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Turtle detection dogs start getting results

Cuora galbinifrons found during field survey in Pu Hu nature reserve, Vietnam

From the 3rd to 10th of July 2011 a survey team of the Asian Turtle Program (ATP) of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo working with the Centre for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies (CRES) of Hanoi University headed for Thanh Hoa Province and the remote Pu Hu nature reserve. Interviews in June found that a number of rare and important tortoise and freshwater turtle species occur in the heavily forest reserve but with little information known for the area field surveys were conducted to confirm species presence and gather a better understanding of their status within the reserve.

As with many southeast Asian countries hunting has resulted in many turtle populations been greatly reduced, some species have declined to such levels that they are now on the verge of extinction and considered critically endangered. The genus Cuora represents one of the most threatened groups of turtles, of 13 Cuora species 12 are critically endangered. Many are localized endemics which still remain poorly known in the wild. With field work in tropical forest environments physically challenging, especially when searching for rare and well camouflaged species dogs are a valuable tool.

During the field survey two surveys dogs were involved, both had been trained in May 2010 as part of a program to establish a group of working survey dogs in Vietnam for ongoing research and surveys. Training at Cuc Phuong National Park in Ninh Binh Province had used captive turtles from the Turtle Conservation Centre (TCC) in training. But despite four field surveys during late 2010 and early 2011 the dogs had yet to get results.

Working in the tough environment the dogs and handlers were harassed by leeches and ticks in the thick humid undergrowth. After four days without result the team was already getting exhausted and demoralized. However, during a transect search on day five they suddenly heard one of the dogs, Rex, barking franticly. The team rushed to the location and found one of the dogs pulling a Indochinese Box turtle (Cuora galbinifrons) from its hiding place. Ms. Le Mai Thanh Tram who was leading the detection dog team said “the whole team was ecstatic, jumping up and down and hugging Rex”, as it was the team’s first success following months of training.

Cuora galbinifrons was the species described during interviews the team want to confirm, critically endangered it’s a priority for future conservation activities in Vietnam and confirming its presence in Pu Hu nature reserve is important to creating a better understanding of its distribution and priority areas for conservation work. Surveys using Rex and the team in northern Vietnam and a second team in central Vietnam will continue through 2011 and 2012 as part of conservation projects supported by the Critically Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), Turtle Conservation Fund (TCF) and the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund to develop a strategy for conservation of important tortoise and freshwater turtle species in Vietnam.


Questions we are often asked about the survey dogs:

Q. Why don’t you bring in trained dogs from the USA?

A. A big part of our program focused on the survey dogs involved a training course for national program staff here in Vietnam. We want to provide the necessary skills in training and handling dogs so this can be developed as a research tool here in Vietnam. Not just provide a dog for a handful of surveys.

Q. Why don’t you use local hunting dogs?

A. Local hunting dogs are efficient at finding turtles, unfortunately they are also efficient at hunting other wildlife, small carnivores, wild pig and even macaques are reportedly hunted with dogs in some areas of Vietnam. Unfortunately if hunting dogs go after something in the forest they are difficult to control and call back and as such have high risks associated with their use. Also by taking local hunters with their dogs we could be potentially introducing them to new sites or sites too which they will return once we have left the field and collect the animals. As a conservation organization we have to consider risks our research can pose and not just results.

Q. How do you train the dogs to find turtles?

A. The process is fairly simple, introduce the turtle scent in relation to a reward and build on this with repeated training and making the scent, and reward more difficult to find. Some of it is down to the individual dog and it personality, from six dogs initially selected for training two have show real ability, where finding the turtle is more exciting for them than the reward. Having a professional team from Barking Mad in the UK provide training has been invaluable in getting to the point we are at now.

Q. Why did you chose local dogs to train?

A. Local dogs were selected rather than importing popular breeds and pre-trained dogs, as these dogs already acclimatized and adapted to life in a tropical environment and are more affordable. Our other option would be to important a single dog rather than train a team. Its also good to think Rex has now been trained and proved him self as a survey dog as he was a regular village dog destined for the dinner table with dog meat a specialty dish in Vietnam.


Written by: Sarah Wahl & Tim McCormack - Asian Turtle Program

21st July 2011

Survey by: Le Mai Thanh Tram & Nguyen Tai Thang - Asian Turtle Program Field Officers

Le Ngoc Hai - Pu Hu Nature Reserve, Forest Protection Department

We would also like to thank the local guides and volunteers who participated in the survey

detction dog finds turtle

Rex score, finding the Indochinese Box Turtle under thick leaf litter which otherwise would have been almost impossible for the team to find


Pu Hu forest

Pu Hu Nature Reserve is 23,450Ha with plenty of good habitat for these critically endangered turtle remaining


Thang collects dataNguyen Tai Thang collects morphometic data on the turtle while explaining the process to Tran Van Dung, a volunteer student from Vietnam Forestry University


well camoflaged turtle

The Cuora galbinifrons is well camouflaged in it natural environment and easily missed in the complex habitat


collecting data

The Team practice collecting data

Thank you:


We would like to thank Pu Hu Nature Reserve and Thanh Hoa Province Forest Protection Department for support during the survey. Also the the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), Birdlife International, and Turtle Conservation Fund (TCF) for supporting the survey. The Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and Barking Mad Dog Training School for providing training.

This project was also conducted in partnership with Centre for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies (CRES) of Hanoi University.

birdlife cepf

mbz tcf

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For more information please contact:

Asian Turtle Program (ATP) of Cleveland Metoparks Zoo,
Office: Room#1302, Thanh Cong Tower, 57 Lang Ha Street,
Ba Dinh, Hanoi, Vietnam

Tel: +84 (0) 4 3514 9750
Fax: +84 (0) 4 3514 9750 Ext11




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