|SANTA MARIA DEL ORINOCO, Venezuela - Venezuela\'s government has established what it believes is a record for releasing an endangered species back into the wild by setting free tens of thousands of protected Arrau turtles into the Orinoco River.|
Scrambling over each other to reach the Orinoco waters, thousands of palm-sized, green turtles were released over the weekend from a sandy island on the huge river in the latest part of a 10-year program to preserve the species.
\"We\'ve been doing this for 10 years now and with this part we have released a total of 166,000 turtles. It\'s a historic release of a protected species,\" Environment Minister Ana Elisa Osorio told Reuters as turtles bobbed in the brownish waters.
The program takes tiny, new-born Arrau from the river banks to raise them in a refuge for a year before releasing them back into the wild.
Officials hope by protecting the hatchlings during their most vulnerable months they can increase the survival rate of South America\'s largest fresh water turtle, which has a long list of predators including fish, birds and crocodiles.
Poor residents in the region near the Colombian border, part of Venezuela\'s sweltering southern flatlands, also have a tradition of eating the turtle eggs and meat. But officials say environment education programs have reduced turtle hunting.
\"We hope those we helped grow will return to the beach soon to lay their own eggs and complete the reproductive cycle,\" said Ramiro Royero, director of the state wildlife protection program. \"We expect that could happen next year.\"
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE