Malaysian giant turtle (Orlitia borneensis)
|Also known as:||Bornean river turtle|
|Size||Adult shell length: up to 80 cm (2)|
Hatchling shell length: 6 cm (2)
Adult weight: 50 kg (3)
The Malaysian giant turtle is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1)
The endangered Malaysian giant turtle (Orlitia borneensis) is the largest freshwater turtle in Southeast Asia (5). Exploitation is rapidly diminishing the population of this rare and gigantic reptile as its meat is highly sought after for food (6).
The Malaysian giant turtle has a powerful head and strong jaw, with a slightly projecting snout (2) (7). The head of the adult is uniformly brown or black, whereas the juvenile is dark mottled with a pale line extending from the mouth to the back of the head. This species has a smooth oval shell or carapace, which is blackish or brown in colour. In the adult, the carapace is flatter and smooth edged, whereas the juvenile carapace is more domed and serrated. The underside, known as the plastron, is pale yellowish-brown (2).
The adult male Malaysian giant turtle possesses a longer and thicker tail than the female (2). This species has short webbed toes and long thick claws (7).
The Malaysian giant turtle is native to Indonesia and Malaysia (1).
The Malaysian giant turtle is semi-aquatic, living in freshwater. It inhabits large lakes, swamps and slow flowing rivers (5).
Little is known about the ecology and behaviour of the Malaysian giant turtle. Its diet is unknown, but this species is believed to be herbivorous (2).
The Malaysian giant turtle has a bony lung chamber encased by the side walls of the carapace to help the lungs withstand underwater pressure, making it capable of extended dives. As with all freshwater turtles, the Malaysian giant turtle swims using all of its limbs, paddling alternately to propel through the water (8).
The female Malaysian giant turtle lays enormous eggs along riverbanks, which are oval-shaped with brittle shells (2) (8). Little is known about the clutch size or the nesting season of the Malaysian giant turtle; however, most large turtles lay a clutch of eggs once or twice a year (8). Local native people have said that the Malaysian giant turtle nests in piles of debris, but this has not yet been observed by scientists (2).
The forest-dwelling people of the Malaysian Peninsula continue to rely on freshwater turtles as part of their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, while throughout southeast Asia, freshwater turtles are unsustainably exploited for local food sources, international trade and medicinal markets (9) (10).
A major threat to the survival of this species is the substantial market for its meat, use in the Chinese medicinal trade, and for the pet market. Nearly a million native live turtles of various species were exported from Malaysia in 1999 (6) (11) (12). There is little regulation of the laws protecting the Malaysian giant turtle, and trappers are illegally operating in forest reserves and parks in Peninsular Malaysia (9).
The Malaysian giant turtle is exported from Indonesia in large quantities, despite official protection, and is traded in East Asian food markets in huge numbers (1) (13). The Malaysian giant turtle is common in the food markets of Chao Tou in Ghangzhou, China (6).
Another threat to the Malaysian giant turtle is habitat degradation of Peninsular Malaysia where there is large scale conversion of forests to palm oil plantations (14).
The Malaysian giant turtle is protected in Sarawak on the island of Borneo under the Fauna Conservation Ordinance of 1963; however, this species is not protected in every state of Malaysia (8).
International trade of the Malaysian giant turtle is carefully monitored due to its listing on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but despite being protected in Indonesia, evidence has shown extensive illegal trafficking still occurs (4) (15).
A turtle conservation centre was set up in 2009 in Setiu, Malaysia, to rescue captured freshwater turtles. The aim is to provide nesting habitats for the confiscated animals, along with creating a research centre for conservation and education (16). Scientists at the site are currently gathering and burying eggs of endangered turtle species to prevent fishermen and villagers collecting the eggs (17). Such rescue and breeding centres are desperately needed for the survival of the Malaysian giant turtle (17).
Learn more about turtle conservation:
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Turtle Conservation Centre:
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- Carapace: the top shell of a turtle or tortoise. In arthropods (insects, crabs etc), the fused head and thorax (the part of the body located near the head), also known as the ‘cephalothorax’.
- Herbivorous: having a diet that comprises only vegetable matter.
- Plastron: the lower shell of a turtle or tortoise.
IUCN Red List (December, 2010)
- Ernst, C.H., Altenburg, R.G.M. and Barbour, R.W. (1997) Turtles of the World. ETI Information Systems Ltd., Netherlands.
- Halliday, T., and Adler, K. (2002) The New Encyclopaedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
CITES (December, 2010)
Ecology Asia - Malayan giant terrapin (December, 2010)
World Chelonian Trust - Malaysian giant turtle (December, 2010)
- Gray, J.E. (1873) On a new freshwater tortoise from Borneo (Orlitia borneensis). Annals and Magazine of Natural History, 11(62): 156-157.
- Moll, D., and Moll, E.O. (2004) The Ecology, Exploitation and Conservation of River Turtles. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Sharma, D.S.K. and Tisen, O.B. (2000) Freshwater turtle and tortoise utilization and conservation status in Malaysia. Asian Turtle Trade: Proceedings of a workshop on conservation and trade of freshwater turtles and tortoises in Asia. Chelonian Research Monographs, 2: 120-128.
- Baillie, J.E.M., Hilton-Taylor, C. and Stuart, S.N. (2004) IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. A Global Assessment. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.
Buhlmann, K.A., Hudson, R. and Rhodin, G.J. (2002) A Global Action Plan for Conservation of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles: Strategy and Funding Prospectus. Turtle Conservation Fund, Conservation International and chelonian research foundation. Available at:
CITES (2001) An Overview of the Trade in Live South-east Asian Freshwater Turtles. An information paper for the 17th meeting of the CITES Animal Committee, Hanoi, Viet Nam. Available at:
- IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group (2000) Changes to 1996 IUCN Red List status of Asian turtle species. In: van Dijk, P.P., Stuart, B.L. and Rhodin, A.G.J. (Eds.) Asian Turtle Trade: Proceedings of a Workshop on Conservation and Trade of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises in Asia. Chelonian Research Monographs, 2: 156-164.
- CITES (2004) Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flor:, Amendments to Appendices I and II of CITES. 13th Meeting of the Conferences of the Parties, Bangkok, Thailand.
- Shepherd, C.R. (2000) Export of live freshwater turtles and tortoises from North Sumatra and Riau, Indonesia: A case study. Chelonian Research Monographs, 2: 112-119.
The Turtle Conservation Centre (December, 2010)
Turtle Survival Alliance (January, 2011)