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Burmese Star Tortoise (Geochelone platynota) Fact Sheet: Population & Conservation Status

Population Status

Population estimates

  • Wild populations: rough estimate of 2,000-3,000 individuals (S.G. Platt, personal communication, 2022)
    • More than 2,000 individuals released, as of Feb 2022
  • Assurance populations in managed care: approx. 10,000 individuals (Platt and Platt 2020)
  • Very rare tortoise species (Turtle Conservation Fund 2002; Turtle Conservation Coalition 2018; S.G. Platt, personal communication, 2022)
    • Das (1997) listed G. platynota as one of the 10 most threatened turtle and tortoise species in Asia
  • Rarely observed in the wild and not outside of protected wildlife sanctuaries (Platt et al. 2003; Platt et al. 2004; Platt et al. 2011; S.G. Platt, personal communication, 2022)

Conservation history

  • Vast numbers of wild Burmese Start Tortoises taken since the 1990s (Platt et al. 2011)
  • 2000: G. platynota considered ecologically extinct (e.g., Platt et al. 2003; Platt et al. 2011; Platt et al. 2018; Praschag et al. 2020)
    • Nearly all individuals removed from the wild
    • Population declines caused by long-term subsistence hunting (e.g., Blyth 1863) and habitat loss, then wildlife trade drove sharp decline beginning in the 1970s
    • Demand declined as populations went nearly extinct in the wild; trade still poses a significant threat to establishing wild populations (Platt et al. 2011; Rao et al. 2013)
      • Vulnerable to poaching, even in protected areas (Platt et al. 2004; Platt and Platt 2020)
  • 2004: Conservation breeding program in Myanmar began (Platt et al. 2017)
    • Managed by conservation division of Myanmar Forest Department, in collaboration with Wildlife Conservation Society and the Turtle Survival Alliance (Platt and Platt 2020)
    • Founding population: approximately 175 to 200 individuals (Platt et al. 2017; Platt and Platt 2020)
      • Confiscated from wildlife traffickers, plus a small number of wild tortoises
  • 2012: National Star Tortoise Action Plan developed to reintroduce tortoises to protected areas within their historic range (Platt and Platt 2017; Platt et al. 2018; Turtle Conservation Coalition 2018)
  • May 2014: earliest reintroductions (K. Platt et al. 2014; Platt et al. 2015)
  • Early 2020s: Egg transplanting efforts began (Platt and Platt 2021)
    • Nests laid by females in managed care “transplanted” into wild/natural sites in protected areas

Conservation breeding programs

  • Burmese Star Tortoises reproduce well with proper care (Platt et al. 2011; Kalyar Platt et al. 2014; Platt et al. 2015)
  • Breeding (or “assurance”) colonies in 3 Myanmar wildlife sanctuaries (Kalyar Platt et al. 2014; Platt et al. 2017; Platt and Platt 2020)
    • A fourth colony being established in northern Dry Zone (Platt and Platt 2021)
    • Also bred outside Myanmar by private collectors
  • Young are head-started (Kalyar Platt et al. 2014; Platt et al. 2017)
    • From hatching to 3 months: fine-mesh used to prevent predation by rats (see Platt et al. 2017)
    • From 3 months to 3 years: housed in nursery pens
      • Released at 3-5 years old
    • More than 20,000 individuals bred since 2014 in Myanmar’s breeding program (Platt et al. 2017; Raphael et al. 2019; Stanford et al. 2020; S.G. Platt, personal communication, 2022)
      • Assurance colony population: more than 10,000 individuals (Platt and Platt 2020)
      • 1,000-2,000 hatchlings produced per year (Platt and Platt 2020)
        • More than 2,000 hatchlings in the 2020-2021 breeding season (Platt and Platt 2021)

Reintroduction

  • Reintroduced to 3 Myanmar wildlife sanctuaries (as of Feb 2022) (Platt et al. 2011; Praschag et al. 2020; Platt and Platt 2021)
    • More than 2,000 individuals released (as of Feb 2022) (Praschag et al. 2020; S.G. Platt, personal communication, 2022)
    • Tight security at sanctuaries (rangers guard tortoises) to prevent poaching (Praschag et al. 2020)
      • Some reintroduced individuals stolen
  •  “Soft release” strategy used to increase site fidelity
    • Tortoises acclimated to release site for 12 months prior to release (Platt et al. 2018; Platt and Platt 2020)
    • 1 ha (2.5 acre) acclimation pens centered in core of release area (Platt and Platt 2020)
      • Each holds 100 to 200 tortoises
    • Tortoises eat natural vegetation and weekly supplemental food
  • Before release, symbolically “donated” to local monastery in a public ceremony as deterrent against poaching (Platt and Platt 2020)
    • “Become the property of the monastery, and anyone stealing [a tortoise] is in effect stealing from the monks” (Platt and Platt 2020)
    • Engraved religious markings on shell may deter some poachers by reducing aesthetic value of shell (Platt and Platt 2020; N. Haislip, personal communication, 2022)
      • Also helps to identify illegally harvested tortoises
    • Also see “Culture and folklore

Conservation Status

IUCN

  • Critically Endangered (2018 assessment) (Praschag et al. 2020)
    • Population trend: increasing
  • Previous assessments (Praschag et al. 2020)
    • 2000: Critically Endangered
    • 1996: Critically Endangered
    • 1982-1994: Insufficiently Known (Data Deficient)

