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Behind the Scenes: A Tortoise Survey of the Shwe Settaw Wildlife Sanctuary, Myanmar

Dan Sterantino

New York, USA

Behind the Scenes

(A Tortoise Survey of the Shwe Settaw Wildlife Sanctuary, Myanmar)

By Dan Sterantino




In August of 1999, a group of the world’s foremost authorities on the Burmese star tortoise (Geochelone platynota) and elongated tortoise (Indotestudo elongata) were asked by the Wildlife Conservation Society (Better known as New York’s Bronx Zoo) to go to Burma. The goal was a survey of G. platynota and I. elongata in the Shwe Settaw Wildlife Sanctuary (SSWS), Myanmar. G. platynota is endemic to Myanmar and among the least known of all living tortoises. I. elongata is found throughout Southeast Asia but the current conservation status of these species in Myanmar is unknown(Platt, 1999).

The Shwe Settaw Wildlife Sanctuary was established in 1940 to protect the previously un-described Eld’s dear (Cervus eldi thamin). During research on Eld’s dear, attention was brought to the rare tortoises of the area. This attention eventually turned into the survey requested by the WCS in 1999. Among others, the survey team was made up of Steven G. Platt and John Behler of the WCS and Dr. William Zovickian. In addition, 2 graduate students went along for research purposes. This particular group was chosen for their expertise in the endemic species of Myanmar.

Dr. William Zovickian and Steven G. Platt provided the interviews and documentation that are the basis of this article. This article will reveal the current status of G. platynota and I. elongata in Myanmar as reported to the WCS, as well as detail the extraordinary experiences of the survey team during the trip.

Trials and Tribulations

On August 6th, 1999 all the members of the survey team met in Rangoon, Burma. Rangoon is a large city and has the closest airport to their final destination in the SSWS. Accommodations in the major hotels were reasonable, however, major hotels would not accept Steven Platt’s 2 dogs. Steve has dogs trained to sniff out tortoises, and in an environment where they were expecting a small number of extremely well camouflaged tortoises, the dogs were key to the study. This fact forced them into less desirable accommodations. They would have one night of rest before the long journey to the SSWS the following morning.

The long drive began with the members of the survey team packing their gear, the dogs, and themselves into 2 Toyota Land Cruisers. The rain-slicked road with occasional patches of World War II pavement was only wide enough for 1 car. The drivers, natives of the area, were seemingly comfortable with these roads as they regularly hit 65 MPH while weaving on and off the road in an un-welcome game of chicken with on-coming buses and logging trucks. Half way through the trip, the driver of the first land cruiser lost control while returning to the road after yielding to a bus. The truck began barrel rolling down a small hill, it’s passengers randomly bouncing about. The hard top land cruiser finally came to a halt on the passenger side when it slammed against a large tree.

Understandably upset from the ordeal, the 2 grad students were unable to remove themselves from the vehicle. Dr. Zovickian helped them both out a driver’s side window as all the doors were bashed shut. Unfortunately, Steve had broken his shoulder, but none of this bothered the driver as he had already fled the scene. Bill then helped Steve out, and handed the 2 dogs up and out of the vehicle. Finally climbing out himself, Bill suffered no serious injury.

Adding insult to injury, soldiers in the Burmese military government were passing by and ordered the survey team to remove this eyesore from the side of the road. The team pushed the truck back onto its wheels, and was able to drive it far enough off the road to satisfy the soldiers. Injuries of varying seriousness needed attention, and a new vehicle was necessary, so the entire team packed into the remaining Land Cruiser and headed back to Rangoon where they started. Unfortunately, Steve Platt was forced to go back to the states for treatment of his shoulder, ending his adventure.

This accident represented a major setback, and it would be 3 days before the un-injured members of the group were able to get back on the road to the SSWS.

Now back on the road and nearly finished with the 16-hour drive, yet again another test presented itself. A bridge crossing a mile wide river had been totally washed away in the floods of the rainy season, and this river was the only thing left between the team and the SSWS. This very poor country can rarely afford to build structures of a reasonable quality, so washed out bridges, and damaged roads are commonplace. Needing their vehicle once inside the Wildlife Sanctuary, it was suggested that they canoe the vehicles across the river. 3 canoes were lashed together with 2 planks as the cross members. These 2 planks were spaced just wide enough for the wheels of the Land Cruiser. The vehicles were driven one at a time onto the makeshift ferry and taken sideways across the river. After their last ordeal, the team decided not to ride in the trucks as they crossed (as recommended by the locals) but to hold back and see what happened. Strong currents and an oversized payload made the crossing interesting, but none the less successful both times. Amazed and relieved that the vehicles actually made it to the other side, the team loaded into the canoes and crossed themselves.


