihanouk provinces is the only place in Cambodia that the species still can be found.
The Royal Turtle was believed extinct in Cambodia until 2000 when a small population was rediscovered by the FA and WCS in the Sre Ambel River. Since then, WCS and FA have been working together to protect the species from extinction, it said.
Conservation activities include nest protection program, head-starting, law enforcement, research and monitoring, prevention of illegal trade, outreach and livelihood support, the statement said.
"The nest protection program plays a vital role to protect the species by paying former egg collectors to protect nests, generating extra income for them and allowing nests to successfully hatch," said Ken Sereyrotha, WCS's country program director.
"The program has released two groups of our head-started Royal Turtles consisting of equal numbers of sub-adult males and females into their natural habitat in 2015 and 2017," he said.
"Our post-release monitoring program has shown that control of threats means that there is high survival of turtles, bringing hope that we can restore the wild population."