An extremely rare soft-shell turtle species has a new, protected home in Cambodia.
The critically endangered Cantor's giant soft-shell turtle is one of the rarest freshwater turtles in the world. Scientists last saw one in the Cambodian wild in 2003, and small numbers have been seen in neighboring Laos, while it appears to have disappeared from Vietnam and Thailand.
U.S.-based Conservation International said it opened the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center on Wednesday in Kratie province, 100 miles (160 kilometers) northeast of Phnom Penh.
A 40-pound (18-kilogram) female turtle and six babies were released into the conservation pond at a Buddhist pagoda on the Mekong River at the center's launch. The ceremony was attended by six Buddhist monks _ who blessed the female turtle by painting scared markings on her body _ and more than 100 villagers.
"Our goal is to conserve Cantor's turtle populations in their natural habitat, the Mekong River, through the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center and the community-led nest protection scheme," Conservation International said in a statement.
Local fishermen currently collect both eggs and adult turtles for their own consumption and sale to restaurants, Conservation International said. Soft-shelled turtles are considered a delicacy in many Asian diets, and rarity only adds to their value on menus or as traditional medicines.
The species can grow up to 6 feet (2 meters) in length and weigh more than 110 pounds (50 kilograms).
Conservation International said planned dams and dredging schemes on the river pose another serious threat to the species.