Turtle festival on remote Sabah island in Malaysia’s largest marine park

  • Animals
  • Tuesday, 24 Oct 2017

The island's kids taking part in a fun conservation learning activity during the Tigabu Island Turtle Festival. - Photos: WWF-Malaysia

Tigabu is a small island seemingly in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sparkling blue seas on sunny days. It lies off the northern coast of Sabah and is close to Malaysia’s marine border with the Philippines. It's also part of the Tun Mustapha Park (TMP), the largest marine park in Malaysia.

Almost a million hectares in size, it is located within the Kudat, Pitas, and Kota Marudu districts. A Marine Turtle Festival was recently organised here by Tigabu Youth Club and WWF-Malaysia.

TMP boasts a rich marine biodiversity and is home to elusive dugongs and endangered marine turtles as well as other creatures such as migratory whales. Diverse habitats, ranging from mangroves and seagrass beds to coral reefs, contribute to the rich marine biodiversity. This in turn provides food security for the 85,000 inhabitants dependent upon its waters.

TMP is also a part of the Coral Triangle, so named because it has 76% of the world’s coral species, six of the world’s seven marine turtle species, and more than 2,000 species of reef fish, including the tuna that makes it to sashimi tables. The Coral Triangle also includes Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Tigabu Island hosted the Marine Turtle Festival recently to highlight turtle conservation work being done in the area around three islands: Tigabu, Tambulian, and Kukuban.

Students on Tigabu Island listening to a talk on turtle conservation.

Community Conservation

TMP is different from other marine parks in Malaysia because it’s conceived with community involvement as part of the DNA, which means that people living here have to want to, and participate in, conserving their own marine resources.

Given that the people of Tigabu Island have seen the effects of over-fishing and destructive fishing (which in Sabah and in the neighboring Philippines often involves bombs and cyanide) for themselves, they are willing to preserve turtles, too. They have seen their own catch of fish reduced due to the destruction of coral reefs and fish stocks, and many have now turned to farming sea cucumbers instead.

According to a press release from WWF-Malaysia, the first island-based turtle hatchery was launched on Tigabu to raise awareness on turtle conservation and threats faced by turtles. Apart from bombs and cyanide use, another problem is bycatch (when turtles are caught in nets meant to catch fish).

Datuk Mijul Hj Unaini, the state legislative assembly member of Banggi Island, launched the festival. He praised the Tigabu Youth Club (Kelab Belia Tigabu – KBT) and the youths for taking the initiative to conserve marine turtles. “My main motivation in defending one of the world’s most endangered animals from extinction is to conserve the species so that they continue to thrive around Tigabu and TMP,” said Absan Saman, a member of KBT.

Supporting this is KBT chairman, Sulaiman Amir, who has invited the community of Tigabu to work together to protect marine turtles for future generations. The Tigabu-Tambulian-Kukuban Island Complex includes the three named islands and Mantabuan Island.

Launch of the turtle hatchery at Tigabu Island.

Turtle Hatchery

KBT has identified these areas as turtle nesting sites back in April and works with Sabah Parks on protecting these turtle nesting islands and their surroundings. Together, they are working towards combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, including bomb fishing.

KBT is part of the community “collaborative management” to protect marine habitats, a crucial part of the objectives of the WWF-Malaysia Marine Programme for TMP.

WWF-Malaysia Kudat team leader, Joannie Jomitol said, “Strong support from the Sabah Wildlife Department and Sabah Parks, together with WWF-Malaysia’s continuous engagement with the Tigabu community has enabled KBT members to be trained as honorary wildlife wardens and park rangers who have started land-based turtle conservation activities, such as patrolling and monitoring turtle nesting beaches at Tigabu, Tambulian and Kukuban.”

“A turtle hatchery on Tigabu Island has also been set up,” she added. From April to September 2017, 15 turtle nests have been relocated from the islands to the hatchery, WWF-Malaysia reports. Hatchlings from 14 of the nests were released into the sea by KBT members. The two types of turtles nesting there are green turtles (770 turtle eggs) and hawksbill turtles (315 turtle eggs).

Melvin Richard from the Sabah Wildlife Department and park manager Fazrullah Rizally Abdul Razak from Sabah Parks, expressed similar pleasure in witnessing the Tigabu community coming together to protect and conserve turtles. Supporting this fully is Jasni Matoha, chairman of the Tigabu Jawatankuasa Kemajuan dan Keselamatan Kampung (Village Development and Security Committee), who wishes to see successful marine turtle protection in the area.

The TMP is a vast area, and active community participation in assisting enforcement agencies is needed to sustain the rich biodiversity and marine resources of the park. It is hoped that events such as this festival and the ongoing turtle conservation activities will continue to spark a sense of awareness and pride among the communities of TMP in taking care of this amazing marine heritage.

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