Hope remains in conserving Malaysia's three turtle species

It is too late to avert the decline of Malaysian leatherbacks but there is still hope for the three remaining turtle species.

IN RETROSPECT, it is easy to see how the wheels of the Malaysian leatherback turtle’s rapid decline were set in motion long before anyone truly understood the gravity of what was happening.

Once a prime attraction of Malaysia’s burgeoning tourism industry in the 1970s and 80s, leatherback turtle numbers have since declined so much that some scientists say the species has become virtually extinct locally. The species is critically endangered the world over but in Malaysia, the situation is more dire than most.

Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) marine biologist Juanita Joseph has dedicated the last decade or so to researching Malaysian turtles, and as much as she would like to believe there is hope, she does not think Malaysian leatherbacks are going to recover.

“This is because (most) sea turtles only return to breed at their natal beach. They may travel thousands of miles to reach foraging grounds, crossing transnational borders, but all turtles return to the area where they were born to breed and nest.”

The implication of this is that once the local population of breeding turtles has disappeared, it is gone forever. But convincing locals of this is not easy. There is a common misconception that should turtles disappear from our beach, more can always be brought back from elsewhere.

It took hard data to convince the Terengganu state government, once one of the world’s most significant leatherback hosts, of the need to ban leatherback turtle egg consumption. And eventually, data from studies on population genetics also led to the gazettement of important nesting grounds for a number of other endangered turtle species found in Malaysia.

Communicating the situation’s urgency however, especially to the older generations of states like Kelantan and Terengganu, where turtle eggs have been consumed as a delicacy for centuries, remains notoriously difficult.

It does not help that turtles lay so many eggs – a female can lay over 100 at a time, and she may repeat this six or nine times a year. Up to a thousand eggs per female each breeding season might seem like an enormous number but this is an evolutionary adaptation to the precipitous journey each hatchling must make during its life cycle – only 85% of those eggs will be viable. And of that, only one in one thousand will survive to adulthood.

Today, with a more comprehensive understanding about the biology, population genetics and behavioural patterns of the species, we can afford a fresh take on how these ancient reptiles have gone from a national icon and worldwide tourist phenomenon to little more than living fossils on Malaysian shores.

The tale of how it happened is worth retelling and must not be forgotten for it illustrates why it is in the interest of everyone that we start saving the other turtle species.

Taking stock of the past

Thousands of leatherbacks used to frequent the sleepy shores of Rantau Abang, a small fishing village on the coast of Terengganu. Eggs were aplenty. Hundreds of thousands were buried in scattered clutches across the shore, far more than egg collectors could carry, and plenty for the locals to eat. With road expansion, turtle eggs were soon transported to new markets as far afield as Kuala Lumpur. The eggs became a commodity: prices rose and more collectors started digging them up as egg sales became a lucrative source of income for the under-developed state.

Rantau Abang was soon transformed into one of the world’s most popular tourist locations to spot leatherbacks. Leatherbacks are a sight to behold. Unchanged since an age before the dinosaurs, these ancient reptiles are the turtle-king of superlatives – over 3m in length and weighing as much as 900kg, they are the largest, deepest-diving and most migratory of all sea turtle species.

In Rantau Abang, scenes of large groups of tourists crowding around a single nesting female turtle were commonplace in the 70s and 80s. When the tourists left, the eggs were scooped up for sale. At the same time, a rapidly developing fishing industry led to leatherbacks being caught in nets.

Leatherback eggs laid in Terengganu dropped from 10,000 clutches in 1955 to about 3,000 in the year 1965. In 1999, only 2% of that number was found and by 2002, only three female leatherbacks reportedly landed on Rantau Abang.

Once they realised numbers were dropping, conservationists and the state initiated efforts to protect the turtles. The first Malaysian leatherback hatcheries were established way back in the early 60s.

“At the time, about 4% of eggs in Terengganu were safeguarded against egg collectors,” says Liew Hock Chark, a marine biology lecturer at UMT.

That figure wasn’t enough, however, considering that 0.001% of hatchlings are statistically doomed not to make it to adulthood. Ironically, those early conservation efforts might have inadvertently done more harm than good. It was only in the late 80s that local scientists discovered that turtles undergo environmental sex determination – which means that eggs laid in hot spots on the beach lead to 100% female hatchlings, whilst eggs laid in cooler spots lead to male ones. Prior to this, incubation efforts had not been discriminating the temperature at hatchling sites. In addition to that, development and a decline in beach vegetation had led to a shortage of cooler nesting areas along the coast.

Joseph explains the situation: “Only a handful of female leatherbacks have returned to Rantau Abang to nest in the last few years but none of the incubated clutches contained eggs that actually hatched.” This, she thinks, could be a symptom of man-made distortions in the sex ratio of Malaysian leatherbacks, because reptiles will lay eggs even if they have not been fertilised.

Some say the ban on turtle egg consumption and the establishmentment of Rantau Abang as a turtle sanctuary came too late.

Patrolling the vast area to supervise the ban was difficult, and the Fisheries Department tackled this challenge by tendering egg collection out to locals.

Each vendor was required to sell all the collected eggs to the department for incubation in hatcheries. However, when market prices proved to be more enticing, many eggs ended up being sold for consumption. To make things worse, lights from resorts along the coast and vehicle ridden by sanctuary personnel patrolling the beach are thought to have disorientated the nesting females and hatchlings. Today, the shores of Rantau Abang are as good as barren.

Save the other species

While the local breeding population of leatherback might be as good as extinct, there are three other known species of turtle still nesting successfully on Malaysian shores. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List, green turtles are endangered, olive Ridleys are vulnerable, and hawksbills are critically endangered.

In Peninsular Malaysia, however, none of these turtle eggs are banned from consumption. At sea, they get entangled in fishing nets and long lines, and starve after swallowing floating plastic bags. The fact that turtle migration is transboundary complicates matters. Green turtles migrate thousands of miles from their breeding ground all over the world, to converge at specific foraging grounds. However these rich beds of sea grass are dwindling due to coastal development.

In addition to all that, turtles are being picked off by poachers. In 2007, the discovery of a shipment containing 397 green and hawksbill turtles aboard a Chinese vessel in the Derawan Archipelago off eastern Kalimantan, shocked the world.

Some think allowing for the collection of eggs at home when there are so many threats to the hatchlings that do manage to survive an ocean full of predators, is ludicrous. Perhaps this is why, earlier this year, World Wildlife Fund Malaysia made fresh calls for the government to amend the Fisheries Act 1985 to ban the eating of all turtle eggs.

Countries hosting breeding populations of turtles might not be able to stop their turtles from being killed beyond their borders but the resilience of local populations that have benefited from a complete ban on turtle egg collection seem to indicate the merits of stemming egg consumption.

Sabah instituted a ban on commercial egg collection 30 years ago and there has since been a threefold increase in its breeding population of green turtles, despite numerous poaching cases in the waters surrounding Borneo.

Conservationists have this message: Turtle egg consumption, though adhered to for centuries, is no longer a sustainable practice. Unless action is taken to protect them now, it does not matter how many turtles are left outside of our national waters – seeing turtles in Peninsular Malaysia could eventually become a distant memory.

Related Story: Turtle sanctuary at Chagar Hutang

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