KUALA TERENGGANU: It is a sight to behold whenever turtle hatchlings forage through the sands and emerge from their nests.
The vigour of new life and natural instincts are often why they race to the ocean because if they don’t, they will die of dehydration or become food for birds, crabs and other animals.
With only about one in every 1,000 turtles surviving to adulthood, that is why several concerned individuals founded the Lang Tengah Turtle Watch (LTTW) to protect turtles’ habitats and help save them from extinction.
Principal officer Dr Long Seh Ling said such conservation efforts are critical because there have been no recorded nestings of leatherback turtles in Terengganu since 2017, despite Rantau Abang beach recorded 10,000 leatherback turtle nests yearly in the 1950s.
“Terengganu’s icon used to be a leatherback turtle but now, it’s a Nemo because we lost our turtles.
“I come from a generation where I couldn’t see leatherback. So, if possible, we want to preserve our heritage.
“We cannot afford to lose our hawksbill, green and olive ridley turtles,” she said.
LTTW is a Malaysian turtle conservation organisation with project sites in Lang Tengah Island, Tanjong Jara Resort and Chakar Hutan Beach in Terengganu.
The project sites in Lang Tengah Island and Tanjong Jara Resort are home to the endangered green turtles and critically endangered hawksbill turtles, as listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“The driving force behind LTTW is Hayati Mokhtar, whose land surrounding Turtle Bay on Lang Tengah Island with pristine landscapes and marine life, has degraded over time.
“She wanted to save the turtles because people actually could collect the eggs for consumption and sale at the time.
“It propelled her to take action to preserve the once-pristine landscape of her childhood,” Long said.
The LTTW promotes sea turtle collaboration in the areas of monitoring, research, conservation and management.
Their reach extends to education and public awareness with a focus on local communities, tourism operators and tourists.
They emphasise the sustainable viability of their initiatives through community empowerment as well as educating and uplifting the community to restore the balance between sea turtles and their delicate habitats.
Long said night patrols, turtle monitoring, coral restorations, beach and underwater clean-ups, outreach and training programmes, empowering communities and livelihoods, and adoption programmes are among the seven main initiatives.
The primary strategy for protecting the mostly green turtle population entails nightly patrols by nine former poachers who have joined the LTTW team to monitor the island’s nesting beaches between March and October.
“At Chakar Hutan Beach, we patrol the beach to monitor it.
“If we encounter a nesting mother, we will collect the eggs and relocate them to the hatchery nearby,” she said.
To date, 2,264 nests of endangered green turtles, critically endangered hawksbill turtles and painted terrapins have been saved.
In turtle monitoring, Long said the team looked after the eggs for about two months for green turtle eggs and three months for painted terrapin eggs to hatch.
“We make sure that the hatching success is good,” she added.
For the hatchlings, Long said most releases take place at night and under red light to minimise disturbance to the turtles from June to October. To date, they have released over 118,000 green and hawksbill turtle hatchlings into the ocean.
“By protecting the species, we are also protecting their habitat. That’s why we conduct beach and underwater clean-ups to remove marine debris.
“We also started restoring the coral reef area because that’s where the turtles feed and take shelter,” she said, adding that broken coral fragments are grown back in a nursery at Turtle Bay before being out-planted into natural reefs.
Since 2018, 757 corals have been saved and grown in the nursery, and 405 corals were transplanted.
In its outreach programmes, Long said LTTW’s most recent project at Chakar Hutan Beach provided an opportunity to collaborate or engage local communities because it is a public area.
“The local people who live there actually come and learn more about turtles and understand the conservation efforts,” she said.
During the day, Hashim Ismail, 72, a former forest ranger, guards the turtle hatchery at the beach, which has up to 300 green turtle nests per year, to prevent poaching.
“The beach is also where hatchlings are released from dusk to dawn, which the public may be able to witness.
“Turtles will sometimes come and nest at night,” said Hashim, who is fondly known as Pok Hashim.
Long said LTTW actively purchased turtle eggs from 12 local licence holders since 2016 to empower the community and their livelihoods.
“The public can also contribute by adopting a nest, a turtle or a coral through our official website as this will help make sure as many hatchlings go out to the ocean as possible,” she said.
Debunking many common misconceptions about the importance of preserving sea turtles, Long said turtles are critical in maintaining ecological importance.
“They are both predators and prey. As a predator, leatherback turtles used to control the jellyfish population.
“So when you take one predator out, then it will affect the balance,” she said.
Aside from funding, Long stressed the importance of people’s and stakeholders’ cooperation.
Moving forward, LTTW will continue to fund its initiatives through a variety of means, including adoption programmes, turtle tourism activities, paid volunteer programmes and donations.
Besides grants from local sponsors, Long said they will also look for funding abroad, especially from the global turtle community.
She added that LTTW intends to participate in more information-sharing, training and capacity-building activities at the International Sea Turtle Symposium next March.
“The thing about conservation is that you’re always wondering if you’re doing enough.
“Even if you have the money, you might not be able to bring back an extinct species. So whatever efforts need to be done, it has to be prior before they go extinct,” she said.
For its efforts, Lang Tengah Turtle Watch is named as one of the 10 winners of the Star Golden Hearts Award 2023.