The Bronx Zoo is working with other zoos and partners toward a major milestone in the conservation of the Rote Island (pronounced RO-tee) snake-necked turtle (Chelodina mccordi). Thirty-six zoo-bred turtles left the Bronx Zoo today bound for Mandai Wildlife Group’s Singapore Zoo as part of a collaboration that will eventually introduce the animals to their native range in Indonesia where the species is functionally extinct.
The species, which is classified as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is being bred at the Bronx Zoo and at other zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). As juveniles, they were transferred to the Bronx Zoo’s Chelonian Propagation Center (CPC) where they were allowed to mature for 2-3 years.
The Chelonian Propagation Center is a specialized facility that was built with reintroduction programs in mind. It has four distinct spaces with separate environmental controls that can be adapted to meet the needs of different species. It is designed to provide a bio-secure area to minimize exposure to bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens to prevent possible introduction of disease to the environment when the turtles are released.
“Turtles are under intense pressure from human activities, including collection for food and the pet trade, habitat destruction and climate change. The Rote Island snake-necked turtle is one glaring example of how unsustainable trade has brought entire species to the brink of extinction,” said Jim Breheny, WCS Executive Vice President and Director of the Bronx Zoo. “Zoos are in a unique position to help reverse these trends through partnerships, breeding and conservation programs. The addition of the Bronx Zoo’s bio-secure Chelonian Propagation Center will help to ensure the success of this and future reintroduction programs involving zoo-bred animals.”
The complex but well-coordinated plan involves a number of vital partnerships among different zoos and conservation organizations working hand-in-hand toward the goal of repopulating the species on Rote Island in Indonesia. These partners include the Bronx Zoo; AZA’s Species Survival Plan (a cooperative breeding program made up of several AZA accredited zoos); Singapore Zoo; and Mandai Nature, the conservation arm of Mandai Wildlife Group.
Of the 36 juvenile Rote Island snake-necked turtles headed to Singapore Zoo, 6 were bred at the Bronx Zoo, 6 at the Dallas Zoo, and 24 at the Fort Worth Zoo. There are currently another 44 juveniles in the Chelonian Propagation Center that were bred at the Bronx and Prospect Park Zoos. These and other zoo-bred turtles will be part of planned future transfers as the repatriation program continues.
“The first step in any reintroduction program is to ensure that the environment for the introduced animals provides sufficient ecological resources for the species’ survival,” said Kevin Torregrosa, Curator of Herpetology at the Bronx Zoo. “This includes habitat with appropriate climate, sufficient food resources, and an area that is protected from potential threats.”
The turtles sent to Singapore Zoo are candidates for release into protected habitat on Rote Island in Indonesia. Last year, 13 zoo-bred turtles from Singapore Zoo were successfully transferred to a breeding facility managed by the Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BBKSDA) of East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) province and Wildlife Conservation Society Indonesia Program (WCS-IP), where they now form part of the first structured conservation breeding program located in the country. In June 2019, The Indonesian Provincial Government of East Nusa Tenggara and the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry established a Wetland Essential Ecosystem Area as the habitat for the Rote Island snake-necked turtle. This area will be protected for the conservation of the species and will ensure the safety of the turtles that are introduced to the habitat as part of this collaboration.
“The different stakeholders from around the world coming together to take action for these critically endangered turtles are a great example of the collaborative nature of the One Plan Approach. Last year, we collectively contributed to a major conservation milestone for the species with the first-ever repatriation of the turtles from Singapore to Indonesia. The arrival of another 36 turtles to Singapore Zoo is a testament to the institution’s expertise in caring for such a unique species. Combined with Mandai Nature’s ongoing collaborations with partners in the field, we hope to strengthen conservation efforts undertaken both ex situ and in situ as we work towards establishing a viable population of the species in the wild” said Dr Sonja Luz, CEO of Mandai Nature, the conservation arm of Mandai Wildlife Group, which manages Singapore Zoo.
Following the designation of the Essential Ecosystem Area in Rote, BBKSDA NTT, district government and WCS conducted a series of awareness and education programs to garner the support from the communities of people that live in and around the protected habitats on Rote Island.
Rote Island snake-necked turtles are named for their characteristically long snake-like neck. They can reach about 9 inches in shell length as adults. They live in inland lakes and swamps and are only found on Rote Island in Indonesia.