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Scientists fight to protect once believed extinct Nubian flapshell Turtle

The Nubian flapshell Turtle

The Nubian flapshell Turtle

A herpetologist and expert on the conservation of amphibians and reptiles at the Institute for Development of Ecology, Conservation and Cooperation Dr Mathias Behangana has urged the government to protect and conserve the Nubian flapshell turtles to avoid their extinction from the world.

Sharing his research with journalists in a virtual science café of the NileWell, a project of InfoNile, Behangana explained that there is a need to sensitize the public about the Nubian flapshell turtle, scientifically known as Cyclanorbis elegans, to avoid their destruction by the locals.

“To avoid the global extinction of one of the most threatened turtle species in the world, there is a need to conduct awareness campaigns with local communities and government agencies in order to enhance the local protection for this exceedingly rare species and enhance the capacity building of local communities and training of local young scientists for future improvements of the conservation management of the species at the country level,” he says.

According to the 2021 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list, the Nubian flapshell turtle has been characterized as a critically endangered species and is one of the five most threatened chelonians.

Behangana says the Nubian flapshell turtle was once presumed extinct everywhere and was believed to have existed in countries like Ghana, Togo, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, and Sudan however; it made an unexpected return in River Nile in some parts of Uganda and South Sudan.

He says they have been found at river shores along Enyau, a tributary of river Nile and along the Nile to Laropi and Dufile near the border to Paanzalla and river Onyama in South Sudan and remain largely unsecured and unprotected.

He explains that in 2017, a research team led by Prof Luca Luiselli from the United States Fish and Wildlife Services, Turtle Survival Alliance and the Rainforest Trust – rediscovered the Nubian flapshell turtle along the White Nile River in South Sudan and in 2021 the turtle has also discovered in northern Uganda nearby the border with South Sudan.

“In 2021 we discovered for the first time this species in Uganda, and new data are coming in 2022/23," he said, adding that more sightings are being recorded between Pakwach and the border with South Sudan.

Although they have not yet discovered what the Nubian flapshell turtle feeds on, it is a large animal weighing 100kg and is being consumed and its eggs by fishermen and pastoralists in South Sudan are a source of proteins.

“Collection for local consumption occurs and may be widespread and intensive if any significant populations remain anywhere, as the animals are large and their meat is highly esteemed,” he says.

As though that is not enough, the turtles also face pressures of extensive habitat destruction by sand mining, damming, channelization, and water pollution.

“The habitat of the Nubian flapshell turtle has been most touched by industrial development; planned hydrologic interventions upstream from the wetlands of South Sudan which could have drastic consequences,” he says.

Behangana says there is a need to monitor, access, and establish habitats for the turtles.

“Surveys of the distribution, population status, and trends of Cyclanorbis elegans as well as observed potential threats across the range with emphasis on South Sudan and Northern Uganda are urgently required," says the researcher. 

Once conserved, Behangana also says that the turtle could boost the tourism industry.

“It is not found in a zoo anywhere in the world, except a few shells in museums in areas where it was once thought to have existed,” he says.

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