Almost 300 Cambodian reptiles rescued from smugglers

May 1, 2008 5:16:55 AM PDT

Twelve endangered yellow-headed temple turtles were among the nearly 300 reptiles - weighing a total of 925 pounds - that authorities confiscated this week in Cambodia's northwestern Battambang province, the Washington, D.C.-based Wildlife Alliance said.

It said the animals were freed Wednesday following their rescue Monday, when Wildlife Alliance members were with Cambodian forestry officials and police who stopped a pickup truck taking the animals to Vietnam.

Cooperation between the Wildlife Alliance and various government conservation agencies is "making significant impacts on a multimillion-dollar illegal wildlife trade in Cambodia as various trade routes and wildlife stockpile locations have been exposed," the alliance said in a statement.

Two dozen reticulated and Burmese pythons were among the cargo, which also included yellow-headed temple turtles, which are significant in Cambodian folklore and legends, the statement said.

"In stone carvings on the walls of Angkorian temples, they are depicted as divine creatures of royalty; yet their numbers steadily decrease each year due to habitat loss and the illegal wildlife trade," the alliance said.

Dany Chheang, deputy director of the wildlife protection office at Cambodia's Agriculture Ministry, called the seizure the biggest in recent memory.

"It was very important that we broke this case of illegal trading. These animals are a national asset," he said.

The statement said an army lieutenant, Hong Try, was held for questioning about the smuggling. It did not say if he was driving the truck - which bore military license plates - or what charge, if any, he might face.

It said the animals had been illegally collected in three northwestern provinces, then moved to a large-scale holding facility in neighboring Thailand before being shipped back through Cambodia en route to Vietnam.