Saving the softshell turtles

Endangered species: An Asian giant softshell turtle being resettled at the Kampung Gol Giant Softshell Turtle Conservation Centre. — Bernama

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 detected 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 Malay, is a freshwater species that has been classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

According to Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) researcher Mohd Ruzed Embong, besides the Taman Negara area, there is no recorded data of freshwater giant softshell turtles existing elsewhere in the country.

He said seven active nesting sites have 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 Parks and Amenities Management Department, told Bernama that 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 sandmining activities as well as humans who consume turtle eggs.

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 residents of Kampung Gol in Tembeling Tengah, and the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan).

The Kampung Gol Giant Softshell Turtle Conservation Centre is Malaysia’s first such facility, which started operating two years ago.

The centre is spread over an 8ha site and serves as a place for incubating giant softshell turtle eggs as well as a hatchery. It also conducts 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 said.

Besides collecting the eggs themselves, the centre also buys them from fishermen at RM3 each.

Managed by the Kampung Gol community, the centre currently houses 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 can grow up to 60cm in length and weigh between 20kg and 30kg each.

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

“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 can lay up to 100 eggs per season.

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

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

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