Wanted: laws with bite

Turtles will no longer swim in our seas and nest in our shores unless we do something – fast.

FOR the past 40 years or so, millions of ringgit have poured into efforts to protect our turtles. Sanctuaries have been set up, eggs bought over from collectors and incubated, hatchlings released into the sea, awareness campaigns held and research conducted.

With all the attention and funds lavished on turtles, you would think that they would be in good stead. But far from that, they are edging closer to the brink.

The leatherback is as good as locally extinct although the Fisheries Department refuses to state so. The Olive Ridley suffers the safe fate and is “effectively extinct”. It no longer nests in Terengganu and only remnant numbers land in Penang and islands off Johor – not enough to keep the population here going. Hawksbill and green turtles can still be seen but their numbers have plunged precipitously. Our freshwater and terrestrial turtles fare no better, being widely hunted.

Various threats that have long caused the decline of turtle species persist. The combination of egg consumption, destruction of feeding and nesting grounds, turtle-snaring fishing gear, pollution and illegal trapping by foreign fishing vessels is lethal for turtles.

The problem is, turtles are protected only under state legislations but these have proven to be weak and inadequate. Under the Federal Constitution, turtles are a state resource; this puts all matters pertaining to turtles under state purview. So currently, turtles are excluded from the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, while the Fisheries Act 1985 only protects turtles found beyond three nautical miles offshore.

For the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), turtles desperately need a holistic law that can plug loopholes in existing state legislations and, most importantly, ban the consumption of eggs. And this can only come in the form of Federal legislations.

“Only comprehensive Federal laws are able to provide adequate protection and save turtles from extinction,” says Preetha Sankar, WWF policy co-ordinator. The group has long urged for such a law and in April, reiterated its stand by submitting a memorandum to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

Meek state laws

With the exception of Perlis and Selangor, all states have enacted legislations and rules (under the Fisheries Act 1985) on turtles. However, these legislations lack consistency and fail to protect all species of marine and terrestrial turtles within each state.

“These legislations are not conservation-oriented,” says P. Gangaram, manager of WWF’s Peninsular Malaysia seas programme. “They do not ban egg consumption but focus on licensing egg collection. There is little emphasis on habitat protection and penalties for offences are minimal.”

And oddly enough, the rules in Johor, Kelantan and Negri Sembilan allow for the killing of turtles for a mere fee of RM100. Also, the state laws only apply within the state, which hinders enforcement effort. “This means that if you’re caught with leatherback eggs in KL (its sale has been banned in Terengganu since 1987), it is not an offence,” says Gangaram.

The absence of laws preventing the sale and consumption of turtle eggs (with the exception of the leatherback) sees them being openly sold in markets. In Terengganu, licensed collectors are supposed to sell all their eggs to the Fisheries Department for incubation but due to poor monitoring, some of the eggs end up in markets instead of hatcheries. This problem is compounded by the more lucrative price offered by market retailers – RM2.50 to RM3.50 per egg compared with the department’s RM2. Some 422,000 eggs were sold in Terengganu in 2007, according to WWF.

The licensing of egg collection does not promote conservation of turtles, according to legal expert Malik Imtiaz Sarwar whose views were sought by WWF. “Turtles are viewed as a resource rather than species in need of protection, as seen in the sale and consumption of eggs, rather than a ban,” he writes in his report to WWF.

He says the egg collection licensing fee of only RM5 encourages more people to apply for permits. Also, there are no restrictions on the number of eggs that can be collected.

“There are loopholes in the licensing framework. Opportunities for abuse are created by the absence of stringent requirements,” writes Malik.

At least 70% of all eggs laid annually have to be incubated for hatchling production if a healthy turtle population is to be maintained.

“As long as we eat the eggs, we’ll create an imbalance and cause the decline of the species. There will be no juveniles to grow into mothers,” says WWF executive director Datuk Dr Dionysius Sharma. “A ban on turtle egg sale will not jeopardise livelihoods. A study at Ma’ Daerah in Terengganu shows that only a fraction of the people benefit from selling turtle eggs.”

