Future of the Spiny Hill Turtle (HEOSEMYS SPINOSA) threatened by the palm oil industry in Borneo.

By H.A. Zwartepoorte

Palm oil is 'hot'. Apart from the use in the production of soya, the last few years palm oil is increasingly used in many products ranging from detergents to food products (chips and margarine).Together with the ever increasing world population, the need for alternative protein sources other than meat and fish has grown.
Soya has been cultivated in South-America for years. The production of palm oil, particularly in South-east Asia, has been viewed by the food industry as a welcome addition to this. In Indonesia, particularly on Borneo, the rainforests are being destroyed at an astonishing rate to create space for palm oil plantations. Great numbers of plant and animal species are threatened to extinction by this. Ever again, areas of forest are cut down without looking for alternatives like reusing areas already cut down. A better planning could also save large forests.
The majority of tropical wood is exported to China, where due to the fast increasing economic prosperity, the demand for raw materials like wood to built houses can hardly be satisfied.
Beside the threat to nature, the welfare of the local inhabitants like the Dayaks is also totally ignored. These ancient, forest dwelling people are seriously threatened in their existence by the expansion politics of western countries.
Borneo, the third largest island in the world, has a surface area of 740.000 km. It is divided in a Malaysian section, the former British Borneo, and an Indonesian section. The southern Indonesian section particularly, has suffered under broad scale logging, but the annual forest fires are also devastating. Logging causes erosion, the washout of fertile soil becomes an increasing problem.
Fertile soil washes away with the rivers into the sea, where it destroys marine life like corals.
Largely responsible for these disastrous damages are the big western multinationals, who can act freely with the aid of the Indonesian government and their easily obtainable permits. These multinationals, however, provide a market caused and maintained by western civilisation. They only gain a short-term profit. Within 15 years, the larger part will be cut clean and there will be no place any more for elephant, orang-utan and rhinoceros among others.

WNF started a large campaign in 2005 to protect 18 million hectare of forest, an area 4 times as big as the Netherlands.
New animal and plant species are still discovered on Borneo. The protected areas will form a corridor in order to protect as many species as possible.
The WNF campaign yielded 1.5 million Euros in The Netherlands.

In Sydney, Australia a large palm oil conference was held in September 2009. Nothing was said here about the thread to humans, plants and animals.
Apart from the WNF campaign, there are, be it small however, other positive actions, from the banking world for instance. The Dutch banks, largely responsible for the financing and management of the palm oil plantations, are being stimulated by Profundo to apply social en environment criteria on their investments in the sector, the so called Roundtable on Sustainable Palm oil (RSPO) norms.
Also, the Dutch Environmental Defence participates as a member of the 'Friends of the Earth' network in the so called soya coalition and the palm oil platform. A reporting centre exists to report social unacceptable transactions (MMOT).
Now, in January 2011, more than a year after the Sydney palm oil conference, there are some positive messages.
On April 7, 2010, Unilever issued a press statement containing the following passage:
Unilever announced today that they have acquired sufficient GreenPalm Certificates for sustainable palm oil to meet the complete requirements of palm oil from their European and their Australian and New-Zealand activities. This forms a part of Unilevers strive to procure all necessary palm oil from certified sustainable sources. GreenPalm, a certifying program approved by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm oil (RSPO), has been introduced to find solutions to social and environmental problems, which are caused by the production of palm oil. By selling certificates through the GreenPalm program, producers of palm oil can get higher prices for their crops by sustainable cultivation.
With this, a first step has been taken to protect the rainforests in Indonesia. It is to be hoped that other multinationals will follow this example. It remains important to follow these developments closely.

WNF stimulates Dutch companies to invest in an responsible way in the production of soya.
With actions to protect flagship species like the orang-utan, the elephant and the rhinoceros, WNF has made the problems on Borneo visible and known to a large audience. Naturally, other species in the area also profit from these protective actions. For many species these actions are too late. Species which are already exported in large numbers from Indonesia to China in particular for the food markets, are on the brink of extinction.
Mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects were already exported in large numbers to China during the last 20 years. Among these were many turtles; there are no exact numbers, but it is estimated that the numbers are up to tens of millions of tons annually.
The Spiny Hill Turtle (Heosemys spinosa) is exported en mass to China. The species has been threatened by continuous hunting, habitat loss and fragmentation so much, that the World Conservation Union (IUCN) classifies it since 1994 as 'endangered A1bdc'. It is also put on CITES list 2, which means that trade is restricted. Insufficient legislation and particularly its enforcement in Indonesia, does not provide enough protection for the species. The export continues. Buhlmann, Rhodin and Van Dijk as members of the IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater turtle species Specialist Group, state that intensive research on the status in their habitat is highly desirable and recommended. Trade has been diminished by 50%, despite continuing demand from China.
The Spiny Hill Turtle lives at an altitude of 100 to 170 meters in and around rivers, lakes, streams and marshes in the rainforest. Adults spend more time on land than younger animals. They are plant and fruit eaters, which they find on the forest floor. Sometimes, they eat carrion, insects and other lower animals like slugs. This species produces 1 or 2 eggs in every clutch several times during the season. Reproduction is strictly climate-bound. In captivity they are hard to keep. This is mainly caused by the poor condition of the animals after import. These animals experienced a bad period in the trade circuit, where the right food and especially water was in short supply. Almost all animals arrive dehydrated in the animal retail trade in western countries.
Breeding programs, managed by the European Studbook Foundation (ESF) and the European Association for Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA), are also not very successful to date. Worldwide, a few animals are bred in oos in Atlanta and Knoxville in the U.S. and Jersey on the Channel Islands in Europe. Only a few doen animals are kept in Europe by registered studbook/breeding programs. The ESF studbook, which is managed from The Netherlands and cooperates with the EAZA European Studbook (ESB), has 5 participants, among which is Rotterdam Zoo.

