Batagur borneoensis / Painted river terrapin- Care

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Specification Description
Class: Reptilia
Order: Testudines
Suborder: Cryptodira
Family: Geoemydidae
Subfamily: Geoemydinae
Scientific name: Batagur borneoensis
English name: Painted terrapin
Dieet: Herbivorous
Average length: 50cm+
Distribution: Asia
Lifestyle: Aquatic
Reproduction: oviparous / egglaying
Status: Critically endangered
Cites: B / II

Batagur (Callagur) borneoensis, (Schelegel & Muller 1929)

This big and active terrapin is certainly not for everyone and can probably only best be kept by zoological institutions or individuals with big facilities. They need a tremendous amount of space that most hobbyist probably cannot provide unless they build a special enclosure, or live in a country where this species can mostly be kept outside in a big pond. So we had a bit of mixed feelings placing this article on our website. But as sharing knowledge is important, learning is key and we cannot judge the facility our readers have. We decided to publish this article about an amazing species of turtle, the painted terrapin.  

The genus Batagur contains six species.

1)Batagur affinis, (including 2 subspecies, B. a. affinis and B. a. edwardmolli) originating in Cambodia where it was considered to be extinct until being rediscovered in 2001 and in a select few rivers in Malaysia.

2)Batagur baska, previously also distributed but now extinct in Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore. Now only found but still very rare in rivers and mangroves in Indonesia, Malaysia where the Pasir Temir and Pasir Lubuk Kawah meet by the Terengganu River are the most important nesting sites for this species, Cambodia, The Sundarbans of Bangladesh and in the West Bengal and Odisha in India.

3)Batagur borneoensis, which we will further describe in the article.

4)Batagur dhongoka, which shell looks similar to that of the B. borneoensis is found in Bangladesh and Assam, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh(West Bengal) India.

5)Batagur kachuga (former Kachuga kachuga), Has as type locality India, Northern India. Was previously wide spread but now has a probably last viable although still very fragile population in the Chambal river, part of the National Chambal sanctuary in India which is only 5400KM2. Previous range included central Nepal, North-East India and Bangladesh with the Ganges river holding the most important nesting sites.

6)Batagur trivittata (former Kachuga trivittata), Endemic to Myanmar and very rare. Also ones considered extinct until rediscovered in 2002. The amount of siting’s in the wild have stayed very low. The biggest populations are consisting of government funded captive breeding projects.


Status:  Like many other big Asian turtle species these are highly endangered and are listed in the IUCN list as critically endangered. Many Batagur are listed in the world’s top 25 of most endangered Chelonians. Like many these turtles are highly exploited for the Asian, especially Chinese food market. The big size of adults makes them very interesting for food and their shell are often used for other means that are based on fraud and misbelieve. The mayor problem is that these big animals are also the animals that are able to lay eggs and young Batagur take a long time to mature. So every bigger Batagur that is caught out of an already small fragile population. Is a big negative blow to the survival of this species in its wild range. When they lay eggs, the chance is high these eggs get poached as ‘hunters’ know these turtles will come back to the same beach every year. Making the eggs an easy prey.

Luckily there are a few local and international organizations that work intensively with the species to try and prevent it from going extinct. Captive insurance colonies are maintained locally and in zoological institutions across the globe and more research in the field is done to learn more about these interesting turtles. A few American breeders have success breeding this (Batagur borneoensis) species so some captive bred animals are available (and sometimes exported to the EU) although most certainly not on a regular basis. We strongly advise never to buy or even show interest in wild caught animals of this endangered species but when u make a choice to purchase and take care of these animals you always go for captive born and bred Batagur. Not only is this a more sustainable way of exercising your hobby. It also prevents a lot of the health issues and acclamation troubles you could have with wild caught individuals. Which essentially is fitting for all wild collected and often also farm bred reptiles.

Make sure whenever you are deciding to include these animals to your collection you are well informed and experienced with the maintenance of aquatic turtles and herbivorous reptiles. They need a whole lot of living space to thrive and eat a lot! As a serious hobbyist we recommend to include animals like these in a studbook and work together with other owners to exchange knowledge and to try and breed these amazing Batagur to ensure more insurance colonies.


General appearance:  B. borneoensis get big! The average size is 37cm till 50cm for males and 60cm to close to 80cm for the big females. They have a fairly low and smooth carapax and smooth cream white plastron. The legs and paws are well adapted to the aquatic life they live and are very strong and muscular. Nails are relatively short. Between the toes, on both sides of the back legs and the outside of the front feet they have webbing to help with swimming in the powerful currents of the rivers they live in. The nose is protruding slightly from the head so they can breathe new air without exposing themselves to much when hiding in the water. The beak is very strong and slightly serrated, perfect for cutting of leaves. Their overall bodycolor is a dark-grey. They have 3 darker colored stripes along their carapax and the marginal scutes also often each have a dark till black blotch. Hatchlings and young animals have a brown shell but older, sexually mature Batagur borneoensis can look very differently. This turtle species is what is called ‘sexual dimorph’, which means the 2 sexes have different phenotypes and can be distinguished by looking at their appearance alone. Where females have a not very exiting drape dark brown color with faded dark markings. Males will have very beautiful bright colorations and are the reason these turtles got their common name the ‘Painted terrapin’. They seem to have three phases, depending on the season and mood.

