Sabah's Turtle Island Park is a safe haven for endangered turtles


Visitors are only allowed to check out the turtle hatchery at Pulau Selingaan, one of the three islands that make up the Turtle Island Park in Sabah. — Tourism Malaysia

Sabah's famous Turtle Island Park has been holding up well as a turtle conservation centre over the last 35 years under the watchful eye of its keeper Hasbulah Buis.

The turtle sanctuary, comprising three tiny islands – Selingaan, Gulisaan and Bakkungan Kecil on the Sulu Sea off Sandakan on the east coast of Sabah – is a safe haven for the endangered green and hawksbill turtles.

Hasbulah, 55, an assistant research officer with Sabah Parks, has been in charge of turtle conservation at the Turtle Island Park since 1985. (Sabah Parks is a statutory body responsible for the conservation and management of the state national parks, including Turtle Island Park.)

According to Hasbulah, who is currently the Turtle Island Park manager, as a result of turtle conservation activities carried out at the park, some 19 million hatchlings from about 315,000 turtle nests have been released into the sea from 1979.

“Based on our records, the turtle species that land and nest at the Turtle Island Park are the green and hawksbill turtles. The Olive Ridley turtle rarely comes to these islands, ” Hasbulah said in an e-mail interview.

It is also encouraging to note that the number of turtle landings at the Turtle Island Park has increased to between 6,000 and 15,000 annually since 1991, he added.

Hasbulah’s main duties include supervising turtle conservation activities, managing the turtle hatchery sites and recording the reptiles’ data.

“I also supervise the release of hatchlings into the sea and carry out temperature checks on the turtle nests, ” he said.

He is assisted by 31 Sabah Parks staff – 20 on Pulau Selingaan, nine on Pulau Bakkungan Kecil and three on Pulau Gulisaan.

Hasbulah, who is from Kampung Batu Puteh in Kinabatangan, also occasionally teaches visitors, students and researchers about turtle conservation.

The three islands that make up Turtle Island Park – which was gazetted as a national park in 1977 – have a combined protected area of 18.2ha. Pulau Selingaan (8.1ha) and Pulau Gulisaan (1.6ha) are 3km apart, while Pulau Bakkungan Kecil (8.5ha) is about 7km away from the two islands; it also the closest island to the Malaysia-Philippines sea border.

Hasbulah said the islands are the traditional nesting grounds for green and hawksbill turtles.

At the moment, only Pulau Selingaan and Pulau Bakkungan Kecil have turtle hatcheries.

Visitors, however, are only permitted to visit Pulau Selingaan – which provides tourist accommodation with basic facilities – where they can watch the turtles laying their eggs and hatchlings being released into the sea.

The first hatchery was built on Pulau Selingaan in 1966 before it was extended to Pulau Bakkungan Kecil and Pulau Gulisaan in 1968 but the Gulisaan hatchery closed down in 2015 due to beach erosion.

Hasbulah also said that local and foreign researchers as well as students from local universities visit the park for practical training stints on turtles, marine biology and tourism management.

A passion for conservation

He may have been working on the islands for 35 long years but Hasbulah is not the least bit bored with his job.

“I find it exciting to work on these islands. The whole area here is a paradise for nature. Sometimes, I go swimming in the sea alongside the turtles. Always, it’s such a beautiful moment for me.

“When I dive to the sea bottom, I feel some kind of overwhelming excitement as I find the marine life so beautiful and unique, ” he shared.

Sometimes, Hasbulah sits on the beach and does nothing but listen to the sound of the waves and wind, but “my eyes are always on the lookout for turtles arriving and landing on the island”.

He also has his share of mysterious and scary encounters while at work, one of which occurred when he was doing night patrols alone on Pulau Gulisaan in 1988. He said he could clearly hear some voices and thought there was someone nearby but when he looked around, there was no one.

“I related this incident to my colleagues on Pulau Bakkungan Kecil and they told me they had the same experience too. I was quite concerned about it but (when it happened again), I got used to it, ” he said.

In another incident on Pulau Selingaan, Hasbullah said he and two other colleagues were taken by surprise when four strangers suddenly appeared on the island and asked for turtle eggs.

“When we ignored their request, they tried to threaten us, but luckily they left without causing any trouble, ” he said.

Hasbulah also recalled an incident in 2000 when big waves hit Pulau Gulisaan and Pulau Selingaan causing the sea level to rise to the land surface. Pulau Gulisaan was almost submerged while Pulau Selingaan was partly flooded.

“There were 16 Sabah Parks staff working on the two islands when the incident happened. After several hours the sea level returned to normal. Fortunately, there were no casualties but some Sabah Parks facilities and the turtle hatchery sites were slightly damaged, ” he said.

On the challenges facing turtle conservation in Sabah, Hasbulah said the intrusion of foreign fishermen is one of the main problems they face as he believed that they are responsible for the rampant killing of turtles in the waters off Kudat in the northern tip of Sabah.

“Plastic waste is another major threat to marine life, especially turtles, because it affects the sea animals’ life expectancy, ” he said, adding that fishing trawlers have also been found encroaching into Sabah’s turtle conservation area. – Bernama

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