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September 8, 2009

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Rare turtle spotted in Myanmar

THE rare Arakan forest turtle, once though to be extinct, has been rediscovered in a remote forest in Myanmar, boosting chances of saving the reptile after hunting almost destroyed its population, researchers said yesterday.

American researcher Steven Platt and staff from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society discovered five of the brown-and-tan-spotted turtles in May during a survey of wildlife in the Rakhine Yoma Elephant Sanctuary.

The sanctuary contains thick stands of impenetrable bamboo forests, said Platt, of Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas.

Plat said they were able to reach the area only by small boat and endured torrential rain and leeches before finding their first Arakan turtle on May 31.

"At this moment, all of the physical hardships of the trip were forgotten," Platt said in an e-mail interview.

Native to the Arakan hills of western Myanmar, the turtles were believed extinct for close to a century until they started turning up in Asian food markets in the mid-1990s.

The local name for the turtle is "Pyant Cheezar," which translates to "turtle that eats rhinoceros feces." Sumatran rhinos were once found in the area, but vanished half a century ago from hunting.

Scientists blame the near-disappearance of the turtle on their popularity in Asia as an ingredient in cooking and medicine. Known by its scientific name, Heosemys depressa, it is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and has proven difficult to breed in captivity.

The discovery in May makes scientists hopeful that the species can survive.

"Throughout Asia, turtles are being wiped out by poachers for the illegal wildlife trade," said Colin Poole, the Wildlife Conservation Society's director of Asia programs. "We are delighted and astonished that this extremely rare species is alive and well in Myanmar. Now we must do what we can to protect the remaining population."


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