Malaysia’s giant softshell turtle on the brink of extinction


JERANTUT: Over five decades ago, five to six female giant softshell turtles could be seen laying eggs daily - during the height of the nesting season in March and April - on the sandy banks of Sungai Tembeling in the Taman Negara area in Pahang.

However, throughout March and April this year, only seven of them were seen laying eggs, a clear indication that these reptiles from the Trionychidae family are dwindling in numbers in what could be their last habitat in Malaysia.

The giant softshell turtle, also known as resing or labi-labi gergasi air tawar in Bahasa Melayu, was a freshwater species that had been classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Besides Malaysia, it was also found in Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, with its habitats being rivers, estuaries, coastal brackish and marine waters, and lakes.

According to Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) researcher Mohd Ruzed Embong, besides the Taman Negara area, there was no recorded data of freshwater giant softshell turtles existing elsewhere in the country although some sightings had been reported by local communities.

He said seven active nesting sites had been identified along a 100km stretch of Sungai Tembeling but, "sadly, this time we didn’t see any egg intact... we found only remnants of their nests with eggshells scattered everywhere."

Mohd Ruzed, a lecturer at UiTM Shah Alam’s Department of Parks and Amenities Management, told Bernama the giant softshell turtle’s declining population could be attributed to natural causes including predatory animals such as eagles and monitor lizards.

He said the situation is worsened by sand mining activities as well as humans who consume the eggs of the giant softshell turtle, which were considered a delicacy and said to be "tastier than the normal turtle eggs."

Not only that, the flesh of the softshell turtle was also said to have medicinal value when consumed.

Conservation

Concerned about the endangered reptile’s future, UiTM Shah Alam has set up a conservation centre here to breed giant softshell turtles, in collaboration with the residents of Kampung Gol in Tembeling Tengah near here, and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (Perhilitan).

The Kampung Gol Giant Softshell Turtle Conservation Centre is Malaysia’s first such facility. There were two others in Southeast Asia, one in Cambodia and the other in Vietnam.

Mohd Ruzed said it cost about RM90,000 to establish the centre, adding part of the funds came from the National Natural Resources Conservation Trust Fund and the remaining through a UiTM Bestari grant.

The centre, which started operating two years ago, was spread over an 8ha site and serves as a place for incubating giant softshell turtle eggs as well as a hatchery.

It also conducted educational and awareness programmes to educate the public about the species.

"Currently, we have about 100 eggs being incubated here. The incubation period is two months, after which the eggs will hatch. We will care for the hatchlings until they attain maturity, which will take a year, and then set them free in their natural habitat," he explained.

He said besides collecting the eggs themselves, the centre also purchased them from fishermen at RM3 each.

"We usually get the fishermen to find them because it is not easy to detect these eggs which are buried in the sand," he said.

Managed by the Kampung Gol community, the centre currently housed several species of giant softshell turtles, including the Asian giant softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) and the Asian narrow-headed softshell turtle (Chitra chitra).

These turtles could grow up to 60cm in length and weigh between 20kg and 30kg.

Difficult to find eggs

Meanwhile, Arif Ahmad, 54, who was among the residents of Kampung Gol involved in the conservation project, said one of the main challenges facing them was finding eggs to hatch.

"The eggs of the giant softshell turtle are highly sought after by the local community because people say it is more delicious than (normal) turtle eggs,” he told Bernama, adding the species woiuld become extinct if the theft of these eggs was not curbed.

He said on their part, he and his team took turns to patrol the riverbank throughout the turtle nesting season to deter people from stealing the eggs.

"But it’s not easy to patrol the area because of the river’s conditions. Sometimes, we spend the night by the river because of the distance involved. Another thing is, these giant softshell turtles are hard to find," he said, adding a female softshell turtle could lay up to 100 eggs per season.

The giant softshell turtle was fully protected under Malaysia’s Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, and was listed among the species prohibited from being traded in any form under the International Trade in Endangered Species Act 2008.

Perhilitan, meanwhile, said the establishment of the Kampung Gol Giant Softshell Turtle Conservation Centre was crucial for ensuring the sustainability of the ecosystems of aquatic life.

The department said in a statement that giant softshell turtles play an important role in a river ecosystem’s natural cycle, acting as predators of crustaceans, aquatic insects and fish.

Hence, the presence of these reptiles was crucial in maintaining the equilibrium of aquatic populations. Perhilitan also noted that the conservation centre has brought economic benefits to the local community through tourism and other related activities. - Bernama

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