Burmese Star Tortoise

As an avid animal lover it was a real treat to visit the Lawkananda Wildlife Sanctuary to experience first hand information from one of the Directors of the Turtle Survival Alliance; Dr. Kalyar Platt.  The Sanctuary is located in the heavily wooded area near the Lawkananda Pagoda, along the Ayeyerwaddy River in Bagan.lawk

Kalyar was so kind to share her wealth of knowledge about the critically endangered Burmese Star Tortoise with us. I have an immense amount of respect for organizations and people who care so much for a species that they will do whatever it takes to protect it. Saving turtles and tortoises is Kalyar’s passion and this is very evident upon meeting her. The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) began in 2001 in an effort to assist with the decline in a variety of Asian Turtles and Tortoises. Today the TSA is highly recognized for its conservation efforts and their goal is to have zero turtle extinctions. A top focus of the TSA is to facilitate and maintain breeding programs and to conduct field research for freshwater turtles and tortoises. The Alliance also promotes conservation awareness among local communities and provides support, training and resources for conservation partners.

In the late 1990s the Burmese star tortoise became critically endangered due to high demand, primary for food and markets in southern China for traditional medicine, followed by a global pet market around the word – which lead to the poaching and illegal exportation of these beautiful and unique tortoises. In 2011 the Burmese star tortoise was said to be “ecologically” extinct in the wild as per the ICUN. As the tortoise is endemic to Myanmar it is up to the country to protect the tortoises from totally disappearing from our planet.

Thanks to large efforts by the TSA and the Wildlife Conservation Socitey (WSC), there has been a remarkable increase in numbers of the Star tortoises in three “assurance colonies” around Myanmar. Only a very small number of the tortoises are free in the wild, where they rightfully belong.  Most are held in captivity at the heavily guarded breeding centre sanctuaries, in an effort to continue to grow the number of tortoises. Here is a photo of our group during our visit of the sanctuary with TSA director, Dr. Kalyar Platt.

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Below you will see the hatchery section of the sanctuary. This is an extremely delicate process. We were not allowed to walk around this area as the smallest vibration could impact the health of the fetuses and destroy the hard work of Dr. Platt and her research team.

Before laying the eggs, the mother tortoise will dig a whole and moisten the sand with her urine, she will then slowly and carefully drop her clutch of eggs into the nest and cover them up.  The sex of a tortoise will depend on the temperature of the environment during the development process.  A female tortoise will typically develop with warmer temperatures and the males are normally a result of cooler temperatures. While having a 1:1 ratio would be ideal for a more successful breeding centre, this can be difficult to control. Dr. Platt explained that she will often trim tree branches to allow more sunlight on the areas if need be, to heat the ground, or cover the area with large palm leaves to keep certain areas cooler. Each nesting area is market with details; the mother’s ID number, the date and time and the number of eggs laid.

Once the eggs have hatched they are separated into secure areas where they are safe from predators, such as rats and snakes who will try to feed on the hatchlings. Cages with very tight wiring will keep the hatchings and young out of harms way.

The older tortoises are also separated by age to reduce the risk of territorial behaviour and fighting. Being held in captivity they need to be fed by the team members, as they can not fend for themselves as they would in the wild.

The tortoises are continually being monitored for their health and growth. The team members (many who are graduate and PhD students) will track their progress with detailed record keeping of their measurements and behaviour.

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Kalyar explained that each tortoise is permanently market with a four point identification system; unique notching along the base of their shells, engraving of their ID number and four letters from the Buddhist alphabet; SA DA BA WA – which is the abbreviation of Buddha words, in hopes that this will protect the tortoises from being stolen by theifs.  It is very bad karma to steal Buddha property. The also have a microchip implanted for when they are released into the wild. This allows researchers to continue to monitor and track the tortoises and to ensure their safety and well-being.

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The reintroduction to the wild has been extremely successful to date. Once the tortoises are ready they will be pre-released into an acclimation pen and held for a specific period of time. This helps the tortoises become familiarized with their new surroundings. As they have been raised in captivity there is no guarantee they will be able to support themselves. It is very important to monitor their habits to see if they are able to find food on their own and acclimate to the natural environment.

Please be aware that keeping these animals for “pets” is extremely harmful to their survival. These tortoises belong in the wild, not in your home or on your plate, or for the use of medicine. To learn more about this successful program and to help support the cause you can visit and donate online at the following website – for the Turtle Survival Alliance.

Special thanks to Dr. Kalyar Platt for her time and for sharing the wonderful work the TSA and WSC continues to accomplish at the Lawkananda Wildlife Sanctuary.

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