The eggs are said to be good for general health and asthmatics, but Sharma says claims of their aphrodisiac value are unproven.

Protecting turtle homes

Massive coastal development, including land reclamation, has robbed turtles of their nesting beaches and feeding habitats. There is little in state legislations on protecting turtle habitats, with only Terengganu, Malacca and Penang providing for the establishment of turtle sanctuaries. But even those don’t go far enough.

“Only one-third of the 70ha we wanted was protected at Ma’ Daerah in Terengganu. So only the hatchery and beach front are turtle protection zones but not the hills on either end of the nesting beach and the sea. If these hills are not protected, future development there can cause light pollution that can disturb nesting turtles and disorientate hatchlings, causing them to head landwards,” says WWF’s Gangaram.

And not all turtle sanctuaries and hatcheries are properly managed. “Is it a sanctuary if you have 100 visitors a day gawking at the turtles?” asks Gangaram.

And Malacca, despite having the largest population of hawksbill turtles in Peninsular Malaysia (200 to 300 nests a year), has not gazetted any of its four nesting beaches as turtle sanctuaries. They have, instead, been earmarked for development.

“Chalets are coming up at turtle nesting sites in Malacca such as Padang Kemunting, so you have people walking along the beach and this can disturb the turtles. The nesting beach has also narrowed over the years due to erosion caused by coastal development, shrinking from a width of 80m in the 1970s to 20m today,” says Sharma.

Fished out

When accidentally trapped in fishing nets and long lines, turtles drown as they cannot surface to breathe. They also fall victim to “ghost fishing” when they get caught in nets discarded at sea or lost in storms. To counter such threats, Federal laws that mandate the use of suitable fishing gear are needed.

While Malaysians fervently sponsor turtle preservation, they are unwittingly ensuring a constant supply of turtle meat and shells for foreign poachers.

Recent seizures of Vietnamese and Chinese vessels laden with hundreds of turtles in the South China Sea signal yet another threat to our turtles.

“These foreign vessels are catching our turtle population. This is counter-productive to our conservation efforts. Once you capture a female turtle, all options are gone as you have ended her potential for breeding,” says Sharma.

With such a myriad of hazards facing turtles, he says a comprehensive Federal law is the only chance for the species’ survival.

“It will apply to the whole country and so is a better way to regulate than the current piecemeal approach.”

To pave the way for the Federal law, the Constitution needs to be amended to place turtles within Federal purview. There is precedent for this – water was shifted from state jurisdiction to Federal jurisdiction in 2005.

WWF group suggests the formation of a Cabinet-level ad hoc committee to study the matter. It also proposes that the Malaysian Law Reform Committee review all turtle legislations and give its recommendations to the Attorney-General’s Chambers.

The group is not alone in its call for Federal overview of turtles. Its Egg=Life campaign last year gathered almost 100,000 supporters. One advocate is marine scientist Dr Nicolas Pilcher, executive director of Marine Research Foundation in Sabah.

“It is not too late to act,” he writes in his report backing the WWF call.

“Throughout the world there is evidence of turtle populations rebounding from the brink of localised extinction. Comprehensive conservation programmes coupled with committed and legally binding protection can and does make a difference.

“Piecemeal initiatives can only go so far, but a national approach will go the distance.” - By Tan Cheng Li

Age-old tradition

MARKET traders in Kuala Terengganu see nothing wrong in selling and eating turtle eggs. They say it’s an age-old tradition that is not against the law.

There were three stalls offering turtle eggs at Pasar Besar Kedai Payang the morning I was there. Sold in bags of 10 for RM25, the eggs came from within the state and from Sabah.

The traders say supplies from Terengganu is irregular, and it is easier to get eggs from Sabah. They say selling eggs is not illegal, except for leatherback eggs. They disagree that consuming turtle eggs is harmful for turtles.

One trader says he’s been selling eggs for decades and the eggs have not run out. “It is controlled. A certain number of eggs will be hatched. As long as we eat the eggs and not the mother turtle, the species will continue,” he says.

