KFI researchers releasing the turtles into the wild. | Photo courtesy of Mandai Nature and Katala Foundation Inc.

A Palawan-based conservation organization on Friday announced a breakthrough in the conservation of the critically endangered Palawan Forest Turtle (Siebenrockiella leytensis), with an unprecedented release into the wild of two individuals that had been bred under human care.

“For the first time ever, two Palawan Forest Turtles (Siebenrockiella leytensis) that were bred under human care have been released back to the wild in a protected area within the range of the species in Palawan, Philippines,” the Katala Foundation Inc (KFI) said in a statement furnished to Palawan News.

Photo courtesy of Mandai Nature and Katala Foundation Inc.

Thought to be extinct, the Palawan Forest Turtle is endemic to the Philippines and was rediscovered only in 2004 after eighty years of absence. Listed as one of the top 25 endangered turtles in the world, the enigmatic Palawan Forest Turtle is highly sought after in the illegal wildlife trade, prized by collectors for its rarity. The species is also faced with habitat loss and degradation, putting it at extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.

KFI said he release took place in February 2021 after they received a Wildlife Clearance from the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff (PCSDS).

“The pair is the first two recorded hatchlings of the species under human care in 2018, from parents that had been cared for many years at KFI’s assurance colony facilities in Palawan. After nearly three years in the facility, it was determined that they were ready to be released back to the wild,” it stated.

A radio transmitted was attached to the turtles prior to their release, as part of the ongoing research on the species. | Photo courtesy of Mandai Nature and Katala Foundation Inc.

Weighing between 370 and 590 grams with body lengths of 13 to 16 cm, the two juveniles have grown to a size large enough where threat from natural predators is reduced thus increasing their chances of survival. Palawan Forest Turtles can grow to a length of more than 30 cm. Small radio transmitters were attached to the individual turtles to monitor and track their movements in the wild for the first three months after the release.

“Preliminary analysis of the telemetry data revealed that the turtles travelled an average of 70 m within the stream in 24 hours. Their movements are concentrated near the release site in an area covering 1,000 m2 . The turtles will also be monitored through annual mark-recapture studies after the transmitters are removed. Data collected will deepen the knowledge and understanding of the behaviour of the species, allowing conservationists to enhance and increase the success of conservation efforts for the species,” the KFI stated.

“Known to be notoriously difficult to breed under human care, KFI and Mandai Nature have been collaborating on improving conservation breeding facilities of KFI’s assurance colony in Page 2 of 5 Narra, Palawan. KFI’s conservation breeding facilities are accredited as such under a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with PCSDS,” it added.

With support from Mandai Nature, research on the species by KFI was intensified to better understand the necessary environmental conditions including nesting prerequisites, diet, incubation requirements to encourage reproduction of turtles under human care. After almost five years of conservation breeding efforts, the hatching of these two individuals in 2018 was a conservation breakthrough.

“Since then, there have been 15 more successful hatchings at KFI. Dr. Sonja Luz,” Deputy CEO of Mandai Nature said.

First Palawan Forest Turtle bred under human care. | Photo courtesy of Mandai Nature and Katala Foundation Inc.

“Many of these less-charismatic freshwater species are neglected and often don’t receive the conservation attention they need. With some of our work focused on critically endangered freshwater species, this milestone is particularly close to our hearts. We are a proud partner and supporter of Katala,” she added.

The release of the two turtles is a culmination of more than a decade of conservation efforts by various partners across the world such as Chester Zoo, German Society for Herpetology and Herpetoculture (DGHT), EAZA, Rainforest Trust (RT), Turtle Conservancy (TC), Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), Zoologische Gesellschaft für Arten und Populationsschutz (ZGAP) and anonymous donors.

“The findings of this release deepen our understanding of the behaviour of the species and guides future conservation breeding and release site protection measures. While we continue our breeding efforts, we intensify our endeavours to have more protected areas,” KFI added.

Atty. Teodoro Jose S. Matta, Executive Director PCSDS said, “KFI is our long-term partner in wildlife conservation, not only of the Palawan Forest Turtle, but also of the Palawan Pangolin, Philippine Cockatoo, Palawan deer species and other highly threatened species.”

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