The rare Burmese star tortoise is one of the world’s most beautiful tortoises, with radiating star-shaped bumps on its domed carapace. Reptile expert and breeder Melvin So explains, “Burmese Stars originated in Myanmar/Burma. This species is close to extinction because it is eaten by the Burmese locals, and is being exported to neighboring food markets such as China. Now they are considered one of the rarest tortoises in the world. They’re listed by the ICUN as critically endangered, and are considered to be CITES Appendix 1.”
Which Of These Tortoises…
To the untrained eye, Burmese and Indian stars look the same. But look closely and you will notice that Burmese Stars have a very clear six-point pattern on most of their scutes, both vertebral and costal. On the other hand, the pattern on adult Indian stars has more than six lines, and the number of these radiating lines increase while they are growing. “In short,” Melvin says, “Indian Stars grow more lines with age.”
Melvin explains the difference between the Burmese Star and the Indian Star tortoises thus: “The Burmese star (Geochelone platynota)…is a species from Myanmar/Burma. On the other hand, the Indian or Sri Lankan Star (Geochelone elegans) is found in India and Sri Lanka. These two species are related, but they are different species, not simply mutations [of one or the other].”
So how did this endangered tortoise end up in the Philippines? “People have been smuggling the Burmese Star into the Philippines since the early 90s, and they are very popular in the pet market,” Melvin says, “People who lack the proper knowledge always end up mistaking them for Indian stars, because of the similar radiating patterns on their carapace.”
Keep them thriving
Fortunately, the Burmese star tortoise has managed to thrive locally through the efforts of tortoise keepers and breeders such as Melvin. “We do successfully raise and breed Burmese Star tortoises. Indian and Burmese Stars are easy to distinguish from other tortoises. The carapace is the most striking feature for this species, with yellow lines radiating from their scutes. These form the star shape for which this species is named.”
Burmese star tortoises are considered medium-sized tortoises. Male Burmese Stars are typically much smaller than females. Females can grow up to 12 inches (30 centimeters or cm), while the males are 9-10 inches (22-25 cm). “Compared to their Indian star cousins,” Melvin says, “the Burmese Stars are more active and less shy. They live in the dry zones of Myanmar, and should be fed a diet that’s high in fiber and low in fat and protein.”
The most difficult thing about raising Burmese Stars, says Melvin, is that most of the Burmese Stars that you find on the market are wild caught. “This means they are full of parasites, so we need to quarantine them while we treat the parasites. This is very tricky because you need to know which parasite you need to treat.”
He advises would-be tortoise keepers to bring their pets to the vet for a stool analysis. “Then you should ask the vet for the medicine and dosage you need,” he continues. “Overdosing will be fatal for your tortoise.”
For baby Burmese Stars, Melvin recommends keeping them indoors, making sure that they stay fully hydrated by soaking them once in a while. “Make sure they have a heat source in for their enclosures. UVB is also a must for [tortoises],” he says, “because it helps provide them with vitamin D3 for proper growth. Again, make sure their diet is high in fiber and low in fat and protein.”
Melvin recommends supplements such as vitamins with D3 and calcium with D3 as well, and both are readily available in the market.
A healthy Burmese Star should feel solid in your hand when you hold it, not light. Make sure you check their skin for any signs of injury. Their stool should be relatively firm, not loose or watery. A healthy tortoise is an active tortoise.
“From my experience,” says Melvin, “the most common health problem we encounter with the Burmese Star is [a] runny nose. Check for clear eyes and look at the tortoise’s nostrils, it should be clear with no signs of discharge. If your tortoise has a runny nose, you should separate [it from the others]. Place them in a separate enclosure and raise the temperature, making sure they are fully hydrated. If this doesn’t work, our vet gives them antibiotic shots to treat the infection.”
Melvin has some tips for would-be Burmese Star owners. “Make sure to buy captive-bred tortoises. This is easier and safer to add to your collection as you don’t want parasites to enter your collection. You should also consider the commitment involved in keeping a tortoise. Keep in mind, tortoises live up to more than 50 years.”
Burmese Stars are daring and clever pets. “They do interact with humans,” Melvin explains, “but make sure to be very gentle when you pick them up, because they might get scared if you pick them up in an awkward position.”
In general, although Burmese Stars are low-maintenance pets, you need to do your research on the proper food they need and make sure they get enough sunlight or UVB for proper growth. ”Make sure to keep their enclosures clean,” Melvin says, “because you don’t want them to step in or play with their poo or urine. I do believe proper hygiene [for] every pet is a must.”
This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s October 2017 issue.