The Shwe Settaw Wildlife Sanctuary

The SSWS (20° 11’ N; 94° 28’ E) lies between the Man and Mon rivers on the western edge of the central dry zone (Platt 1999). This is grassland and open forest landscape with very low annual rainfall (90 cm.), and a dry season that lasts from December through April (Platt 1999). Temperatures peak during the dry season around 43° C. (109° F.) and night-time temperatures during winter can be as low as 4° C. (39° F.). There is no year-round surface water (rivers, ponds, etc…) in the sanctuary, so the opportunity for regular drinking is non-existent. The total area of the sanctuary was originally 553 square kilometers, but this "forever wild" area was "recently reduced by about 30% with the sale of a large tract along the northeastern boundary to an agricultural development consortium. This area is now being rapidly cleared and converted into agricultural fields" (Platt, 1999 pers. obs.).

The survey team made there home in small stilted huts on the border of the sanctuary. They traded their king-size beds for half-inch thick mats and the clothes on their backs were the blankets. Never the less, they finally reached their destination.

The temperatures were consistently in the upper 90’s (F), and the presence of malaria carrying mosquitoes required daily medication for the entire group.

An attempt at a captive-breeding program had begun within the sanctuary. A 150’ x 75’ fenced-in area had been reserved for 17 G. platynota (11 adult, 6 hatchling), and roughly 25 I. elongata. Mating between the I. elongata males and the G. platynota females was commonplace, and at the urging of the survey team, a dividing fence was temporarily erected to prevent the interbreeding. (Zovickian, pers. obs.1999)

A 4’ cement wall acted as the perimeter fence, but regular thefts of G. platynota required a chain-link fence increase the height another 6 feet. The thefts continued, so the SSWS was forced to build a brick strong house to secure the stars at night. SSWS employees would release the tortoises into the enclosure every morning at 7:00am, and return them to the strong house at 6:00pm. As in other locations in Burma that housed tortoises, deep cement motes were used within enclosures for either segregation or incorrectly provided for swimming/drinking areas. The strong house included such a mote, and even though a ramp was provided for escape, smaller tortoise were often trapped in the water by larger tortoises blocking the ramp, or simply fell in while walking the circumference. Again following suggestions from the survey team, this mote was filled in with dirt to prevent the regular drowning of juveniles. (Zovickian, pers. obs. 1999)

In addition to these problems, there are no funds available to the SSWS to supplement the natural grazing of the tortoises within the enclosure. As this small area is quickly grazed, tortoises starve to death at an alarming rate. Between the time the survey ended (8/99) and the writing of this article (01/00), 6 of the 17 G. platynota within the enclosure died. 2 of theses were 1/3rd of a group of hatchling G. platynota discovered by a dog while emerging from a nest within the sanctuary in May of 99. A return visit to this area by the survey team revealed no additional tortoises. In fact, during this survey, the first 400 man-hours of searching with dogs revealed no tortoises of any kind. One village trader admittedly harvested 300 G. platynota from within SSWS in the 6 months prior to the survey, and there is at least 1 trader in every village. This mass harvesting devastates populations literally overnight.

It is the opinion of many, that G. platynota is functionally extinct in the SSWS, and only 1 other population of G. platynota exists in the world (vicinity of Kywe-nah-pah), conservation status unknown. (Platt, 1999) Needless to say, this was a disheartening find by the team.

Contributing Factors

For hundreds of years, natives to the area have gathered tortoises for food, but this "subsistence" gathering did not impact greatly the ability for these populations to thrive. In addition to eating the tortoise meat, locals use the carapace for storing cooking oils, seeds, etc… It is believed that planting fields with seeds held in tortoise shells will bring good luck, and subsequently good harvest. Similar beliefs revolve around the plastron as a cure for pig diseases, so the plastrons are regularly fed to the village pigs.

Recently however, subsistence has turned into mass harvesting with the value of G. platynota and I. elongata skyrocketing in the Asian food markets (primarily Taiwan and China). 1 adult G. platynota can bring the equivalent of 2 weeks salary to a smuggler and in turn to the traders and the villagers. These consumers believe that ground plastron is an aphrodisiac, and also has medicinal value, so compounded with the delicacy of tortoise meat, and the cash value, the demand for tortoises is high.