Since 2001, the inspections increased, especially in Hong Kong, on the import of exotic animals, which could be called a positive development. Thus, 10.000 turtles were confiscated, among which about 600 Spiny Hill Turtles. Out of the 10.000 animals, 3500 were dead on arrival. From de 600 Spiny Hill Turtles, 281 were housed with oos and individuals in Europe, by intervention of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA). Unfortunately, during the first year 170 animals died, mainly due to their deteriorated condition caused by the process that goes from catching in the wild, storage in Hong Kong and the several transports to their final destination. In Europe EAZA and ESF work closely with TSA Europe. All imported animals in Europe by TSA are placed in the European Studbook (ESB) of the EAZA; ESF and EAZA work closely together on this, which means that the animals kept by oos and individuals, are managed by both studbook keepers. In March 2007, 31 animals were transferred by CITES Hong Kong, after a temporal storage at the Kadoorie Botanical Gardens, to the TSA, who transferred the animals to the ESF. ESF transferred them subsequently to private participants accompanied by a contract.

Now, 9 years after the import of the animals coming from the 2001-2002 TSA import, the animals are not faring very well. From the 281 animals which came to Europe, only 60 are still alive. Also, from the 31 animals imported in 2007, only 13 are still alive. Post-mortem examination was performed on the dead animals and the different results yielded a single picture: the animals were very undernourished and kidney- and liver-failure are probably also contributing to the death of these animals.
Large-scale pathological research and better intensive 'screening' of living animals may save the lives of several studbook animals.
EAZA and ESF are momentarily developing initiatives for improving the keeping and feeding of the animals kept in Europe. There is also a proposal in preparation to better care for the animals after confiscation. A protocol for better feeding has been drawn up already.
The origin of the animals confiscated in Hong Kong is often not known. Several times there were attempts to trace their origins, but most of the time the research stopped at Malaysia. Just because of their large habitat, this is hard to trace. The animals are collected from a large area and transported via trade routes to export harbours in Borneo to be send to China. The illegal catching and exporting to China particularly and the disappearing at an astonishing rate of their habitat caused by the establishing of palm oil plantations, are the cause for the critically threatened status of the Spiny Hill Turtle.

Apart from better keeping and nutrition for the animals in the studbook/breeding programs, the right determination of their origin is paramount. Morphological studies have showed that there are different geographic types of the species, with which the breeding programs will have to reckon.

DNA-research could be a solution to this. But, to achieve this, there should be blood- and saliva-samples taken from wild animals with their exact place of origin known to be subsequently genetically researched and compared.
This is a costly affair. At the moment, there are no funds for this within the existing studbook/breeding programs from the EAZA and ESF. There are priorities, even in affairs like these.
There are indeed plans developing at the moment and a rough estimation of the costs. A similar examination on the Golden coin turtle (Cuora trifasciata) is conducted at the moment by EAZA and ESF and cost about 75 Euros per specimen/animal. To obtain a representative broad result, at least 25 animals from the wild should be examined. Beside this DNA-research on a number of animals with known origin, all 90 European Heosemys spinosa studbook animals should be examined.
Together with an additional 250 Euros for sending the specimens, this would amount to roughly 7000 Euros. It is difficult to estimate the costs for pathological research and veterinarian 'screening'.
After the right type and possible subspecies of all studbook animals are established , genetically viable breeding pairs and groups within the EAZA and ESF locations can be established. Only when all requirements for the right food, keeping and establishing subspecies and type status are met, there is a workable situation where the species can be assured in captivity for the future. In this way, a so-called 'assurance-colony' can be established, from which, in the future, animals can be reintroduced, when nature is in better condition.
We do hope that the multinationals, which are now the cause of the critically endangered status for the Spiny Hill Turtle, will contribute in this.


January 13, 2011.

Henk Zwartepoorte,  Martin van Wees,
Chair TSA Europe ESF studbook keeper Heosemys spinosa
Chair ESF,
IUCN TFTSG member
EAZA ARTAG member

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Last Updated on Thursday, February 19 2015