Bota Kanan River Terrapin Wildlife Conservation Centre ~ Perak, Malaysia

Have you ever wondered where the little animals we call 'pets' come from? Well, yes - from the pet shop, from a lover as a valentine's gift, from daddy for his little girl. Then, when we go to the movies like 'Finding Nemo' for example, we find out that the beautiful tropical fishes in aquariums were caught from coral reefs in some far off tropical land. They don't come straight from a bottle? Heavens!

When the 'Finding Nemo' was released in the U.S, hundreds of little children attempted to free their little pet fishes by flushing them down the toilets, hoping like nemo, they get flushed all the way back into the sea again. How misleading these movies, aren't they but they did try to tell us something about where these pets come from. And no... our sewage system doesn't flow out into the sea - untreated! Well, not for most anyway....

Let's see, how many of you know anything about the origin of their pets? Where do dogs come from? Cats? Okay, for city kids like me... we can't possibly imagine a pair of Siamese fighting fish swimming in a monsoon drain somewhere or a cute,baubly gold fish not swimming around a clinical aquarium. What about terrapins? Now, these come packaged up in their little plastic box, just like toys in a toyshop. How convenient.

Terrapins were from the wild and some are still found in the wild. We had quite a number of fresh water and aquarine terrapins living in the wild some years back. But authorities believe that the wild population dwindled during the period of Japanese Occupation from 1941 to 1945. During these hard years, the local communities supplemented their tapioca meals with whatever they could catch. The Perak River, at the time were heaving with terrapins.They were caught in thousands, to a point where it was thought that the terrapin population would not be able to recover.

The river terrapins are unlike their sea turtle cousins. In the wild, the terrapin breeding season begins from mid-October till the end of March and the majority is observed to hatch, on average, a clutch of 25 eggs per season. It is noted that in captivity, only 5% of females laid 2 clutches per season. The sea turtles, can lay about 8 clutches ber season of about 40-80eggs per clutch.

In 1968, for fear of further decline in population, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks established a River Terappin Research and Conservation Centre in Bota Kanan. Not only was the over collection of eggs and terrapins putting the reptiles in jeopardy but also the industrial pollution from tin and sand mines, siltation from development and land clearing.

The reserve covers about 8.5hectares of the Perak riverfront. This location was strategically chosen to include a sandbank where female terrapins have historically returned to nest every year. Although the nesting area are under the protection of the wildlife department, not all the eggs are given the same protection. The Perak Tengah District Office still issues licenses to a few for controlled egg collection from the various sandbanks and nesting sites along the Perak River. These license holders collects about 30,000eggs per year in which 4,000 to 5,000 eggs are kept by the research centre for hatching.

Females are easily differentiated from males by their physical appearances. The male has a white retina, a longer tail, a darker colour and is much smaller than the female. In the wild these reptiles feed on aquatic vegetation, other vegetation they can find by the riverbank, fishfry, water snails, and other small organisms floating along with the current. In captivity, their eating habits are a little more controlled. The main vegetation that they get to savour is the kangkung and then supplemented with bananas, fresh fish and processed fish pellets.

The ongoing research has produced favourable results and river terrapin numbers have increased in Perak, a few notches from when the centre was started about 35years ago. The rangers have released some 40,000 young river terrapins back into the wild since 1968. However, there is much mystery about these terrapins that has not unfolded and their existence is still on the thin line of co-existence or extinction.

The research centre has an informative visitor centre where a walk round will give the visitor an idea of the various species, their geological distribution and also some vital statistics. The elderly rangers there are eager to share their experience and knowledge. If you have the time, these rangers will take you on a short tour around the grounds. A number of pools have been dug to keep terrapins of various ages and sizes. A few from the first batch of captive terrapins are said to be still swimming around in the pools somewhere.

At another corner of the centre, close to the rangers' quarters are where the hatchlings are kept in clear, clean pools. The pools are walled to prevent predators such as water monitor lizards and otters from raiding the area. Next to this is a mound of sand where the eggs are incubated. For the next 2 to 3 years, the hatchlings are kept in pens, safely away from danger. When the time is right, the young terrapins are released into the river for a new life as free individuals.

The real dangers for these terrapins is the increasing demand for wild meat. Apart from the illegal drug trade, wildlife trafficking is the next most lucrative trade globally. Billions of dollars are involved in this trade and anyone without a conscience are in the game from trading to buying to savouring. Unlike drug trafficking, wildlife trafficking or trading does not come with a heavy sentence. RM3,000 or so can get you off the hook without causing a dent on your records.

The next time, you look into the aquarium or pond, just remember that your pets may have a longer history than just from the pet shop or from your girlfriend or Daddy. It could be taken from an illegal wildlife trader, who took it from a poor local farmer, who caught it in their net, from their natural habitat .... a river, a jungle, the sea. Just so that you can have a pet to entertain you for 5minutes of the day.... in return of a lifetime extinction of a specie.

Article dated: 9th November 2003

Wildlife Conservation Centre (Terrapin)
32600 Bota Kanan, Perak Darul Redzuan
Tel: +6 05 376 2726

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