They say turtle eggs are good for treating asthma. To make men virile, they suggest eating two turtle eggs twice a day, morning and evening. – By Zabidi Tusin, The Star photographer

Extinction threat

EXPLOITED for decades, turtle populations in Malaysia have reached critical levels, according to turtle scientist Dr Chan Eng Heng who has studied the species for over 25 years.

The leatherback and Olive Ridley are effectively extinct, she writes in her report to World Wide Fund for Nature in support of a federal legislation for turtles.

She says for leatherbacks, the nesting density of over 10,000 in the 1950s in Terengganu has plummeted to near-zero in recent years. Olive Ridley nests used to average 500 in the mid-1980s in Terengganu but the species has disappeared since 2005.

Chan, who has helmed numerous turtle conservation projects and is now CEO of the Turtle Conservation Centre, also made several observations on what ails the management of turtle sanctuaries. In her report, she writes that Fisheries Department staff lack knowledge of the biological requirements of turtles and make management decisions that are contrary to conservation needs. Turtle conservation projects proposed by politicians, but which lack scientific basis and conservation value, were also carried out.

In Terengganu, 10 nesting beaches have been declared turtle sanctuaries where all the eggs are to be incubated. But there is no daily supervision and monitoring of workers. Many nesting beaches are still leased to locals for commercial egg collection. Chan says egg hatchability is compromised when the eggs are moved several hours after they have been laid or if they are damaged during transportation.

She also finds that sanctuary workers are not employed throughout the year. In Pulau Perhentian, the sanctuary only opens in May; by then, the eggs deposited earlier had been poached, causing substantial loss of eggs.

A lack of supervision sees villagers and chalet operators conducting harmful activities such as keeping hatchlings in captivity (to show tourists) instead of releasing them, and selling hatchlings to tourists. Some states keep hatchlings under poor conditions which will compromise their survival when eventually released. In some states, private entrepreneurs are allowed to operate hatcheries; some only want to earn tourist dollars and have no interest in turtle conservation.

Chan says it is crucial that the National Plan of Action for Conservation and Management of Sea Turtles that was prepared by Fisheries Department in 2008, be implemented.

Non-marine turtles

Malaysia has 18 out of the 100 species of freshwater and terrestrial turtles native to Asia. Unlike marine turtles, the distribution and population status of freshwater and terrestrial turtles are virtually unknown. Conservation programmes exist – although wanting – for painted and river terrapins in some states. But the rest of the 16 species are sorely neglected.

Huge harvests for local use and export (mainly to China), and absence of protection and management measures render all species vulnerable to exploitation.

In one wildlife slaughterhouse near Segamat, Johor, Chan found hundreds of endangered freshwater and terrestrial turtles held in transit.

They included species such as the Asian brown turtle, South-East Asian striped giant softshell turtle, Asian giant softshell turtle, river terrapin, painted terrapin and Asiatic softshell turtle.

Painted terrapins occur in many river systems in Malaysia but in Terengganu, they nest predominantly in Rhu Kudung, Kuala Baru Utara and Kuala Baru Selatan. These turtles originate from the Setiu and Paka rivers. However, the 800 nests recorded in 1990 have dwindled to 245 in 2008, a decline of 70%.

At Sungai Setiu in Terengganu, the number of river terrapin eggs have dropped from 847 in 2004 when Chan initiated conservation work there, to 438 last year – a decline of 50% over five years. In Perak, declines have been dramatic – from 1,275 nests (each averaging 26 eggs) in 1993 to 36 last year, a decline of 97% in 17 years.

The Wildlife and National Parks Department conducts river terrapin conservation programmes in Perak, Kedah and Terengganu. Despite releasing many hatchlings in the last 30 years, none seem to have been recruited into the adult nesting population.

The reason: while the department is releasing terrapins upstream, poachers are actively collecting them downstream. – Extracted from The Enactment Of Comprehensive Federal Legislation For Turtles by Dr Chan Eng Heng.

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