Protecting one of nature’s drabbest masterpieces from collectors…and extinction — the painted terrapin

By Muhammad Zaid Nasir, Painted Terrapin researcher, WWF-Malaysia

Painted terrapin hatchling © WWF Malaysia / Muhammad Zaid Nasir

It is relatively easy to raise funds or awareness about the plight of adorable, big-eyed, chubby-cheeked, fluffy wildlife. But what about endangered species that don’t conform to our man-made standards of ‘cuteness’? As a field biologist for WWF-Malaysia, I find myself asking this question all the time.

Take the Critically Endangered painted terrapin, for example. I have been studying these plain-looking freshwater turtles in the picturesque Setiu Wetlands of Terengganu since 2016. Not much is known about this species, which makes me wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that it’s not the world’s most attractive endangered animal.

Compared to the hawksbill turtle’s distinctive amber and warm brown-mottled carapace that inspires a timeless fashion trend called ‘tortoiseshell’, a painted terrapin’s skin and shell are just plain old boring grey. And it doesn’t benefit from photos with gorgeous accessories, such as colourful coral reefs or blue ocean backgrounds, like the hawksbill or the other sea turtles, which are so much more famous!

The only time this freshwater species breaks out of its shell (figuratively) is from January to June, when the males undergo a Cinderella-like transformation during the mating season. Each male transforms his carapace from drab to dazzling as it lightens in colour to showcase striking black markings. They also use another fashion trick, turning their heads pure white and develop a bright red strip between their eyes. And this is why the species is called the painted terrapin.

Male painted terrapin during the mating season © WWF Malaysia / Muhammad Zaid Nasir

The ladies of the species, however, prefer to remain understated for the entire year.

But drab does not mean dull. And it certainly doesn’t mean docile. Because trust me, you don’t want to try pinching a painted terrapin, unless you don’t mind losing a finger or two in the process. I’ve come close to this before while tagging a female painted terrapin after she had just finished laying her eggs on the beach. I can’t really blame her though. I mean, who wouldn’t be snappy after swimming all the way from a mangrove forest or river estuary to lay your eggs on an ocean beach — and then you end up being grabbed and tagged?

And that’s just one of the incredible facts about this freshwater turtle: while their eggs hatch on beaches, painted terrapins don’t head for the open ocean but instead make their way towards land and settle down in rivers. And like their sea-going cousins, pregnant painted terrapins return to the same beach where they hatched to lay their eggs.

Painted terrapin hatchling © WWF Malaysia / Muhammad Zaid Nasir

Unfortunately, this predictable nesting behaviour leaves them particularly vulnerable to habitat destruction and to poachers who steal the eggs to eat or sell — leaving these remarkable creatures clinging to survival. And they are sadly far from the only freshwater turtles at real risk of extinction. Bet you didn’t know that there are more than 250 different species of freshwater turtle — making up over 80% of the world’s turtle and tortoise species? Or that more than half of the world’s freshwater turtles are on the endangered list — threatened by habitat destruction, hunting and illegal trafficking.

The world will be a much drabber place without freshwater turtles. And we are doing everything we can in the Setiu wetlands to ensure that painted terrapins survive to play their critical role in keeping the ecosystem healthy for other species and communities.

Muhammad Zaid Nasir protecting painted terrapins ©WWF Malaysia

Our freshwater team does night patrols during the nesting season to deter poaching and also to gather eggs for the hatchery, where we try to ensure that as many make it out of the eggs as possible. Unlike marine turtles, these less charismatic chelonians only lay about 5–15 eggs per clutch, and since there is no guarantee that each egg will hatch, this species’ survival odds would be pretty low — without our help.

But we need to do more. We need more researchers to study painted terrapins, because they might be ‘no oil paintings’ but they are priceless parts of the natural world and yet we know so little about them. We also need more funds to hire and train more people from the local communities to help conserve them, to establish a better hatchery, and to buy more field equipment such as microchips, scanners and satellite trackers.

But it’s hard trying to tug people’s heartstrings when the species probably reminds them of cold, snobbish relatives with their upturned snouts (which actually help them pluck riparian vegetation that has fallen into the water).

Painted terrapin hatchling © WWF Malaysia / Muhammad Zaid Nasir

If only you could get to see them like I do. Then you would appreciate how beautiful and extraordinary they are. Maybe then — perhaps on the next World Turtle Day — you would spare a thought for the painted terrapin. And the other freshwater turtles holding on against the odds around the world. And remember that together we can paint a brighter future for this Critically Endangered species.

WWF’s freshwater team in Setiu © WWF Malaysia / Muhammad Zaid Nasir

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