Painting a new future for a Critically Endangered terrapin

Painted terrapin © Chester Zoo

By |2022-09-26T13:21:58+00:00December 20th, 2021|Asian Species, Captive Breeding, Conservation Optimism, Southeast Asia|Comments Off on Painting a new future for a Critically Endangered terrapin

SatuCita Foundation is one of the newest partners in Synchronicity Earth’s Asian Species Programme with a particular focus on one Critically Endangered species: the painted terrapin. Anna Heath writes about the mission of a young Sumatran conservationist to save a remarkable freshwater turtle from extinction.

“Someone must do something to help this species.” These were the words of Joko Guntoro, a young Sumatran conservationist, when he left his job at a well-established, orangutan conservation organisation to set up a new initiative for an obscure freshwater turtle in his home province of Aceh in northern Sumatra.

One of the world’s rarest freshwater turtles

The painted terrapin is a river turtle found in just four countries in Southeast Asia. It is known for the remarkable transformation which males of the species undergo every year during their breeding season. When the time comes to mate, the males of the species are utterly transformed, from a nondescript brown to an extraordinarily colourful turtle, with a distinctly patterned shell and a white head with a bright red stripe between their eyes.

A painted terrapin on a muddy log, showing the bright red stripe between its eyes.

When coming into breeding season, male painted terrapins adopt more colourful patterns. Image: SatuCita Foundation

However, it was not the bizarre beauty of these turtles that attracted Joko to this work, but the fact that they are one of the 25 most threatened species of freshwater turtle in the world, and are classed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This classification means that the painted terrapin has the dubious distinction of belonging to the list of Critically Endangered land and freshwater species found in Southeast Asia (known as ‘ASAP Species’ as the list is compiled by the Asian Species Action Partnership, or ASAP). There are a staggering 265 species that fit the criteria for this list, a key source of information underpinning Synchronicity Earth’s support for species-focused conservation in Southeast Asia.

As any good scientist would, Joko began his journey to protect this species by carrying out a survey. This found that populations of the painted terrapin had dropped drastically from historic levels, due to intensive poaching in the 1990s. While poaching is no longer a common practice, local people continue to collect terrapin eggs during the highly predictable nesting season. While the terrapins lay their eggs on coastal beaches, they spend the rest of their lives in mangrove forests and estuaries rather than in the sea. This means that the widespread destruction of mangrove forests for charcoal production and oil palm plantations in this region has also had a major impact on this species. In this beautiful excerpt, Joko describes the experience of monitoring the nesting habits of this species.

A man holds a large terrapin in his hands in a laboratory with a wide smile.

Joko Guntoro, a young Sumatran conservationist, left his job at a well-established, orangutan conservation organisation to set up a new initiative for the painted terrapin. Image © Chester Zoo

A night-time vigil

“The night is late; actually, it is early morning. My watch shows 1:37 a.m. The sky is dark, and only a few stars are ou