Striped narrow-headed softshell turtle (Chitra chitra)

Also known as: Southeast Asian narrow-headed softshell turtle, striped giant soft-shelled turtle
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassReptilia
OrderTestudines
FamilyTrionychidae
GenusChitra (1)
SizeCarapace length: up to 122 cm (2) (3)
Weightup to 202 kg (3)

The striped narrow-headed softshell turtle is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1) and is listed on Appendix II of CITES (4).

The magnificent striped narrow-headed softshell turtle (Chitra chitra) is one of the largest freshwater turtles (2) (3), with a carapace reaching impressive lengths of up to 122 centimetres (2) (3). This species is easily distinguished from other softshell turtles by the exquisite, boldly striped pattern of dark wavy lines on the upper surface of its head, neck, and shell (5).

The striped narrow-headed softshell turtle has a light brown to yellowish-brown carapace which can be rounded or slightly elongated (2), and the plastron is cream-coloured to pinkish-white, with no pattern or markings (2) (5). The head is long and narrow, with the eyes close to the tip of the snout (5). Adult male striped narrow-headed softshell turtles can be distinguished from females and juveniles by their longer, thicker tails (2).

The two subspecies of the striped narrow-headed softshell turtle have slightly different distributions. Chitra chitra chitra is restricted to the Mae Klong and Chao Phraya basins of western Thailand and the Tahan river basin of Peninsular Malaysia, while Chitra chitra javanica is found only on the islands of Sumatra and Java in Indonesia (3) (5) (6) (7).

A freshwater aquatic species, the striped narrow-headed softshell turtle prefers large rivers with clear, flowing water and sandy bottoms (3) (5).

This aquatic species lives and feeds in the water, rarely venturing on land, possibly only doing so to nest. The striped narrow-headed softshell turtle digs a 50 to 75 centimetre-deep nest cavity into the river bank, into which 60 to 117 round, white eggs are deposited before the rainy season. After the eggs have been laid, the female will use her forelimbs to cover them up with sand (2).

The striped narrow-headed softshell turtle is carnivorous, feeding on fish, prawns, crabs and clams. To catch fish, the neck is rapidly outstretched and the fish is seized in the mouth as it swims by (2).

Like many tortoises and turtles of Southeast Asia, the striped narrow-headed softshell turtle has been intensively exploited and over-collected from the wild for the Asian food market and international pet trade (1). Indeed, adult striped narrow-headed softshell turtles are prized as status symbol pets in Thailand, where commercial breeding farms have often taken dozens of animals from the wild without producing a single captive-bred hatchling (6).

In addition, the striped narrow-headed softshell turtle has suffered badly from habitat destruction caused by deforestation in Indonesia, as a result of conversion into agricultural land, human settlements, logging operations and forest fires (6).

In Thailand, river pollution and alteration, including sand dredging and dam and reservoir construction, have also dramatically impacted turtle populations. Striped narrow-headed softshell turtles are now frequently seen in reservoirs or in densely settled downstream river sections, rather than their preferred habitat of clear, fresh-flowing water. Periodic water releases from reservoirs put important nesting sites at risk of inundation (2) (3).

These combined threats have left the striped narrow-headed softshell turtle in a highly precarious position, so much so that, in 2003, it was officially recognised as one of the world’s top 25 most endangered turtles (8).

The striped narrow-headed softshell turtle is given national protection in Indonesia under the law on Conservation of Biological Natural Resources and their Ecosystems. This prohibits utilisation of the species in any form, except with special permission for circumstances such as research or captive breeding. In Thailand, this turtle is specifically protected under the Wild Animals Reservation and Protection ACT (WARPA), which controls hunting, trade, possession, import, export and commercial breeding of wildlife (6).

Furthermore, numerous protected areas with important wetland habitat that may contain this species exist in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, where collecting or disturbance of wildlife is prohibited, although its presence in these protected areas is largely unconfirmed. However, enforcement of protection laws and prevention of encroachment into protected areas are often constrained by lack of resources (6).

Captive breeding projects have been established for this turtle in Thailand, but these have been only moderately successful, with the species so far breeding poorly under captive conditions (6). Thus, it has been advocated that the striped narrow-headed softshell turtle, as one of the world’s 25 most endangered turtles, should be upgraded to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), with prohibitions on hunting for food and the pet trade strictly enforced (2).

Additionally, the formation of protected areas within the striped narrow-headed softshell turtle’s range must continue if there is to be any chance of winning the battle to save this huge, exquisite, Critically Endangered turtle (2).

For more information on the striped narrow-headed softshell turtle, see:

Authenticated (07/10/11) by Olivier S. G. Pauwels, Research Associate at the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences, Brussels, Belgium.
http://www.pauwelsolivier.com

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Ernst, C.H., Altenburg, R.G.M. and Barbour, R.W. (1997) Turtles of the World. ETI Information Systems Ltd., Netherlands. Available at:
    http://nlbif.eti.uva.nl/bis/turtles.php
  3. Kitimasak, W., Thirakhupt, K., Boonyaratpalin, S. and Moll, D.L. (2005) Distribution and population status of the narrow-headed softshell turtle Chitra spp. in Thailand. The Natural History Journal of Chulalongkorn University, 5(1): 31-42.
  4. CITES (March, 2012)
    http://www.cites.org/
  5. Asian Turtle Conservation Network (March, 2006)
    http://www.asianturtlenetwork.org/field_guide/chitra_chitra.htm
  6. CITES - Twelfth meeting of the Conference of the Parties, Santiago (Chile), 3-15 November 2002 - Consideration of Proposals for Amendment of Appendices I and II. Prop. 12.31. Available at:
    http://www.cites.org/eng/cop/12/prop/E12-P31.pdf
  7. McCord, W.P. and Pritchard, P.C.H. (2002) A review of the softshell turtles of the genus Chitra, with the description of new taxa from Myanmar and Indonesia (Java). Hamadryad, 27: 11-56.
  8. The World’s Top 25 Most Endangered Turtles - 2003 (March, 2012)
    http://www.asianturtlenetwork.org/library/reports_papers/reports/the_worlds_25_most_endangered.pdf