In one phase the males look very similar to the females but have a big red broad stripe on top of their head running from their nose to almost the back of the head but never touching the neck. In the other phase the carapax is a very light-grey color with the three longitude stripes more profound along the shell and a dark-grey face with again the red broad band on top. The third and most spectacular is the one in the breading season. Where the whole face of the male gets white and even the shell gets lighter till almost white. Some males also get a white neck and lighter bodycolor on the front shoulders. As with other male turtles the plastron is slightly concave but certainly not as much as seen with many terrestrial tortoise and turtles. As they mate under water and don’t need to be so afraid so much of falling of the female during the process. They hold on very well with their front legs.


General behavior:  Batagur are relatively shy animals. In the wild they will bask a lot but always close to water so they can quickly lunch in the water when disturbed. They are exclusively diurnal animals. In captivity these animals seem to keep that flighty character although they often soon will be overcome with curiosity. Especially when they see food and they will learn to recognize their caretaker. Personal observations of hobbyist with extended experience with this species often find the males more timid and shy then the females. When handled the animals will fend for themselves, flap their strong paws and when really stressed try to bite the hand that is holding them. Especially outside the comfort of the water.


Natural range and habitat:  Batagur borneoensis naturally occurs in the coastal, lowland regions of the island Sumatra, where it is found in the north-eastern parts, the north-western and south-western parts of Borneo and the very east and west of southern Thailand bordering Malaysia and along the whole coast of Malaysia. They prefer fresh flowing streams, lakes, rivers, estuaries and mangroves that are connected or close to the sea. They are very good and active swimmers that can be found in deep waters. These turtles are active during most of the day and are true sunbathers. They can be found a lot on the shores or big logs and bask extensively. In their natural range the Batagur borneoensis lays its eggs on beaches along the seas that are also used by seaturtles. Batagur borneoensis often returns to the same beach year after year to lay eggs. A behavior most commonly known from seaturtles which they share the beaches with. Hatchlings will hatch, move into the sea and travel upstream to more brackish and freshwater areas. Especially hatchling and young painted terrapins are very capable to live in brackish to salty water. Also adults sometimes are found swimming in open sea.


Captive requirements:  In general the care of these aquatic turtles is similar to many other. Clean, oxygenated water is of absolute importance. Like other terrapins from brackish waters, these turtles may develop skin issues. Sometimes it helps to increase the salinity the water. Also make sure the water has a healthy bacteria count. A sandy bottom seems to help and make sure they can dry and bask fully.

The biggest ‘problem’ is their size. Batagur are big and active so need plenty of space to swim and as they like to bask there should also be a big easily accessible hot/sun spot and land area. The waterbasin should measure at least 12x the total length of the turtle, be at least 6x as wide and minimal 3x as deep. We cannot stress the words ‘minimal’ and ‘at least’ to strongly. A waterbasin of this size is for 1, maybe 2 adults. So each additional animal is a lot of gallons more (30% minimum per additional animal). The size of the pond often means you will need to construct one out of concrete. You can use big square plastic ponds or glass aquariums for young and juveniles but they are simply not made big enough for full adult Batagur. Sometimes looking into big koi ponds can help. Make sure there is plenty of space to swim but we do advise to add submerged branches and logs so the animals can rest, forage and hide. Especially hatchlings and juveniles naturally live and hide between mangroves. So they appreciate the hiding spaces branches and vines you provide them with.

Do not use (sharp) gravel as a substrate which can be ingested and cause intestinal problems like blockages. When kept in a natural pond, a sandy bottom is. You can also choose a bare bottom to make it easier to clean the pond/aquarium.

Then you have to think about filtration. For those who think that carnivorous turtles make a mess. Beware of the Batagurs! We always strife for a as biological filtered system but even with a big well running external filtration regular water changes are needed. For large ponds we advise the use of filtration systems used for koi carp ponds that have a UVC filter included as they often combine technical and biological filtration. Make sure there is plenty of movement and flow in the waterbasin. The turtles are excellent swimmers so you don’t have to mind that as long as there are places with calmer water and furniture that provide easy resting places for them. A good current prevents any stagnation of waste like leftover food and faeces to accumulate in a corner or between the furniture. Which can create a perfect place for bacteria to accumulate. So if your filtration system can’t provide this current use additional pumps to create movement in the water.

