Ultimate Easter Eggs? Endangered Turtle's Rare Eggs Discovered and Under Guard

Forty-four fertile eggs for one of the most critically endangered turtles have just been discovered, and are now in a protected incubation site with 24/7 monitoring.

Each year, a team of scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Turtle Survival Alliance goes on an egg hunt that is a life-or-death event for one of the rarest reptiles on the planet: the Burmese roofed turtle (Batagur trivittata). Less than five female Burmese roofed turtles remain in the wild, so finding their fertile eggs is like winning the ultimate Easter egg hunt, with the survival of the turtle’s entire species at stake.

“It’s a real nail biter, not knowing if the eggs will prove fertile or not,” Steven Platt, a regional herpetologist for the WCS Myanmar Program, told Seeker. “When we see the first sign of banding, it’s an overwhelming relief. Everything depends on finding that handful of fertile eggs.”

Banding refers to a chalky white blotch or stripe in the middle of the turtle eggs, which can form when an embryo attaches itself to the inner wall of the shell.

Such eggs are incredibly rare. In 2014, just a single viable egg was found. None were discovered the following year. A handful were located in 2016, but this year, Platt and his colleagues discovered forty-four, which is a veritable baby boom for the critically endangered turtle.

The eggs are now in an incubation site established in sand bars along the Chindwin River in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma. Fencing surrounds the precious eggs, which receive 24/7 monitoring from villagers that reside in a nearby hut.

Educating locals about the endangered turtles has been an important effort, since over-harvesting the eggs contributed to the reptile’s drop in numbers.

“Known nesting areas were assigned to certain families, and the egg collections were a big social event,” Platt explained. “The villagers always left a few eggs to insure the next generation of turtles. Unfortunately they didn't leave enough and the population has long been in a downward spiral for probably well over 100 years.”

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Local dogs, pigs, monitor lizards, and other animals are known to dig up the eggs and consume them too. Incidental loss of the adult turtles in fishing gear and habitat loss pose additional threats to the species.

For decades, scientists even thought that the gentle little turtle, with its often yellow-hued head and sunny smile-like expression, went extinct. In 2001, however, Platt and his team found the shell of a recently killed female Burmese roofed turtle along the Dokhtawady River. Since then, individual turtles of this species have been found. Populations are now maintained in captivity at the Yadanabon Zoological Gardens in Mandalay and at the Lawkanandar Wildlife Sanctuary in Bagan.

A major goal is to strengthen the wild population of these turtles. Hopefully all 44 eggs will produce hatchlings, which are expected to come out of their shells in early June.

At that point, the researchers will transfer the young turtles to large pools located in a fenced outdoor compound at their basecamp: Camp Batagur, located in Limpha Village on the upper part of Chindwin River. The location is incredibly remote.

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 “You won’t find Limpha on any map,” explained Platt. “It’s a tiny village — 34 dwellings, not all of which are inhabited. There is no road access, no electricity or other amenities.”

When the hatchlings become adults in about four to five years, they will be released back into the river, where it is hoped they will continue to grow and strengthen the wild population. The WCS is working to help restore the riverine system, to benefit not only the turtles, but also other animals in the area and the villagers.

It is suspected that Burmese roofed turtles can live very long lives, so studies on them could shed light on longevity in the animal kingdom. Because their reproductive rates are very slow, restoring their numbers in the wild will take many years of hard work.

“You know, I often borrow a quote from the Duke of Wellington when people ask me about our struggle to save this turtle,” Platt said. “After Waterloo someone asked the Duke to describe the battle. He simply replied, ‘It was a damn close-run thing.’ Our fight to save the Burmese roofed turtle has been, and continues to be, a damn close-run thing.”

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