By Zuhaila Sedek
Sea turtles are magnificent. They have journeyed the world’s oceans for more than 175 million years, outliving dinosaurs. Given the fact that they are descendants of ancient reptiles and have lived far longer than humans, they more than deserve our respect and care.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Besides being hunted for food, their eggs are gathered and sold for consumption too.
Luckily this happens only in Terengganu. Elsewhere in the country (Sabah, Sarawak, Pahang, Kelantan, Johor, Negri Sembilan and Malacca) there is a a ban on turtle egg trading.
Life & Times recently interviewed Abdul Khalil Abdul Karim, director of Terengganu’s Department Of Fisheries (DoF) and Syed Abdullah Syed Abdul Kadir, head of Turtle & Marine Ecosystem Center (TUMEC).
The interview was made possible with the help of WWF-Malaysia, a major champion of turtle conservation in the country.
START WITH EGGS
Our country is home to four out of seven species of sea turtles in the world — leatherback (penyu belimbing), green (penyu agar), Hawksbill (penyu karah) and Olive Ridley (penyu lipas).
Abdul Khalil says the DoF has no power to impose a ban on turtle egg trading. This is because turtle conservation falls under the jurisdiction of State governments and Terengganu State’s enactment clearly states that turtle egg trading is legal. DoF is under the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry.
“However, we can continue our conservation efforts. So far, we have done well in that respect,” he says, adding that DoF awareness programmes have been well-received by the public.
Abdul Khalil says sale of turtle eggs in Terengganu has been going on for generations.
“According to a recent survey, the older generation still eats turtle eggs. However, most young people are not interested. My prediction is that the act of eating turtle eggs will be less significant in future,” he says.
There are more than 35 beaches in the State and 13 are managed by DoF. Rangers patrol these 13 beaches regularly and monitor turtle landings.
They also collect eggs and send them to hatcheries. Every beach under DoF has a hatchery where the eggs are incubated and the hatchlings released into the sea.
However, more rangers are needed as villagers often steal the eggs, hampering conservation efforts. At beaches without rangers, DoF has appointed licensed egg collectors to collect the eggs. These are either bound to DoF or WWF-Malaysia. They collect the eggs and sell them to the two organisations. Prices vary according to species. It’s RM5 each for leatherback eggs, RM4 each for olive ridley and hawksbill and RM2 for green turtle eggs. Those with WWF-Malaysia are paid extra if the eggs they have collected hatch.
Abdul Khalil says egg collectors have to meet a quota set by DoF. They are required to sell 70 per cent of their collection to DoF. The remainder can be sold elsewhere.
“As long as the quota is met, our conservation work will run smoothly,” he says.
Last year, 377,494 eggs were hatched by the department.
“Although the number of turtles coming to our shores is decreasing, we are still able to meet the target set for our conservation work.”
Meanwhile Syed Abdullah fully supports the effort to promote the ban on the sale of turtle eggs. By doing so, the National Plan Of Action For Conservation And Management Of Sea Turtles will be able to meet its aim for a national ban on commercial sale of turtle eggs.
Because there is no ban right now, the government has to buy turtle eggs collected to carry out its conservation work. Even so, some of the eggs are still sold for consumption.
“I hope multinational companies, especially those with power plants in Terengganu, will donate money for turtle conservation work,” he says, adding that this will enable DoF to buy all the eggs for incubation.
Power plants are mostly located in Kerteh. According to a WWF-Malaysia representative, the stretch where the power plants are located were once sandy beaches.
“The plants are the main reason for the decrease in the number of turtles. They emit too much light and turtles hate this,” says Syed Abdullah. Turtles prefer quiet, dark and clean places to lay their eggs.
“Research shows that of 1,000 olive ridley hatchlings released into the sea, only one will live to be an adult and return to its place of origin,” says Syed.
Turtles face many natural and man-made threats. Natural threats include being eaten by predators such as sharks and other big fish. Crabs eat hatchlings too.
But man-made threats can be controlled, says Syed Abdullah. These include pollution, unbalanced development, turtle meat consumption, sale and consumption of eggs and poor hatchery practices.
Many turtles are also found dead and stuck to rubbish thrown in the sea. Syed Abdullah explains: “Plastic bags, for instance, can suffocate them. Turtles need to come out from the sea once in a while. When they are caught in plastic bags, they struggle to release themselves and end up dead.”
Unbalanced development also causes too much noise and light pollution which is harmful. Another threat comes from fishermen as many turtles get trapped in fishing nets and lines and are killed.
“Poor management of hatcheries is also a problem. Proper handling of eggs is crucial to ensure a high success rate. It is important to train workers properly,” says Syed Abdullah, adding that many turtles also get hit by ships.
One major threat to turtles is the consumption of its meat. Sea turtles are a delicacy in many parts of Asia, especially China, Fiji, the Philippines, Vietnam and Timor Leste where it is believed that eating turtles offers longevity and increased fertility.
TO SELL OR NOT TO SELL
Although Malaysians do not eat turtle meat, many still consume the eggs. And for this, they head for Terengganu.
Syed Abdullah says the people have to change their mindset about Terengganu as the place to buy and eat turtle eggs as otherwise, the demand for turtle eggs will never stop.
I am told that one of the most popular places to buy turtle eggs is Pasar Payang in Kuala Terengganu. When I am there, I am offered bags of turtle eggs “from Terengganu and Sabah”.
Those from Terengganu cost more as they are considered fresher.
“Yes, trading of turtle eggs is legal in Terengganu, but the eggs from Sabah shouldn’t have reached the market here. They should have been detected at the airport and not permitted to leave the State,” says Syed Abdullah, adding that Sabah imposes a strict ban on turtle egg trading.
He hopes Terengganu will soon be added to the list of States that ban the sale and consumption of turtle eggs.
“If the other States can do it, why not us?” he wonders.
SEA TURTLE FACTS
• Sea turtle eggs are extremely high in cholesterol.
• The last leatherback turtle seen in the country was in 2010, at Rantau Abang, the country’s turtle sanctuary.
• Some sea turtles that came here to lay eggs have been tagged so that their movements can be monitored.
• Other types of sea turtles in the world are Loggerhead, Kemp’s Ridley and Flatback.
• Although cloning is very controversial, it may be the only way to prevent the extinction of species such as the endangered leatherback.
• Recognisable turtles are known as far back as the Triassic Period (at least 180 million years ago), before the Jurassic Period.
Why do sea turtles cry?
Turtles have glands in their eyes that remove excess salt and these “tears” also wash away sand from the eyes.