In late 2013, the Canada Border Services Agency in Toronto intercepted a parcel from China, which was labelled as containing PVC sample toys.
However, upon opening the parcel, the Border Services officers found 17 big-headed turtles, Platysternon megacephalum, in plastic containers instead. They were given a temporary home at Toronto Zoo until more suitable locations could be found for them.
Four of the turtles are now in the care of ZSL London Zoo and one of the them – named Lady Triệu (pronounced Joo) by keepers, after a famous Vietnamese warrioress – has now moved into a new exhibit.
“When we heard that these incredible turtles were in need of a new home, we began making plans to welcome them to the Reptile House,” says senior reptile keeper Daniel Kane.
“We felt they had a lot to teach our visitors about the dangers facing reptiles and amphibians in the wild and knew we had the expertise to give them the specialised care they need.”
Big-headed turtles are named after their relatively large heads compared to their bodies, and are the only species in their genus and family Platysternidea.
They are native to China, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, and are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. The main threats to big-headed turtles are hunting for their meat and the international pet trade.
A new conservation initiative to reintroduce big-headed turtles back into the wild is underway, with collaboration from a range of partners, including ZSL, the Asian Turtle Program/Indo Myanmar Conservation, Paignton Zoo, Nordens Ark, Hanoi National University, the Turtle Conservation Centre, Cuc Phuong National Park and Fondation Segré.
The smuggled turtles are not part of the reintroduction programme as no details are known about where they came from or how old they were at the time of capture, and thus whether they have the survival skills to live in the wild.
The reptile keepers have recreated a suitable habitat for their four new residents, based on extensive work with reptiles and amphibians in Vietnam. Each turtle needs to be in a separate enclosure as they are highly territorial.
“Lady Triệu has taken to her new home like a turtle to water, and we have been watching her closely as she’s busied herself exploring every inch of the aquatic abode,” explains Daniel.
“These turtles’ heads are so large that, unlike others, they can’t retract them into their shells; to compensate, nature has given them armour plating from head to tail and a very sharp beak to fend off predators – plus a feisty attitude to go with it!”
The Canada Border Services Agency were able to identify an individual as the importer, who admitted to ordering these turtles from an online reptile forum in China and had been told that they were captured from the wild. He fled from Canada to China before the case was heard in court.
Main image: Big headed turtle. © ZSL London Zoo