Good artificial sunlight that is high in UV is very important for these animals. Like most herbivorous diurnal reptiles they rely heavily on the sun for not only their metabolism but also the production of important vitamins like vitamin D3. Make sure that you use not one single high intensity spot that creates a very hot but small sun/hotspot. As these turtles are big and you need to make sure their whole body is exposed to an even distributed UV and heat. A good option is the use of several lower intensity spots in a series. Or for instance the use of ceramic heaters. With close to or between them a UV fluorescent light with a reflector behind it. The output of these lamps in known to be a less intense UV output as the high intensity bulbs. But the light and UV is more evenly spread across the whole basking animal and using the reflector you can increase the output per square centimeter up to seven times. Take note that if you hang a HID/HQL lamp higher the hotspot is less intense from a distance. But spreads in a broader area. Although this way you lose a lot of the UV output. Take note of the conditions particular in your own situation and adapt to find the best solution. Replace your lamps regularly. A UVI meter is a very useful tool for any reptile with a high UV requirement.

Offer the animals a 14hour day, 10hour night cycle.

Batagur borneoensis seems to be a hardy species when it comes to temperature requirements. Still we advise never to let the (night-time) temperature drop below 20C. The water should have a temperature around 26 degrees Celsius. With a much warmer sunspot and make sure the air temperature is also 27/28C.

You can add several species of fish to the pond. Not only is this a nice addition to observe, some fish can also have a purpose. Barb species like the Barbus nigrofasciatus and Barbus tetrazona and many (Brachy)danio sp. will eat leftover food but also feed of ‘dead’ skin of your turtles. This will also be done by for instance the Labeo bicolor and Labeo frenatus. Algae-eaters like the Gyrinocheilus aymonieri and Crossocheilus siamensis will help to keep your furniture free from algae, feed from leftover vegies and if needed eat algae of your turtles shell. There have been observations of Batagur allowing fish to maintain their skin and shell. In big exhibits in zoos we have seen Batagur sp. combines with big fish like Pangasius sp. catfish and giant gourami (Osphronemus goramy). In big exhibits in zoo’s we have observed Batagur borneoensis combined with some other aquatic turtles. But as there is no personal experience on this part we cannot discuss the long term success with these combinations. Species that have been seen combined include other Asian species like Batagur affinisGeoclemys hamiltonii, Lissemys punctata andersoni and Carettochelys insculpta. We need to note we would never advise to combine any species.


Diet:  Please note that we expect anyone who is interested in keeping and in this case feeding these turtles already has a great knowledge and experience with other herbivorous reptiles. So we won’t name a complete list of the possible diet. We often nickname these turtles ‘seacows’ because they are herbivores and they eat a lot.

Hatchlings sometimes also eat small invertebrates but this is probably by opportunity or are taken in when feeding on greens. They won’t actively hunt for prey like fish but may feed on snails and worms. Very important is that they get almost non to no fat nor protein. Preferably no more than 10% protein (max. 15%) and a maximum of 5% fat. Fibres are very important in their diet. In the wild the diet of these animals is very rich and divers and this is a very important part in keeping these animals healthy in captivity. Especially young Batagur grow fast and they need a well sorted diet to ensure they grow properly and in good physical health. A good idea is to go to your local (biological) market. Not only do they often provide a more sorted and divers range of greens and fruits. They also have a better vitamin and mineral content as the regular supermarket products have. Try to learn what vegetables contain a good calcium/phosphorous ratio and a high nutritive value. Going to a clean herbfield is also a good option or, grow some of your own. Batagur (or other herbivorous reptiles) are a very good reason to start working on your ‘kitchen garden’.

Vitamin A is very important for young turtles and tortoises which is found a lot in carrots. Carrots are also rich in fibres. Also bell peppers are high in vitamin A. Pakchoi and endive have a very good calcium/phosphorous ratio. Others vegetables that can be fed are dandelion, zucchini, red cabbage, water hyacinth, banana leaves, romaine, hibiscus, cucumber, chicory, edible mushrooms and fruit and many other dark greens. Avoid regular green lettuce as they contain almost no nutritive value and contain a lot of phosphorous.

In their natural range they also feed on fruits. Keep in mind this is seasonal and these fruits diver from the ones we often can acquire wish mostly have a high sugar value. Again, go to your local biological market. Fruits that can be considered are banana, grapes, papaya, mango and apples.

These big eaters will easily accept pellet food specific to turtles. But the mass produced brands have often a high protein and fat content as they are mainly made for carnivorous species as these are way more represented in the captive aquatic turtle hobby. Provide them with these pallets as additional food ones every 7 days.

Young need to be fed daily and preferably several times a day with smaller amounts. Adults can go on a more flexible regime. You can ether choose to feed them a low amount of food per day. Or feed them three times a week as much as they can. Feed 80% vegies/greens 20% fruits and sometimes but not regular add some pellets.

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