Southern river terrapins, known locally in Cambodia as "royal turtles," were long thought extinct. But earlier this week, 21 captive-raised members of the species were released into the wild—the result of a successful 14-year rehabilitation project.

More than 100 years passed without a single sighting of these turtles until a small enclave was discovered in 2000. Since then, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), in conjunction with Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration, has bred, hatched, and raised nearly 400 turtles in captivity. Even former turtle hunters have gotten involved and are now paid to guard the nests they once raided. 

The small surviving population was spread out, with captive breeding programs in Cambodia, Thailand, and Singapore so that in the event of a catastrophe in one location, the species would not be wiped out entirely. 

The 21 young turtles released earlier this week represented the widest range of genetic diversity among the turtles. The lucky 21 were carefully vetted and fitted with transmitters that will allow researchers to monitor their survival and seasonal movements, and then released into their native habitat, the Sre Ambel River system.

"We hope that this project can serve as a model for other turtle conservation recovery efforts where populations are so low that their continued survival depends on hands-on management of all life stages," said Andrew Walde, executive director of the Turtle Survival Alliance, another WCS partner.

[h/t Good News Network]