PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — More than 200 of Cambodia's nearly extinct royal turtles were released Tuesday in muddy waters at a new breeding and conservation center that was built in hopes of keeping the national reptile from disappearing.
The Koh Kong Reptile Conservation Center in western Cambodia is a joint effort between the government's fisheries department and the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.
The 206 turtles belong to one of the world's 25 most endangered tortoise and freshwater turtle species. It's also known as the southern river terrapin, but its primary name harkens to historical times when only the royal family could consume the turtle's eggs.
The turtle was believed extinct until 2000 when a small population was rediscovered, and it was designated the national reptile in 2005.
Since 2001, a joint project between the government and conservation society has saved 39 nests with a total of 564 eggs that resulted in 382 hatchlings. The hatchlings are raised in captivity and later released into the wild.
"With very few Royal Turtles left in the wild and many threats to their survival, Cambodia's national reptile is facing a high risk of extinction," said Ouk Vibol, director of Fisheries Conservation Department.
"By protecting nests and head starting the hatchlings, we are increasing the chances of survival for this important species for Cambodia," he said.
The breeding and conservation center has five big ponds with grass and sand banks for the resettled turtles to nest, society spokesman Eng Mengey said by telephone from Koh Kong province where the center is located.
"We hope in time to have other species like Siamese crocodiles at the center, and may even develop it into a site for ecotourism to generate revenue to be used for conserving the turtles in the center," Ross Sinclair, the society's country director for Cambodia, said in the statement.