“What the Shell am I doing in Vietnam?”

Meet Orlitia. Orlitia is an endangered Malaysian Giant Turtle (Orlitia borneensis) who has ended up on the wrong side of Asia.

Likely due to the illegal wildlife trade, she has found herself on quite an adventure. Hauled out by a fisherman from Suoi Hai lake in Ba Vi district, Hanoi, Vietnam in November 2017, she was initially thought by local fishermen to be a legendary Hoan Kiem Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). This is a species historically found in lakes in this area and linked to a 15th-century legend that bestowed magical powers to a group of animals of the same species that occurred in Hanoi’s central Hoan Kiem Lake, a population that sadly no longer survives. Believing that Orlitia would bring him good fortune, the fisherman had been worshipping her.

Orlitia is a female Malaysian Giant Turtle (Orlitia borneensis), native to Malaysia and Indonesia. Photo by: Nguyen Thu Thuy – ATP/IMC.

The fisherman sold the turtle back to the lake owner who released it back into the lake; believing he was doing something good for conservation and the animal. However, following up on the case, the Asian Turtle Program (ATP) of Indo Myanmar Conservation (IMC) was able to determine that the animal was not the same species as the Hoan Kiem Turtle, but was actually a Malaysian Giant Turtle (Orlitia borneensis), a species not even native to Vietnam that must have arrived through the illegal wildlife trade and somehow been released or escaped into Suoi Hai Lake. With cold winters in northern Vietnam, it is far too cold for this species which occurs in the more tropical rivers of Malaysia and Indonesia.

Fortunately, in January 2018, Orlitia was recaptured by another fisherman and the ATP/IMC, along with the government, rescued her and were able to transfer her to the Turtle Conservation Centre (TCC) of Cuc Phuong National Park to be cared for.

Orlitia’s pond is contained within the homemade greenhouse in the winter. Photo by: Jack Carney – ATP/IMC

Efforts have been made by the ATP/IMC and the TCC to coordinate with the Malaysian Turtle Conservation Society and TRAFFIC in Malaysia, to transfer her home to Malaysia either for release into a national park or to join a governmental breeding program. However, we have been unable to do this so far, and a temporary greenhouse was built at the TCC to help Orlitia through the first winter in the outdoor pond she is currently housed in, but ideally, something more permanent is needed.

The ATP/IMC is always seeking to raise support for new developments, rescues and releases and, in the case of Orlitia, hopefully, a return to her native country. If you would like to support ATP/IMC’s work, please visit: https://asianturtleprogram.org/donate  or donate to our PayPal: support@asianturtleprogram.org.

Press release by: Thuy Nguyen & Timothy McCormack – ATP/IMC
Date: 3rd August 2021

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