Yellow-headed temple turtle (Heosemys annandalii)

Synonyms: Cyclemys annandalii, Hieremys annandalii
GenusHieremys (1)
SizeLength: up to 60 cm (2)

Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

This large, aquatic turtle is named after the distinct yellow bands that decorate its head (2), and the custom of placing these turtles in the pools and canals of Buddhist temples (4). The yellow bands of the head are conspicuous against the blackish-olive colour of the skin, and the dark brown or black upper shell (carapace) (4). The shell on the underside of the turtle (the plastron) is yellow, with a large black blotch on each of the bony scales that make up the shell. As the turtle ages, these blotches often enlarge and merge together, creating an entirely black plastron (4). The limbs are usually dark grey on the upper surfaces, lighter grey below, and the webbed toes are perfectly suited to a life moving about in water. Male and female yellow-headed temple turtles can be distinguished by the thicker tail and concave plastron of the male (4).

The yellow-headed temple turtle has a fragmented range (2), occurring in Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia (5).

This semi-aquatic turtle inhabits flooded fields, wet forests, swamps, and very slow-flowing rivers (2) (4). It has been found near the mouth of the Chao Phraya River near Bangkok, and so can apparently tolerate brackish water (4).

Being a herbivorous turtle, this species feeds on vegetation found growing in its aquatic habitat, as well as land plants that overhang the water and fruits that have fallen into reach (2) (5). Like all turtles and tortoises, the yellow-headed temple turtle possesses no teeth, and instead munches through its food using its sharp, bony jaws (6).

Mating in turtles usually takes place with the male mounting the female from behind, a position that demonstrates the purpose of the male’s concave plastron, which allows the male to get in the right position over the female’s domed carapace (7). Between the months of December and January, the yellow-headed temple turtle excavates a nest, into which a clutch of around four elongated, hard-shelled eggs is laid (4).

Like many river turtles (8), the yellow-headed temple turtle is slowly being edged towards extinction as a result of man’s actions. Taken from the wild for its meat and eggs, for use in tradition medicines, for the pet trade and for release into Buddhist temples (5), the yellow-headed temple turtle is now considered to be Endangered (1). Accentuating the impacts of exploitation in some areas is the threat of habitat loss. The lowland riverine habitat of the turtle in Lao PDR is unfortunately shared with high densities of people, while in Malaysia, suitable swamp habitat is at risk of being drained for land development. Suitable habitat is Thailand is also vulnerable to degradation, with pollution and entanglement in fishing nets also affecting the yellow-headed temple turtle (5).

Throughout its range, the yellow-headed temple turtle occurs in numerous protected areas and there are also national laws in place offering this species some protection, although illegal trade remains of concern (5). In 2003, this turtle was listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that any international trade in this species should now be carefully monitored to ensure it is compatible with its survival (5), a measure which will hopefully go some way to aid the long term survival of this turtle.

For further information on the conservation of turtles in Asia, 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 (April, 2008)
  2. Bonin, F., Devaux, B. and Dupré, A. (2006) Turtles of the World. A&C Black Publishers Ltd, London.
  3. CITES (April, 2008)
  4. Ernst, C.H., Altenburg, R.G.M. and Barbour, R.W. (1997) Turtles of the World. ETI Information Systems Ltd, Netherlands.
  5. CITES. (2002) Consideration of Proposals for Amendment of Appendices I and II, Proposal 23. Twelfth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties, Santiago, Chile. Available at:
  6. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  7. Halliday, T. and Adler, K. (2002) The New Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  8. Moll, D. and Moll, E.O. (2004) The Ecology, Exploitation and Conservation of River Turtles. Oxford University Press, Oxford.