The Zoo’s gharials are often a guest favorite at the Museum of Living Art, but these crocodilians aren’t alone in their exhibit. Look into the gharials’ watery home and you’ll see that the large pool is teeming with many other aquatic species. Two of those species are some unique-looking turtles: the painted terrapin (Batagur borneoensis) and the southern river terrapin (Batagur affinis).

Terrapins have slightly domed, smooth shells, long necks, and pointed snouts. They usually live in habitats with fresh or brackish water. Terrapins don’t just stick to the water, though. Like many aquatic turtles, you may see terrapins leave the water to bask in the sun on a log.

The painted terrapin is named for the red stripe between its eyes. However, this painted appearance is only present in males during the breeding season. Non-breeding males and females have more muted coloring. The painted terrapin eats mostly fruits and plants and lives in southern Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo. Click here to learn more about this interesting turtle.

The world’s six species of river terrapins that make up the genus Batagur live in South and Southeast Asia. Five of these species are critically endangered, and populations are declining at an alarming rate. Threats include habitat alteration, overhunting, and collection for the pet trade. One of the main culprits causing declining terrapin populations is egg collection. River terrapin eggs are highly valued and collected in large quantities for food. It’s also easy to collect terrapin eggs because females return to the same beaches year after year and congregate to lay their eggs. With eggs disappearing, there are fewer and fewer river terrapins being added to the worldwide turtle population, and fewer river terrapins growing old enough to reproduce.

Protecting river terrapin eggs has been a top priority for conservationists in Southeast Asia during the spring of 2013. The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) – with the help of the Vienna Zoo, Bangladesh Forest Department, and IUCN Bangladesh – supports a breeding colony of 19 northern river terrapins (Batagur Baska) in Bangladesh. In the spring of 2013, four females from the colony nested and laid a total of 78 eggs. At another breeding center in West Bengal, India, herpetologists have documented several females preparing to nest, so more eggs will likely be laid soon. In 2012 the breeding centers in India and Bangladesh produced 50 total northern river terrapin hatchlings, and the TSA staff is hopeful that 2013 will be an even better year and produce even more hatchlings.

The southern river terrapin is also getting some help during the 2013 nesting season. One of the TSA’s partners, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), is protecting two southern river terrapin nests on the banks of the Sre Ambel River in Cambodia. The nest protection is giving 24 eggs a chance at survival. WCS has been operating a headstart program in addition to nest protection in the area since 2003. The program has resulted in a total of 270 hatchlings, 140 of which have already been released into the Sre Ambel River.

The TSA reports that 135 Batagur nests are being protected at the National Chambal River Sanctuary in India. Most of those nests belong to Indian roofed turtles (Batagur kachuga). Though 2013 nesting numbers at the sanctuary are lower than usual, the TSA hopes more females will continue nesting in 2013.

Some of the most encouraging news comes from Myanmar, where 169 eggs in the nests of seven Burmese roofed turtles (Batagur trivittata) are being protected by members of WCS and the TSA. Herpetologists once feared this species had gone extinct, but it was rediscovered in 2001. Today, more than 600 individuals live in managed collections in Myanmar. WCS and the TSA plan to begin reintroducing some of these turtles into the wild as early as 2014.

The TSA has big plans taking shape in Asia to protect all six of the Batagur terrapins, and the conservation group got a recent boost thanks to a large grant from SOS – Save Our Species.  The $150,000 grant will help the TSA expand its conservation programs in Asia over the next two years. The stage is set for these terrapins to make an impressive comeback, but there are still many obstacles to overcome. Protecting the eggs isn’t enough – it’s important to keep juvenile and adult terrapins safe so they can continue to lay more eggs and help river terrapin populations grow.

What can you do to help endangered river terrapins?

  • Join the TSA Kids Club to stay up-to-date with everything going on at the TSA. Click here for more information.
  • It’s almost never a good idea to touch wildlife, but sometimes turtles may get into dangerous situations and need help. If you see a turtle in trouble, such as one that is trying to cross a road, ask for an adult’s help to move the turtle to a safer location (preferably near water).
  • Healthy turtles need healthy habitats. Participate in local river cleanup projects like the Trinity River Trash Bash.

As always, I’m so proud of you for making a difference! Remember to email me at Sam’s Inbox ( to fill me in on what you’re doing for conservation. You could see your story featured in an upcoming blog post!

Until next time … happy exploring!



Aquatic: (adjective) living or growing in water
Bask: (verb) to lie in warmth, usually the sun
Brackish: (adjective) slightly salty
Breeding season: (noun) the time of year when offspring are produced
Colony: (noun) a group that populates a particular area
Congregate: (verb) to gather or group together
Conservation: (noun) the careful use of a natural resource so we can enjoy it now and have enough of it to enjoy in the future
Critically endangered species: (noun) The highest level of risk awarded to an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Critically endangered species population numbers have decreased or will decrease by 80 percent within three generations.
The culprit: (noun) someone or something that is responsible for a bad deed or offense; “the bad guy”
Document: (verb) to record or write down details for later reference
Expand: (verb) to increase in size or stretch out
Extinct: (adjective) no longer in existence
Genus: (noun) in biology, a classification of organisms that includes several species with similar characteristics
Grant: (noun) a sum of money provided by a government, local authority, or public fund to finance a study or program
Habitat alteration: (noun) change that takes place in an animal’s living space caused by natural or human processes
Habitat: (noun) the natural environment of an organism
Headstart program: (noun) a program in which biologists bring eggs or recently born or hatched young into captivity to mature to a larger size that increases their survival chances when reintroduced into the wild
Herpetologist: (noun) a scientist who studies herpetology (the branch of zoology dealing with reptiles and amphibians)
Juvenile: (noun) a young animal that is somewhere between being a baby and an adult
Managed collection: (noun) a group of animals kept in a protected area under human care
Muted: (adjective) not flashy, dull
Pet trade: (noun) the exchange of money or goods for exotic animals taken from the wild to be kept as pets
Priority: (noun) something that is the highest level of concern or importance
Species: (noun) a group of individuals having some common characteristics or qualities
Teem: (verb) to be overflowing with or have an abundance of something

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