Conservationists in Koh Kong province have found a nest of 16 eggs of the critically endangered royal turtle, the Wildlife Conservation Society announced today.

The discovery in Sre Ambel district, the first of the year, was made on February 3 by WCS staff working with the Fisheries Administration and local communities along the Sre Ambel river near Preah Angkeo village, said Eng Mengey, the conservation group's communications officer.

The royal turtle, known also as the southern river terrapin, was designated as Cambodia’s national reptile in 2005. It was believed to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the river in 2000. Only three nests have been found in the past two years.

“Despite success after the species was re-discovered in 2000, the royal turtle is still at high risk of extinction,” said Som Sitha, WCS’s technical adviser.

So named because it is thought that only members of the royal family were allowed to eat the eggs in the past, WCS says the royal turtle is currently threatened by clearance of flooded forests, illegal fishing and the illicit wildlife trade.

Fisheries official In Hul, a WCS project coordinator, said the reptile’s breeding period spans from January to March. Four guards have been hired to guard the freshwater turtle’s nest until the eggs hatch, WCS said.

“If we find a nest, we will work with the local community to protect it until the eggs hatch and then bring the hatchlings to Koh Kong Reptile Conservation Center where they will be cared for until they are mature and can be released back to the wild,” Hul said.

Currently there’s no estimate of the population of royal turtles, but a recent count of females in the Sre Ambel river system found fewer than 10, according WCS’s Mengey.