There were some hurdles. During the project’s early years, thieves often broke into the makeshift enclosures to snatch tortoises. In response, the staff built 10-foot concrete walls topped with concertina wire, and made sure the enclosures were guarded round-the-clock.
By 2016, the assurance colonies were producing more than 2,000 hatchlings a year. “We’ve gone from crisis mode into something a bit more relaxed,” Dr. Platt said.
Since 2013, the team has reintroduced tortoises into protected land around two of the assurance colonies. But with release comes new concerns. There’s still a lucrative market for Burmese stars, which means people will continue poaching them.
Of 1,000 tortoises released from the assurance colonies so far, about 200 have been stolen. In 2015, Dr. Platt canceled his Christmas plans to help Thai authorities identify smuggled tortoises that had been taken from an acclimatization pen in Myanmar. Though two smugglers were apprehended in that case, such thefts often go unchecked.
Tackling this problem is tricky, and requires “several things in parallel,” including educating potential buyers and enforcing existing legislation that bans trade of the tortoises, said Peter Paul van Dijk, a conservationist with the Turtle Conservancy and Global Wildlife Conservation.
Community buy-in is another crucial component, Dr. Platt said. Most of the captive breeding program’s day-to-day operations are run by Burmese leaders, including Dr. Platt’s wife and fellow conservationist, Kalyar Platt. This has allowed the team to build trust with and employ people living near the wildlife sanctuaries, many of whom become enthusiastic tortoise stewards and keep an eye out for illegal activity. The group also partners with nearby monasteries that bless the animals, reinforcing local superstitions that harming a tortoise will result in divine retribution.
Today, with thousands of tortoises being born annually, the conservationists are trying to determine the best way to get the animals back into nature as quickly as possible. They want to try burying eggs in the wild and letting the tortoises hatch there. With a smooth captive breeding system in place, there’s room to experiment now.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Dr. Platt said. “If it doesn’t work, we can always go back.”