By Jaspal Singh
The mere mention of turtles is bound to conjure up images of large leatherback reptiles pulling their weight slowly to lay eggs on Terengganu's famous Rantau Abang beach.
The shores of Rantau Abang have become famous, thanks largely to the immense publicity the threatened leatherback species has received due to its endangered species tag.
But many are not aware that there are other endangered turtle species, albeit smaller in size, which come to the Malaysian peninsula shores to lay their eggs.
Two of them -- the Olive Ridley and the Green turtle -- have made Malaysian shores their home for generations. Dozens come here every year to lay eggs.
And to the surprise of many, it is not the east coast that these species are calling home.
It is the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia.
Both the Olive Ridley and the Green turtles have made Perak, Penang and Malacca home, where each year mother turtles swim to the shore at night to lay eggs.
Of the three locations, Perak receives the highest number. Dozens of turtles crawl up to the beach of Kampung Segari almost every month.
With the highest concentration of the Olive Ridley and the Green turtles at the shores of Kampung Segari, Pasir Panjang, located 95km south-west of Ipoh, it is surprising that many Malaysians are still unaware that they can visit the Turtle and Marine Ecosystem Centre or TUMEC to learn more about these reptiles.
It is at TUMEC, established by the Fisheries Department, that intense efforts are being undertaken to prevent the Olive Ridley and the Green turtles from disappearing from the face of the planet.
Located on a 2.4ha site, less than 50m from the spot where the turtles come to lay eggs, the centre boasts not only an information centre for visitors, but more importantly, a hatchery.
The centre, according to Perak Fisheries Department director Sani Mohd Isa, is involved with five main programmes -- turtles hatchery, hatchling release, conservation, public awareness and research.
"These programmes are linked to our primary focus, which is protecting turtles from the threat of extinction.
"Both Olive Ridley and Green turtles are threatened species. At TUMEC, we take every effort to make sure that these two species are protected," he said when met after the opening of the Turtle Conservation Awareness Talk at the centre yesterday.
The one-day event, which involved students from four schools near the centre, was organised by Malakoff Corporation Berhad as part of the company's corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative to spread awareness of turtle conservation among the younger generation.
Sani, who takes a keen interest in turtle conservation, said TUMEC's main priority was the hatchery programme and hatchling release.
Last year, turtles from the two species laid about 8,000 eggs, of which half were hatched and released back to the ocean.
Until June this year, the turtles laid about 2,300 eggs, of which 430 were hatched.
According to Sani, the lower figure for this year did not mean that there were fewer turtles coming to the shore to lay their eggs.
"Turtles are in the habit of searching for proper egg-laying spots. Sometimes they would visit Kampung Segari shores two or three times before laying eggs.
"What is more important is the role played by TUMEC to conserve these species. Once the eggs are laid, we immediately dig them out and bury them in our hatchery a few metres away from the beach," he said, pointing out that the turtles would come to the shore between 1am and 5am to lay eggs.
A fertile female turtle could lay up to 150 eggs per beach trip. The eggs are buried in sand hatchery for a period of up to eight months. If the eggs do not hatch, they are then dug out and disposed of.
Hatchlings from eggs successfully hatched are then removed to small sea-water cubicles where they will be kept and fed for a month before being released into the sea.
Sani said the sand at the hatchery was replaced every year to avoid spread of bacteria or other life-threatening organisms.
Despite the organised structure and system at the centre, Sani said TUMEC was in continuous need of funding to ensure that its programmes were run without hiccups.
"We receive funding both from the Federal and state governments but this is not adequate.
"We can only hope that more companies will embrace turtle conservation as part of their CSR programmes like that done by Malakoff," he said.
Malakoff's programme saw students from SK Segari, SJK (T) Ladang Huntly, SJK (C) Pei Min and Sekolah Agama Rakyat Segari taking part in a quiz, tour of TUMEC's various facilities, colouring contest, gotong-royong at the turtle beach and witnessing the release of about 60 hatchlings into the sea.
Malakoff, which is conducting the turtle CSR programme for the second year, presented a cheque for RM10,000 to help improve amenities at the centre.
"The turtle conservation effort in Perak is still not widely known but we are trying our best. Malaysians can certainly do more if they are aware about how important it is to protect these sea creatures.
"Do it for the coming generations so that they too can see and touch these graceful and beautiful turtles," he said.