South Asian box turtle (Cuora amboinensis)

Also known as: Malayan box turtle
GenusCuora (1)
SizeLength: up to 21.6 cm (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

The South Asian box turtle gets its name from the ability to box itself up completely within its shell. This is due to the hinged lower shell, which, like other box turtles, can be folded up when the head is withdrawn, securely protecting the animal from any predators (4). It can grow to over 20 centimetres in length which makes it the largest of the Asian box turtles, which all belong to the genus Cuora (5). The highly domed upper shell, or carapace, is dark olive or black, whilst the lower shell, or plastron, is yellow to light brown, with large dark-brown or black patches toward the outside of each scute (2). The smallish head is olive to dark brown on top, yellow to olive underneath, with three distinctive black stripes running along the side of the head, from the nostrils to the neck. It has a protruding snout and slightly hooked upper jaw (2) (4). The limbs are olive to black and large scales cover the front of the forelimbs. Males can be distinguished from females by their longer, thicker tails, and their slightly smaller size (2).

There are four known subspecies of the South Asian box turtle; Cuora amboinensis amboinensis can be found in Indonesia and the Philippines, C. a. kamaroma occurs in eastern India, the Andaman Islands, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Borneo, C. a. couro lives on the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra, Thailand, Singapore, southern Myanmar, China and Cambodia, and C. a. lineata occurs in north-eastern Myanmar (5).

Mainly inhabits warm aquatic environments, such as marshes, swamps, ponds, pools in streams and flooded rice paddies. It tends to be found in water with soft bottoms and very little current, but as a semi-aquatic turtle they are also capable of moving rapidly on land, and can be found quite far from water (2) (6).

The South Asian keeled box turtle is primarily nocturnal and spends most of its day hiding under piles of leaf litter along banks of streams (5). It feeds on a wide variety of foods, mainly aquatic plants, but also molluscs and crustaceans, and fallen fruits, fungi and soft invertebrates, such as worms and slugs, when on land (6). Turtles play a central role in their ecosystem food chain, through predation, and as prey for other forest animals (2) (5).

They have been observed performing interesting courtship behaviour, whereby the male and female face each other, and with outstretched necks they move their heads in the shape of an infinity symbol (2). However, the male has also been observed being very aggressive during courtship, chasing the female and biting her on the neck (2). Sometimes males attempt to mate with each other, which results in violent fights (6). The nesting seasons are in January to February, and April, during which time around two to three brittle, white eggs are laid. After 67 to 77 days of incubation, tiny hatchlings appear, only up to 5 centimetres long, and contrary to adults which spend as much time on land as they do in the water, juveniles are entirely aquatic (2) (4) (5). In many Cuora species, the survival rate of hatchlings is reported to be very low, as hatchlings, as well as eggs, are an important food source for monitor lizards, herons and some small mammals (5). This is likely to contribute to the low reproductive rate of box turtles. They reach sexual maturity after four to five years and have a life expectancy of between 25 and 30 years (5).

The main threat to this species, like other box turtles, is over-collection for the food and pet trade. The national and international trade in this species is massive, for example, in 1991, 200,000 South Asian box turtles were exported from Sulawesi alone, and hundreds of thousands have been imported into Hong Kong and China over the last decade. Box turtles are particularly susceptible to overexploitation due to their low reproductive rate, which means they cannot breed fast enough to replace those being taken. Exports for the pet trade are not as great as those for food markets, but still thousands have been exported to Western countries, most of them originating from Indonesia. As well as for human consumption and the pet trade, this species is used for decorative ornaments, and as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine (5). For example, they are often released into ponds at Buddhist temples, particularly in Malaysia (6), and their heads and shells are frequently sold as a tonic after childbirth (5). This unsustainable exploitation has heavily impacted on populations of the South Asian box turtle, and numbers are declining in the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand, and are thought to be verging on extinction in Lao PDR. Numbers are also likely to be decreasing in other parts of its range, but there is a lack of population status and trend data (5).

South Asian box turtles are additionally threatened by habitat loss and degradation, through extensive deforestation over much of its range, and human relocation programmes in Indonesia. About 61% of the Indonesian human population was moved from Java to Sumatra, and people have also been relocated to Sulawesi. This increase in human populations, and associated infrastructure and development, is likely to have decreased the amount of habitat available for the turtle (5).

Due to the unsustainable trade in this species, the South Asian box turtle was listed in 2000 on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and thus trade should now be strictly controlled and monitored (3). However, illegal trade still poses a significant problem, for example, Hong Kong documented an illegal import in 2003 of over 10, 000 specimens (7). It is also likely to occur in a number of protected areas throughout its large range, but at present there are no known specific conservation measures in place for this turtle. Hopefully the devastating trade in box turtles can be controlled before numbers of this fascinating reptile decline any further.

For further information on the conservation of Asian turtles 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:

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2008)
  2. Ernst, C.H., Altenburg, R.G.M. and Barbour, R.W. (1997) Turtles of the World. ETI Information Systems Ltd, Netherlands. Available at:
  3. CITES (September, 2008)
  4. Asian Turtle Conservation Network (May, 2007)
  5. CITES Proposals for Amendments of Appendices I and II (April, 2000)
  6. Bonin, F. (2006) Turtles of the World. A and C Black, London.
  7. CITES Conservation of and Trade in Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles (October, 2004)