Twenty years ago, the Burmese roofed turtle, which has a natural goofy smile, was presumed extinct. After discovering a few survivors, scientists have grown the population back close to 1,000 animals in captivity.
Some have successfully been released in nature in Myanmar in the last five years. “We came so close to losing them,” says Steven G. Platt, a zoologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “If we didn’t intervene when we did, this turtle would have just been gone.” The species might not be in danger of complete extinction anymore, but Dr. Platt cautioned that unsustainable fishing practices remain a problem for the turtles’ recovery in nature. “I don’t expect we can raise the flag of success during my career.”
Dr. Gerald Kuchling, a biologist now at the University of Western Australia, started the repopulation project with a male and two females in the Mandalay Zoo. A few more specimens were added just before the construction of a dam which would have destroyed the nesting habitat of the animal. Today, 1,000 animals live in three facilities in Myanmar. Half of the 360 species listed as threatened are in the reptile group, and the Burmese roofed turtle is one of them.