Burmese starred tortoise (Geochelone platynota)

Also known as: Flatback tortoise
Synonyms: Testudo platynota
  
French: Tortue Étoilée De Birmanie
Spanish: Tortuga Estrellada De Burma
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassReptilia
OrderTestudines
FamilyTestudinidae
GenusGeochelone (1)
SizeCarapace length: 26 cm (2)

Classified as Critically Endangered (CR A1cd+2cd, C2a) on the IUCN Red List 2004 (1) and listed on Appendix I of CITES (3).

Of all tortoises characterised by the highly distinctive ‘star’ or ‘radiating’ patterns on their carapace, the Burmese star tortoise is perhaps the rarest and most beautiful (4). The dark brown to black, domed carapace is marked with up to six radiating yellow stripes emerging from small, yellow, central areas, creating the ‘star’ pattern that gives the tortoise its unique appearance. The underside of the shell (plastron) is yellow, with each scute having a dark brown or black ‘notch’. Skin on the head, limbs and tail is also yellow to tan, with large, pointed to rounded scales on the front of the forelimbs. A large, horny scale also appears at the end of the tail, with males being distinguished from females by their much longer and thicker tails (2).

Endemic to central Myanmar (formerly Burma) (1) (5).

Found in forests and forest edges in the dry zone of central Myanmar (2) (5) (6).

The Burmese star tortoise is among the least studied of all living tortoises and virtually nothing is known of its behavioural ecology in the wild (5). This diurnal species spends its days searching for food, except during the warmer hours of the day, when it rests in the shade of vegetation (6). The species feeds on a range of vegetation, predominantly grass, as well as mushrooms, fruit and possibly insects and larvae (7) (8). Nesting has been reported to occur at the end of February (2), and usually four to five eggs are produced when in captivity (7).

Like many turtles and tortoises of Southeast Asia, the Burmese star tortoise has undergone dramatic declines due to the increasing demand in the Asian market, in which it is sold for its meat and perceived medicinal value (9). Although ‘subsistence’ gathering of the species has occurred for hundreds of years by native people, together with collection for its yellow-rayed carapace, which is used for a container for cooking oil, seeds etc., the impact was relatively small and sustainable. In recent years, however, subsistence has been replaced by mass commercial harvesting as the price of this species skyrocketed in the Asian markets (primarily Taiwan and China) (8). The tortoise has also been hard hit recently by the illegal international pet trade, often ending up in European and North American collections (9). With their distinctive markings and dramatic colours, these tortoises are attractive to collectors and their rarity makes them particularly valuable (10). Indeed, adults can fetch up to US$7,000 each from private collectors in the Western world (10), and this high price and demand encourages overexploitation of wild populations (5). Habitat destruction and wild fires also pose a threat to these tortoises, particularly to smaller individuals (5).

The Burmese star tortoise exists in two protected areas, Shwe Settaw Wildlife Sanctuary and Minzontaung Wildlife Sanctuary, and an area proposed for protected status, Myaleik Taung. At the Minzontaung Wildlife Sanctuary and Myaleik Taung the species is protected by local religious beliefs that deem it bad luck to collect the tortoises, and commercial poaching is so far virtually non-existent. The Sanctuary is also well patrolled by guards, with access strictly controlled, and wild fires are managed. The Minzontaung Wildlife Sanctuary and Myaleik Taung therefore offer excellent potential for the successful conservation of the Burmese star tortoise (5). Sadly, the Shwe Settaw Wildlife Sanctuary does not seem to be faring so well, which has recently been reduced by around 30% due to the sale of a large tract to an agricultural development consortium. Subsistence and commercial harvest from the Sanctuary is commonplace, with one village trader admitting to collecting 300 individuals in 6 months, and there being at least one trader in every village. The Burmese star tortoise is fully protected by law and it is a capital offence to remove them from the wild. However, the Myanmar Government reportedly ignore the capture and sale of these tortoises or are easily bribed, with rampant civil war and radical guerrilla soldiers near the borders deterring police involvement there. A captive breeding programme has been set up at the Shwe Settaw Wildlife Sanctuary but hybridisation with Indotestudo elongata in a shared fenced area has been common. There is also evidence that this area is quickly grazed and tortoises here starve to death at an alarming rate. Stricter enforcement of protection laws is desperately needed and more effective management protocols at this Sanctuary, but as long as a lucrative market exists, tortoise hunting is likely to remain an attractive economic option for rural people (8). One suggestion has been to promote the significance of rural religious beliefs for the benefit of tortoise conservation in this area, which has helped protect this beautiful species so effectively in the Minzontaung Wildlife Sanctuary and Myaleik Taung (5). However, in a financially depressed society such as this, the economic lure of such profitable natural resources may sadly win out (8).

For more information on the Burmese starred tortoise see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
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  1. IUCN Red List (January, 2006)
    http://www.redlist.org
  2. Turtles of the World (CD-ROM), by Ernst, C.H., Altenburg, R.G.M. & Barbour, R.W. (March, 2006)
    http://nlbif.eti.uva.nl/bis/turtles.php?selected=foto&menuentry=inleiding&id=1
  3. CITES (January, 2006)
    http://www.cites.org
  4. World Chelonian Trust (March, 2006)
    http://www.chelonia.org/sexing/sexing_Geochelone_platynota.htm
  5. Platt, S.G., Win Ko Ko, Lay Lay Khaing, Khin Myo Myo, Thanda Swe, Tint Lwin and Rainwater, T.R. (2003) Population status and conservation of the Critically Endangered Burmese Star Tortoise Geochelone platynota in central Myanmar. Oryx, 37(4): 464 – 471. (October, 2003)
    http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayIssue?jid=ORX&volumeId=37&issueId=04
  6. Tarta Club Italia (March, 2006)
    http://www.tartaclubitalia.it/specieterrestri/platynota/caroldi/caroldi001.htm
  7. Testudomaniac.com (March, 2006)
    http://membres.lycos.fr/testudo/geocheloneplatynota.html
  8. Tortoise Trust – Behind the Scenes: A Tortoise Survey of the Shwe Settaw Wildlife Sanctuary, Myanmar (March, 2006)
    http://www.tortoisetrust.org/articles/shwesettaw.html
  9. Wildlife Conservation Society - Low Tortoise Numbers Alarm Researchers (March, 2006)
    http://www.wcs.org/wcspubs/wcsreports/460720
  10. Southeastern Outdoors - San Francisco Man Sentenced for Smuggling Rare Tortoises  (March, 2006)
    http://www.southeasternoutdoors.com/wildlife/reptiles/article/tortoise-smuggling-conviction.html