Crusade to protect Malaysia’s sea turtles

Dr. Seh Ling Long has been conducting research on sea turtles and managing turtle conservation efforts for over 10 years. Yet, she had never seen a leatherback which was once a cherished presence in Rantau Abang. The leatherback has tragically vanished from the sea, forcing Long and her fellow conservationists to redirect their attention towards protecting other endangered species. 

“Malaysia is home to four sea turtle species that nest on its shores,” said Long, the Principal Officer of Lang Tengah Turtle Watch (LTTW), in an interview with Maritime Fairtrade. 

“The leatherback species has already been lost. There has been a noticeable absence of olive ridley nests and a decline in the number of hawksbill nests. The green, nonetheless, is the only species that shows a positive nesting trend.” 

Founded by Hayati Mokhtar in 2013, LTTW has been diligently collaborating with the Department of Fisheries (DoF) to monitor and safeguard sea turtle populations and their habitats in Lang Tengah Island, Terengganu. The island holds great importance as a sea turtle rookery, specifically for both green and hawksbill species in Peninsular Malaysia.

The hawksbill turtle is characterized by its hooked beak and two pairs of prefrontal scales. Unfortunately, there has been a decline in the number of hawksbill nests on Lang Tengah Island. Photo credit: LTTW

The green turtle has a rounded beak and one pair of frontal scales. It is the only species that shows a positive nesting population trend. Photo credit: LTTW

“Since the 1950s, the Terengganu state government has taken a proactive approach and established a licensed collection system for sea turtle eggs, which is facilitated through a tender system. The concession of turtle eggs has become pro-conservation, especially when coupled with the egg buyback scheme,” Long said.

Lang Tengah Island was included in the tender system, where the license would be granted to the highest bidder. The authorized bidder would then be able to collect sea turtle eggs on the island’s beaches.

Prior to World War 2, sea turtle eggs were primarily consumed within the coastal villages where these nests were located. The building of roads linking villages has had a major effect. Not only did it make movement easier, it also brought about new markets. 

Seeing an opportunity in the high demand for sea turtle eggs, local people collected and sold them to market vendors. This additional income supplemented their meagre earnings from livelihoods such as fishing.

As of 1 June, 2022, the entire ban on the sale of eggs of sea turtles has been enforced in Terengganu. This regulation was originally only applicable to the leatherback species. But now, it has been extended to prohibit the collection and trading of eggs from all sea turtle species.

During a beach-cleaning event, the LTTW team was diligently sorting and categorizing the rubbish they had collected. Photo credit: Long

“Legislation doesn’t always guarantee effective implementation or enforcement. Therefore, we should consider whether to continue maintaining the tender system or if there’s a better alternative,” Long said. 

There are two possible scenarios to consider: one is to continue with the tender system, and the other is to abolish it altogether.

Unlike Lang Tengah Island, which has been removed from the tender list, LTTW has been granted permission to protect turtle eggs laid on the island. Long proposed that conservation entities, DoF, and NGOs should contemplate obtaining eggs from the tender holders at other tender beaches if the present circumstances remain unchanged.

She also pointed out that surveys show those engaged in the sea turtle egg business do not depend solely on it for their income. The majority of them have other occupations to sustain their finances.

“It’s completely understandable that individuals in the industry would be displeased if they’re unable to obtain a license,” she said. “To deal with their qualms and discover a lasting solution, it’s vital to identify and execute a win-win solution that can produce a positive outcome for all involved.”

“If the state government stops the tender system, then who will be responsible for overseeing the remaining 36 tender beaches?” Long asked.

“DoF currently struggles with limited resources to effectively safeguard all beaches,” she said “Encouraging the local community’s participation is key. Collection of sea turtle eggs must be driven by conservation needs and not consumption.”

The LTTW team conducted a post-emergence inspection, during which they excavated the contents of the nest after the mass emergence of the hatchlings. Photo credit: LTTW

Efforts were formerly made to save leatherback turtle eggs from being consumed. Though the association between incubation temperature and the sex of the hatchlings was only known later.

Sea turtles differ from most other animals because their sex is determined by the temperatures they experience during incubation, not by sex chromosomes.

