Tuesday July 17, 2012
Lifeline for turtles
By NATALIE HENG
Beach patrols by volunteers are helping to deter turtle egg poachers at Pulau Perhentian, Terengganu.
BETWEEN the months of April and September, water traffic gets a little chaotic in the channel between the islands of Pulau Perhentian Kecil and Pulau Perhentian Besar in Terengganu for that is the time when tourists arrive and leave by the boatloads.
There is one spot in the channel, however, where you will find life-jacketed swimmers bobbing in the sea alongside the speed boats, with their heads down in the water. But there are no corals underneath, just patches of sea grass and large, moving dark masses.
Welcome to Turtle Bay. Green turtles are one of the highlights of the island, though Perhentian has much more to offer – pristine beach fronts, stunning sunsets and shoals of colourful fish.
As the islands, virtually unknown as a tourist destination before the 1990s, evolved to become one of Malaysia’s most popular beaches, turtles have become valuable assets. A 2005 gazettement of Perhentian as a turtle reserve recognises the need to protect the animal’s breeding grounds. Now, unauthorised egg collection by locals who have for generations consumed the eggs as traditional delicacies, is prohibited. These measures, though unpopular, are important, given the challenges posed by development along the beach front.
Bright lights and a lack of shade have dramatically reduced suitable nesting habitat, whilst heavy water traffic has led to an increase in mortality as turtles are hit by boat propellers.
The rising popularity of Perhentian as a budget to mid-range tourist destination has allowed locals – many of whom earn a living as guides, chalet operators, or water taxi operators – to prosper.
But as business booms and chalets jostle for space on the beach, the island’s success throws up a big question: can it still support a healthy, breeding, turtle population?
Turtles nest at night, under cover of darkness. This is when the poachers come out. Despite efforts by the Fisheries Department through its Turtle and Marine Ecosystem Centre (Tumec) to hire local contractors who transfer all freshly laid turtle eggs at Perhentian to its guarded hatchery at Pantai Tiga Ruang, budget limitations have been restrictive.
For starters, there is only enough money to hire three people to scour the island’s six nesting beaches – Pantai Seribu, Tanjung Tukas, Tanjung Besar, Tanjung Tengah, Tanjung Menangis and Tanjung Buntung. And at RM4 a pop, a nest of around 100 eggs can fetch up to RM400 in markets on the mainland, where consumption of green turtle eggs is still legal.
Keeping an eye on poachers
Poaching is still a threat; Gareth Turner, 34, knows this. Accounts from those who have witnessed poaching at other beaches, as well as various personal encounters at Tanjung Tukas where he works, have convinced Turner that volunteer patrols organised by Bubbles Dive Resort, his employer, are making an important impact.
A conservation project facilitator for the resort located in a secluded corner of Pulau Perhentian Besar, Turner has not had a day off in three months, because in addition to inducting new volunteers and single-handedly running the Turtle and Reef Conservation Project during the day, he spends most nights patrolling, and pouncing on would-be poachers. These are often just local villagers out to make a quick buck.
“You may speak to people who detest poachers, but I’ve got no problems with them as people,” he says, pointing out that in times of financial opportunity, many people lose their moral compass. “And besides, the poachers often don’t have a deep enough understanding about how far-reaching the environmental consequences of what they do are.”
The poachers usually ride in from the west. As soon as they get round the rock line to Tanjung Tukas, they stop the engine and use a bright light to search for turtle tracks on the beach.
Turner likes to surprise them. He will turn off his red torchlight (red light is less intrusive for turtles) and hide behind some bushes. When the poachers come ashore, he will approach them. “I’ll just ask what they’re doing here. They usually ignore me. So I ask if I can take a picture, which they also usually ignore, and when I do, the only time using a camera flash is acceptable on the beach, they generally get straight back onto the boat and leave.”
Turner, a man of significant stature, is from Sheffield, Britain. He is happy to move into more “front-line” work, having spent many years doing animal management in veterinary clinics and safari parks.
Having him on the nesting beach is clearly working to deter poachers, as his absence one night demonstrated. Recently arrived volunteer Maelle Pelisson, 26, recounts her first night at Bubbles: “Normally, we will patrol the beach in two shifts, 8pm to 2am, and 2am to 8am. When I arrived, the resort hadn’t had any volunteers the week before, and on one of those nights, a nest had been poached because Gareth was too exhausted to do both shifts. He was really cut up about it and insisted that he do the second shift this time, because that is when the poachers had made their move. So I had to do the first one … all on my own.”
Patrolling the secluded beach was daunting for Pellison, who had signed up as a volunteer with Ecoteer. Fresh from France, she had never been to Malaysia before, let alone wander around a dark, lonely beach. But having received her induction during the day, she plucked up the courage and went for it. Equipped with her torchlight, she walked up and down the shore, with nothing but a sky full of stars for company, and it wasn’t long before she spotted some tracks.
“They led up the beach and into some trees. I was so scared because it was dark and eerie but I told myself ‘I must do this’.” Her bravery was rewarded for in the bushes was a gigantic green turtle, awkwardly using its flippers to dig into the sand. As per protocol set by Bubbles, the next step was for Pellison to alert resort guests and deliver a briefing on ethical turtle-watching.
Part of the philosophy at Bubbles is to allow guests the chance to see turtles in a controlled manner, and it seems to be going well, because over 47% of turtle landings since 2006 (when the resort started taking records) have resulted in nestings – a ratio comparable to other nesting sites in the country and in Costa Rica. This implies that guests have not posed a stressful situation to nesting turtles, which might not return to the same spot if disturbed.
Even so, you do get the occasional wilfully disobedient guest. “We have a strict no touch, no flash photography policy, and conduct compulsory briefings for all our guests before taking them to see the turtles” explains Pellison.
“But there was this one group which had been watching a turtle for half an hour, during which everyone behaved, and no one used flash. I had to briefly go and check on another turtle, and the minute I turned my back, a flash went off! So now I tell everyone, if anyone uses the flash, no one is allowed to take any pictures at all.”
The briefing sessions followed by the turtle watching sessions are designed to educate and inspire people into doing their part for conservation. Often, it is actually tourists who flock to Pasar Payang in Kuala Terengganu to get a taste of turtle eggs, even buying them as souvenirs. This is why for Turner, education is key.
“At the briefings, we teach our guests just how vulnerable the turtle’s life cycle makes them,” he explains. “It can take between 26 and 40 years for turtles to reach sexual maturity, a journey only one in every 10,000 hatchlings will go through.”
These statistics are sobering, considering only 8,763 eggs were laid out of the 100 nestings along Tanjung Tukas in 2011, according to data from Bubbles.
According to Tumec, there was an annual average of 245 green turtle nests and 21,125 eggs counted in Perhentian for the years 2006 to 2011, giving new meaning to the phrase “every egg counts”.
Bubbles has at least made an impression on one boy. Turner recounts how one teenager volunteer told him that seeing a turtle struggle out of the water to shore to lay her eggs and then witnessing baby turtles emerge from the sand and rush to sea, has changed him.
“Now, when he sees a turtle in the water, peacefully grazing, he thinks of all the odds it has beaten. In fact, he became extremely protective of the turtles and said we shouldn’t be letting all these tourists come and watch the nestings because sometimes, people try and touch the turtles or take pictures with flash.” In return, Turner pointed out to the boy: “But how are you supposed to educate people if all the cool things happen behind closed doors? Just think about what a difference getting to see the turtles has made for you.”