CITES

  • Appendix I (UNEP 2021)

Government laws and regulations

  • Myanmar: protected under 1994 Protection of Wildlife, Wild Plants and Conservation of Natural Areas Law (Platt et al. 2011; Praschag et al. 2020)
    • Poorly enforced by Fisheries and Forest Departments
    • Does not effectively prevent wildlife trade between Myanmar and China
    • Weak-to-no enforcement in many protected areas (wildlife sanctuaries, national parks), despite full legal protection
  • Subsistence hunting of Burmese Star and other tortoises is permitted (Platt et al. 2000; Platt et al. 2011)

Threats to Survival

Also see “Conservation history.”

Hunting and exploitation

  • Population declines driven by long-term subsistence and more recent commercial overhunting (Blyth 1863; Klemens and Thorbjarnarson 1995; Platt et al. 2000; Platt et al. 2001; Platt et al. 2011; Platt et al. 2017; Platt et al. 2018)
  • Local peoples hunted star tortoises opportunistically for food (e.g., while collecting wood or herding cattle) (Platt 2001b; Platt et al. 2001; Platt et al. 2003)
    • Theobold (1868) states large numbers of tortoises taken for food
      • Fire and dogs used to find tortoises in dense vegetation
    • Blyth (1863) reported Burmese Star Tortoise as rare
  • 1990s: High-demand commercial markets emerge in southern China (Platt et al. 2001)
    • Tortoises sold as food and for traditional medicine (Das 1997; Altherr and Freyer 2000; Platt et al. 2000; Platt et al. 2011; Rao et al. 2013; Platt et al. 2017; Praschag et al. 2020; Stanford et al. 2020)
    • Sold for international pet trade (e.g., Platt et al. 2011; Kalyar Platt et al. 2014; Platt and Platt 2020; Praschag et al. 2020)
      • Led to steepest, most dramatic declines
  • Professional hunters supplied large numbers of tortoises to wholesalers (Kalyar Platt et al. 2014)
    • Used trained dogs, fire, and systematic searching of tortoise hiding places to locate tortoises to sell (Theobald 1868; Platt et al. 2003; Platt et al. 2018)
    • Poached tortoises from protected areas (Platt and Platt 2017)

Habitat loss

  • Deforestation and land clearing for agriculture, cattle grazing, and firewood production (Das 1997; van Dijk 1997; Platt et al. 2001; Platt et al. 2018)
  • Land within wildlife sanctuaries is heavily degraded (Platt et al. 2001)

Management Actions

Based on National Star Tortoise Action Plan (2012).

Community engagement

  • Assess conservation impacts to communities (Platt et al. 2018)
  • Develop education programs and awareness campaigns for communities (Kalyar Platt et al. 2014; Platt et al. 2018; Raphael et al. 2019; Platt and Platt 2020)
    • Local villages
    • Schools and teachers
    • Religious leaders (e.g., Buddhist monks)
  • Recruit volunteers and staff from local communities (Platt et al. 2018; Platt and Platt 2020)

Conservation breeding programs

  • Maintain assurance colonies in wildlife sanctuaries and zoos (Platt et al. 2018)
    • Source of individuals for reintroduction
  • Teach husbandry skills to wildlife sanctuary staff (Platt et al. 2018)
  • Secure pens (K. Platt et al. 2014; Platt et al. 2015; Platt et al. 2018)
  • Evaluate health of tortoises prior to release (Raphael et al. 2019)

Science

  • Identify suitable release habitat (Raphael et al. 2019)
  • Fund research programs to monitor post-release behavior, health, and survival (Platt et al. 2018)
  • Disease surveys of wild and managed care populations (Kalyar Platt et al. 2014)
  • Study ways to reduce predation on translocated (reintroduced) individuals (Platt et al. 2021)
  • Conduct genetic studies of individuals in conservation breeding programs (Kalyar Platt et al. 2014)

Law enforcement

  • Make training opportunities and financial support available to patrol staff (Platt et al. 2018)
  • Reinforce pens used to acclimate tortoises at release sites (Platt et al. 2021)

Assurance Populations

Tortoises aggregate in Myanmar assurance colony

Burmese Star Tortoises bred in a Myanmar conservation program are protected from poaching.

Head-started individuals reintroduced to protected areas are successfully breeding.

Image credit: Lewis Medlock, © WCS/TSA Myanmar Turtle Program. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Identifying Individuals

Burmese Star Tortoise with shell number

Engraved identification markings help scientists track individual tortoises over time.

Religious markings engraved on the shell also deter some poachers by reducing the aesthetic value of shell and also helps conservationists identify illegally harvested tortoises.

Image credit: Swann Htet Naing Aung, © WCS/TSA Myanmar Turtle Program. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Tracking Tortoises

Burmese Star Tortoise w/ radiotransmitter on shell

Scientists use radiotelemetry to study Burmese Star Tortoises after release.

Image credit: Myo Min Win, © WCS/TSA Myanmar Turtle Program. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Size Comparison

Adult and juvenile Burmese star tortoise at SDZWA

Adult and juvenile Burmese Star Tortoises.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

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