If the temperature rises above a certain pivotal point (~ 29 °C; depending on the species), it will result in the development of female individuals. Conversely, if the temperature falls below this, it will lead to the development of male individuals.

“The current rise in temperature, caused by El Niño, can affect the sex ratio of hatchlings not only on Lang Tengah Island, but also on other nesting sites. This environmental change may potentially disrupt the usual balance between male and female hatchlings,” Long explained. 

“If the increased temperatures continue, it can result in a higher percentage of female hatchlings being born.”

Learning from previous experiences with leatherback turtles, the LTTW team closely monitors both in-situ and ex-situ nests to prevent the temperature from consistently exceeding the threshold. 

Excessively high temperatures can lead to the production of 100 percent female turtles. Failing to address this issue would undermine the long-term conservation efforts.

Take a glimpse of the Tanjong Jara Resort hatchery, which is LTTW’s second conservation site. Photo credit: LTTW

The increasing sea levels and storm intensity are causing the erosion of nesting beaches, a fact that is evidenced by clear signs.

According to Long, there used to be hatcheries located in front of the beach at Tanjong Jara Resort, which is LTTW’s second conservation site. Due to erosion, it has been relocated closer to the vegetation. 

“Nesting turtles rely on these beaches to lay their eggs, and without them, they would have nowhere to complete this process,” Long said. “Thus, the erosion of nesting beaches caused by climate change is an issue of paramount importance for turtle populations.”

In addition, this relocation poses another threat as being near vegetation exposes the hatchery to a higher risk of fungal infection. 

She said: “This is similar to how bread left out can attract fungus and start growing. Fungi present in the environment can infect sea turtle eggs. These fungi may begin to invade a turtle egg prior or after the egg has stopped developing or has undergone mortality.”

Fungi have the ability to invade turtle eggs, either during their development or after they have ceased to develop or died. Photo credit: LTTW

To mitigate a fungal infection, LTTW collaborates with Associate Prof. Dr. Siti Nordahliawate M. Sidique from the University Malaysia Terengganu, obtaining soil samples and inspecting the sea turtle eggs after they have been excavated. 

This research aims to investigate the presence and diversity of fungi in their hatchery area and devise techniques to manage and reduce the potential hazards associated with fungal growth.

“We treat the soil with plant extracts before putting in the eggs to incubate,” Long said. “This has resulted in a low occurrence of fungal infection and we’re gathering more data in hope to perpetuate this successful practice.”

In 2022, LTTW partnered with the DoF to expand its conservation efforts to Chakar Hutan, Kerteh. This particular beach, spanning 1.4 km, sees an average of 300 nests each year. Notably, at least 41 female turtles were observed nesting at this location between July and October 2022.  Photo credit: LTTW

“Honestly speaking, when it comes to conservation, human behavior is a greater obstacle to overcome which is essential, as the greatest threats faced by turtles are anthropogenic of nature,” Long said.

Long faces the hurdle of finding effective ways to engage and inspire people to support the conservation of endangered species. More specifically, to bridge the differing views and opinions of threats faced by sea turtles and how these species should be conserved and managed. 

This involves creating strategies that can motivate individuals to take action and contribute towards protecting these vulnerable species.

Sometimes, Long would receive replies such as “We’ve been eating sea turtle eggs for so long, yet they’re still here” or “Sea turtles are threatened by fishing nets like trawlers, not consumption” during informal conversations with the local people.

“They didn’t realize that the leatherback extinction is a collective threat that contributed to it,” she emphasized.

Aside from protecting turtles, the Chakar Hutan project pushes for “edutourism” to increase awareness through local participation in conservation and tourism. Photo credit: LTTW

When it comes to involving stakeholders in a project, there are often different perspectives and interests to consider. For instance, governments may have unique needs and priorities, while local communities may have their own viewpoints. 

“Every time we discuss something, there’re always suggestions and questions from all involved on why certain things are done or not done certain ways,” she highlighted. “Even among scientists, disagreements can arise from time to time.”

In her view, the most arduous aspect of conservation is the process of reaching a consensus in decision making. “In the end, it’s people who make these decisions,” she added. 

“Advocating the uncovering of what is advantageous for turtles, while also incorporating the wants and desires of humans into the equation. Finding a compromise between both perspectives can produce sustainable solutions that benefit both turtles and humans.”

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