Through tourism, this turtle guardian gives the local community a reason to protect turtle eggs, and earn from it.
A 40-minute boat ride from Sandakan in Sabah is a cluster of islands that is a turtle hotspot. Green and hawksbill turtles inhabit the waters there in large numbers, prompting the creation of the Turtle Island Marine Park consisting of the islands of Selingan, Bakungan Kecil and Gulisan.
Several other islands there were excluded from the turtle sanctuary, however, even though they get their fair share of both critically endangered turtle species. One such island is Libaran, which is a mere five minutes from Selingan. Turtles regularly nest there but because the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) has no personnel on the island, the eggs are collected by Libaran villagers.
This changed in 2011 when lodge operator Alexander Yee built a turtle hatchery on a leased 4ha site.
“Sabah Wildlife Department had asked me if I wanted to do something on Libaran. I went up there and saw that the turtles were not being taken care of. I also saw an opportunity to create awareness of turtle conservation,” says Yee.
With guidance from the SWD, he set up the hatchery and, last year, started offering a two day-one night educational trip on turtles for tourists at RM400 per person. It includes boat transfers between Sandakan and Libaran, tent accommodation, meals, briefing on the turtle conservation programme, a walk around the village, releasing of baby turtles in the evening and a video show of turtle conservation in Sabah.
Yee is no stranger to conservation efforts; he runs lodges in Sepilok and Bilit, in Kinabatangan. In Bilit, he worked with the World Wide Fund for Nature and other resort operators to form the Kinabatangan-Corridor of Life Tourism Operator Association to carry out conservation initiatives and community projects. Yee, 46, is president of the association.
“My two tourism businesses are profitable and somewhat conservation-related. So the turtle project at Libaran is a natural extension of what I do.”
Doing his part
Yee feels that the private sector can play a role in conservation as the SWD, being responsible for conservation of natural resources for the whole of Sabah, often lacks resources. “So they are happy to work with any private enterprise that wants to be involved in conservation projects.”
Turtle eggs are protected in Sabah, so they cannot be collected except by those who have customary collection rights – but none of the Libaran villagers do. But because enforcement is lacking, the locals have been consuming and selling the eggs.
Yee has a memorandum of understanding with the SWD giving him rights to all turtle eggs found on the island but he now collects and incubates only those laid within his property.
“Turtles do land on other parts of the island but so far, the villagers are not working with us and, in fact, restrict us from venturing out of our leased land to collect the eggs.”
Yee started out knowing little about turtles. He talked to marine biologists and read books, then it was getting down on the ground and doing the work. He and his staff underwent the Honorary Wildlife Warden course (offered by the SWD) to learn the legal aspects of enforcement in conservation. SWD staff visited their site every month to teach them the technical aspects of turtle conservation. Yee and his people also made study trips to other turtle conservation programmes, such as the one at Lankayan Island.
Since 2011, Yee has recorded 119 landings of green turtles and 55 of hawksbill turtles on his property (some turtles nest more than once per season).
His staff have collected 9,433 green turtle eggs to date, the highest figure was 4,723 last year. They have so far released 5,383 hatchlings (some eggs were broken or failed to hatch, and some hatchlings did not survive).
The hawksbill turtle eggs numbered 5,655 (with a high of 2,362 last year) and 2,368 hatchlings have made it to sea.
Yee explains that the eggs are not left in their nests but are moved to the hatchery for fear that shoreline erosion will wash them away. Also, the damp environment might cause temperature changes that can affect the hatching rate. The site for the hatchery was chosen by the SWD. It is slightly shaded to create conditions suitable for successful hatching.
His staff regularly clean the beach of driftwood, plastics and other washed-up trash, as these become obstacles to hatchlings heading out to sea. The baby turtles are released in the dark, as they are vulnerable to predators during the day.
For Yee, it has been a worthwhile venture so far. A high point for him was seeing the yearly increase in turtle landings and egg collection.
“Once, there were two landings in one night. With this success, I have since increased my staff number from four to 10. Other than the manager, the rest are from Libaran island, so the project is providing employment to villagers.”
However, a low point was when the village head prohibited his team from collecting eggs outside of their leased property.
“Even though we know we have the legal right to collect the eggs, we decided not to fight him, as part of conservation calls for working together with the local community.”
Among his many plans for the project, an immediate one is to continue discussions with the villagers to build awareness of protecting turtles. Half of the 200ha island is inhabited by some 450 people, and some nesting beaches have been taken over by homes built on the beach.
Yee says the SWD plans to give talks to local students and put up signs around the island to inform villagers about the offences of collecting turtle eggs. It also recently started mapping other turtle landing sites on the island so that these can be managed in future.
Villagers to benefit
There is now no tourism industry on Libaran, but Yee hopes his turtle project will change that. Eventually, he intends to build accommodation on his land and employ at least 50 villagers.
“I hope Libaran islanders will ultimately thrive because of the presence of turtles. They can plant watermelon and coconut (their traditional crops on the island) to sell to visitors or to supply to resorts. This will create more economic opportunities.
“There are already 10 people (his staff) who are aware of turtle conservation and who know that their livelihood depends on the success of the project. They will tell 10 others and, hopefully, all the people of Libaran will eventually be employed and know they will all benefit from such a conservation project.”
Facilities at Libaran now consist of only eight tents to accommodate up to 16 tourists each day.
“We are not into mass tourism,” says Yee. “While it is important that we grow our businesses, it is equally important to grow it in an environmentally friendly manner. The bottom line cannot be the sole deciding factor.”
The chalets he has in mind for the future are prefabricated ones. These will be built in Kota Kinabalu and re-assembled on Libaran to minimise adverse impacts on the island environment. The chalets will be located inland and lighting will be kept to a minimum to avoid disturbing nesting turtles. He has even bought the adjacent two pieces of land – which cannot be developed as they are mangrove-covered – to act as buffers to his leased land.
He now receives only between two and four guests each day. This is because turtles do not come ashore at his beach every night like they do at Selingan Island. So his agents only offer tour packages to Libaran when they are assured of the emergence of hatchlings.
“We’re seeing the effect of years of egg poaching. There are few returning turtles (at Libaran) because for the past 10 to 20 years, the eggs have been taken away.”
However, Yee is optimistic of more turtle landings in some seven years’ time – for that is when he expects the hatchlings his project has saved and released over the past four years to return to Libaran.
Custodians of nature
Wanted: Turtle eggs