Save the Turtles!

Green turtle hatchling exploring the world (Courtesy of nadio/flickr)

by Nur Afiqah Azizan

There are seven species of marine turtles throughout the world and Malaysia has been home to four of them. However, of late, there has been a great decline in the return of these creatures to Malaysian shores. This is especially true for the leatherback turtles and Olive ridley turtles. 

The leatherback turtles were declared functionally extinct in 2015 as there had been no landing in the last five years. The Olive ridley turtles have declined by more than 95%. Malaysia’s other two species, the Green turtles and Hawksbill turtles seem to be stable although their populations, too, have lessened over decades.

Turtle nesting season starts in March and ends in September every year in Malaysia. Female turtles will usually come ashore during nighttime, around 8.30 p.m. onwards, and will head back to the sea as soon as they complete the process of laying eggs. This takes roughly 2-4 hours. Generally, a female turtle can lay about 80-100 eggs per nest.

Courtesy of flickr/Nadio
2-day old green turtles at the Turtle Conservation Project, Perhentian Besar. Courtesy of flickr/Nadio

Unfortunately, a study by turtle experts found that the estimation of hatchling that will survive to adulthood and breed is one to 1000 due to the dangers lurking upon them at this stage where they are helpless. In fact, turtles are harmed in every stage of their lives. Normal predators like ghost crabs, monitor lizards and sharks are not their only problem. Human activities such as by-catch incidents, poaching for their eggs and meat and pollution also makes it hard for them to survive.

Azariyah with two young volunteers
Azariyah with two young volunteers

In battling this tough situation, Noor Azariyah Mohtar, a Marine Conservation Officer for World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-Malaysia is doing her part to manage turtle conservation efforts in Setiu, Terengganu. Her experience in this field has led her to discover the horrifying fates of many turtles. “When turtles get entangled with nets, some fishermen usually will tie them up with stone and let them drown to save their nets, instead of saving the turtles.” She also mentioned that adult turtles are hunted by foreign vessels for their meat and carapace.

Speaking on behalf of WWF-Malaysia, the Sarawakian stated that they have been involved in turtle conservation in Malaysia since the 1980s. “We target working at two levels; high-level federal or state advocacy and ground work in our project sites in Melaka, Terengganu and Sabah”, she said. In fighting for the survival of the turtles, WWF-Malaysia continues to support the Department of Fisheries Malaysia to ensure turtles are protected in Melaka and Terengganu. “We are doing on-ground work to avoid turtle eggs from being poached,” Azariyah said. “That means, we do patrolling every night from 8.30 pm till 5 am in the morning every day during nesting season.” Their work is indispensable because the consumption and sales of turtle eggs, except for the Leatherback eggs, are still allowed in Terengganu. Excluding Sabah and Sarawak, all other states have no law restricting the consumption of turtle eggs. “That is why we need more volunteers to help our rangers patrol the beach every night to avoid poachers taking the turtle eggs,” Azariyah explained.

Fresh turtle eggs to be transferred to the hatchery
Fresh turtle eggs to be transferred to the hatchery

Six rangers hired by the Department of Fisheries patrol at the three main nesting beaches. Once the eggs have been laid, they will be collected and relocated into a hatchery.  “A week before the eggs hatch, our hatchery worker will put a round net on top of the nest so that when the hatchlings come out, they will be trap inside the net”, Azariyah explained. “After that, our hatchery worker will collect them, put in a box and release them back to their original nesting beaches. All of this follows standard operating procedures from Department of Fisheries. The target is to save more eggs and produce more hatchlings.”

In addition, the WWF works with schools and communities to raise public awareness. In 2015, they organized the Terengganu Turtle Camp where several students from selected schools in the state were invited for 3 days 2 nights camp at Ma’Daerah Turtle Sanctuary. Also, WWF-Malaysia is currently offering internship opportunities to locals and foreigners who have the qualifications in the work of conserving turtles. Coming from various backgrounds – be it a Degree in Marine Biology or Social Science – should be of no problem as long as they suit the field. Azariyah states that the aim of this project is to enable the interns to contribute in the conservation work and allow them to learn as much as they can too. With passion and interest in conservation work, volunteers who have their own vehicles are also welcomed to join them in their ground work.

IMG_20150702_182421-800
The hatchery was built with shading to ensure the sex ratio for the turtles will be equal: the higher the temperature, the more females will be produced.
turtles get ready to be released
turtles get ready to be released

As for tourists who look forward to gaining better experiences in regards to to turtles, Azariyah’s recommendations based on four Malaysian states that houses locations that are deemed as turtle hotspots, are as follows:

  • Terengganu: Visit the Turtle Information Centre and Fisheries Research Institute at Rantau Abang.
  • Melaka: Visit the Turtle Information Centre at Padang Kemunting.
  • Sabah: Spend several nights at the Turtle Islands Park in Sandakan. The Park, managed by Sabah Parks, is home to one of the largest nesting populations of green and hawksbill turtles in Southeast Asia.
  • Sarawak: Be a volunteer at the Talang-Satang National Park.

She also insists that before going for the holiday, one should equip himself with the knowledge of the dos and don’ts when watching turtles. Eager tourists need to understand that “turtles are very sensitive to flashlights”. Therefore, it is best to not hold or take photos of them at night.

Courtesy of flickr/hadi
Courtesy of flickr/hadi

Azariyah signed off the interview with a great reminder about how important turtles are in the marine life cycle and a piece of useful advice for us all. She said, “Without turtles, there will be more jellyfish in the water where they vigorously consume the fish eggs and later affect the fish stock. The declining in fish stock will cause millions of losses to us humans. This is just one side of the story for ecosystem imbalance. We need to do our part, start educating our children about the importance of this animal, taking care of our environment, doing volunteer work and spreading awareness among our family members. Eventually, small ripples in the ocean can create large impacts”.

With that, let’s do our part in saving these innocent lives. Save the turtles!

Photo Credits: WWF Malaysia/Noor Azariyah Mohtar, flickr/hadi, flickr/nadio

Fun Facts on the Life Cycle of a Turtle:

“The Lost Years”: Once a hatchling enters the sea, it will go on a swimming frenzy. It will swim non-stop for two days until it manages to find the nearest patch of seagrass or seaweed to protect itself from predators. That period until it becomes an adult, which takes approximately a decade-long, is referred as ‘lost years’ because scientists have very little knowledge about the happenings that occur over the course of that duration.

Adulthood: Within the range of 10 to 20 years, adult turtles will migrate hundreds of miles away from their feeding grounds to the nesting beaches where they will mate. When the mating process is over, male turtles will make their way back to their respective feeding grounds. Female turtles, on the other hand, will come on shore and lay eggs at their home-birth beaches. One clutch of nest can contain up to more than 100 eggs and will take at least 52-53 days (depending on species) before the eggs will hatch.

 

MYTH BUSTER

Why do turtles cry when they lay eggs?

They don’t cry. The ‘tears’ are actually a salty secretion, which is the turtle’s way of ridding its body of excess salt consumed at sea.

 

 

 

 

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