Mek Tuntung – guardian of terrapins

That’s cute: Treadell having a closer look at a three-year-old river terrapin or tuntung at the Turtle Conservation Society River Terrapin Conservation Centre as Dr Chen looks on.

KEMAMAN: In Kampung Pasir Gajah, there will be blank stares if one is asking for Dr Chen Pelf Nyok.

Instead, ask for Mek Tuntung.

That is how the local folk refer to her – Miss River Terrapin – in recognition of her research work on the river terrapin population.

When she first arrived, Dr Chen was a one-woman show. In the seven years there, she managed to inspire a village-wide movement to save the endangered creatures.

Thus, it was only fitting that she was given the Commonwealth Point of Light Award.

“When I started the project at 30, I had no idea of the impact my project might have.

“All I wanted to do was build a long-term conservation programme to save the river terrapins,” she said.

Dr Chen is a co-founder of the Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia. She first started documenting river terrapins as a Master’s student at Universiti Malaysia Terengganu in 2005.

Her conservation work took her to Kampung Pasir Gajah in 2011 while she was working on her Doctor of Philosophy degree at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

There, she managed to get the buy-in from the village head and convinced a small group of people, who will eventually be known as Geng Tuntung, to help in her conservation work.

The group would gather Tuntung eggs from the banks of the Kemaman river and bring them to the Turtle Conservation Society River Terrapin Conservation Centre to be incubated.

Wazir Mahad, 55, is among the first ones to join Geng Tuntung.

“I used to eat Tuntung eggs but stopped since working with Mek Tuntung after knowing how destructive it can be,” he said.

Wazir often received requests from outsiders to buy the eggs for consumption but refused to entertain them.

Through their efforts, Dr Chen and Geng Tuntung have saved about 4,500 Tuntung eggs and released about 3,000 hatchlings into the Kemaman river.

In a previous report, she said there was still a lot to do before a significant rise in Tuntung population as females only start laying eggs when they reach 20 years old.

Unlike their sea turtle cousins that can lay up to 100 eggs in 12 days, Tuntung can only lay about 40 eggs a year.

Dr Chen’s work also received praise from the British High Commissioner to Malaysia, Vicki Treadell, who described the effort as an example of humans and nature living in harmony.

“Everything is at risk of being lost and it is up to us to restore balance,” she said when presenting the award to Dr Chen on Friday.

The Commonwealth Point of Light Award is an honour bestowed by the head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II, to recognise exceptional voluntary efforts by individuals across the Commonwealth.

Another Malaysian recipient is Dr S. Madhusudhan, better known as Dr Teddy Bear, who is being recognised for providing free medical services to disadvantaged people.

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