The network of villager to trader to smuggler to market is well known by the Burmese Government, but many factors stop the enforcement of the laws protecting these animals. G. platynota are listed along with Eld’s dear, tigers, and other endangered species as protected, and it is a capital offense to remove these animals from the wild. This law is enforced on site when dealing with dear and tigers, but for some reason, the authorities ignore the capture and sale of the tortoises. In fact, the authorities, on many occasions pointed out the white vehicles, with smuggler behind the wheel, used to transport the tortoises from the villages to the borders. On the rare occasion that officers do stop smugglers, they can be easily bribed to forget the offense. Civil war and radical guerilla soldiers run rampant near the borders of Burma, which also acts as a deterrent for police involvement at the borders. The government officials seem open to conservation activities as long as they don’t have to pay for them. This is a classic example of financially depressed societies exploiting every natural resource within reach, and a Government whose primary interest in conservation is it’s profitability.

The Tortoises

The tortoises studied were primarily those that had been captive at the start of the study, or shells of deceased animals, but a few were found in the wild. One specimen (G. platynota) was captured on August 12th, released, and re-captured 2 days later over a mile away from it’s first capture. Fecal examinations revealed primarily grass and mushrooms. Some contained small pieces of insect as well as small stones and dirt. It is uncertain whether this was consumed accidentally, or perhaps ingested deliberately to aid in the digestion of plant matter in a manner similar to grit in the avian gizzard (Platt,1999). Some hunters reported that the tortoises regularly consume fallen flowers, young grass sprouts, wild onion, and a terrestrial vine indigenous to the area.

Parasites were fairly abundant as most had 2 or 3 ticks visible, and subsequent fecal exams revealed a heavy nematode load, identified as Alaeuris sp. and Tachygonetira sp. Eggs and larvae of unidentified nematodes were also found in the feces of 2 additional G. platynota specimens (Platt, 1999).

Conservation Recommendations

Taken directly from the WCS report authored by Steve Platt:

"G. platynota and I. elongata should be considered critically endangered in Myanmar due to over-harvesting for local consumption and export, and habitat destruction. G. platynota is particularly vulnerable because only two extant populatins (SSWS and vicinity of Kywe-nah-pah) are definitely known, and both are subject to continuing exploitation. Full legal protection of I. elongata and G. platynota in Myanmar is therefore clearly warranted. Most importantly, rigorous measures must be instituted by conservation authorities in China and Myanmar to regulate the trans-border wildlife trade between the two countries. Regardless of legal protection, as long as these markets are in operation, tortoise hunting will remain a lucrative economic proposition for rural inhabitants and hunting will continue. Given market demands and status of I. elongata and G. platynota, upgrading Myanmar of both to Appendix I of CITES is recommended. Without rapid implementation of protection measures, tortoise populations may disappear before even basic ecological studies can be undertaken.

SSWS offers the best opportunity for in situ conservation of G. platynota in Myanmar. Tortoises should be afforded complete protection from any form of harvest, and protective measures must be coupled with effective enforcement. The loss of even a few individuals, especially adult females could have serious demographic consequences. Land-use practices must also be compatible with tortoise conservation. While timber and bamboo harvesting do not appear to pose a direct threat to tortoises, people engaged in these pursuits may eat tortoises when working in the forest. The effects of livestock grazing and wildfires on tortoises must also be evaluated. Moderate levels of grazing could potentially benefit tortoises by stimulating the growth of grass shoots, a preferred tortoise food. Conversely, wildfires may represent a significant source of mortality (Thirakhupt and vanDijk, 1994; Chan-ard et al., 1996; Mitchell and Rhodin, 1996; Das, 1997), and necessitate implementation of control programs. Finally, if effective conservation measures can be instituted, the sanctuary would be an excellent site for reintroducing captive-bred tortoises to bolster wild populations and enhance recovery efforts."

These efforts will start with the development of a comprehensive plan by John Behler of the WCS. Early suggestions include a public education program. This will consist of billboards and zoo displays urging people to protect their nations treasure. Measures will also be taken to train SSWS employees to properly run the breeding facility and hopefully increase the productivity of the program. The key to salvaging any hope that these tortoises will exist in the wild for years to come is quick action and strict conservation policies that are enforced at every level and location.