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Turtles

Article courtesy of The Sarawak Tribune

The world's longest living vertebrate, the sea turtle is in danger of becoming extinct. This is due to the fact that the number of sea turtles is declining all over the world. In Sarawak, although there has been a drastic decline of turtle landings over the past few years , conservation efforts and tough legislation has been implemented by the State Government to protect these turtles to ensured that the population will hopefully stabalise and increase writes Nikki Lugun.Picture

Turtles are a vital part of the marine eco-system and are endearing creatures of the sea. They are graceful swimmers who navigate across the oceans. They come up to the surface to breath every few hours and when they are resting, they can remain under water for much longer periods of time. They have soulful eyes and flipper-like limbs and have a clumsy gait when trudging up the same beach where they were first hatched, to lay their eggs.

Turtles are ancient life forms. The earliest fossils recognised as turtles date from the Triassic period, about 200 million years ago, thus turtles were in existence prior to the emergence of the great dinosaur groups. Turtles are the world's longest living vertebrate and can live for over 100 years.Picture

Six of the seven species of living marine turtles recognised in the world nest in Southeast Asia. Five of these species are found around Malaysia, which includes the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) which is the largest of all species and nests primarily on the mainland beaches of the East Coast of West Malaysia. The most widely distributed sea turtle species in Malaysia is the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and nest in most places along the shallow coastal waters. The hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) are the rarer species.

In Sarawak, there are four main species of turtles found. 95% of all turtle landings in Sarawak are found at the Turtles Islands, which consists of Talang-Talang Besar, Talang-Talang Kecil and Satang Besar. Turtle landings are also found along Kampung Puguh off Sematan and off the Similajau National Park near Bintulu.

According to a recent report, the Sarawak Turtle islands have witnessed a drastic drop in turtle landings over the last 35 years. According to Dr Charles Leh, a zoologist from the Sarawak Museum there were 280,000 eggs from 2,800 landings last year of the green turtle which is the main species found in Sarawak. Talking on behalf of the Sarawak Turtle Board, Dr Charles Leh also said that thirty five years ago, three million landings during a season would be common.

This year, it is predicted that less 100,000 eggs and with the La Nina phenomenon, there might be even less. This is due to the fact that the turtles dislike heavy rain which in turn makes the sand hard to shift when preparing the nests.

The hawksbill turtle, which is the most endangered species, land all year round mainly in the west season and on the mainland. In previous years, there would be about 50 landings but there were only 20 landings last year and this year, four landings are recorded at the Tanjung Datu National Park. The rarest of the species, the olive ridley has recorded only 10 - 20 landings each year. Although the leatherback nests mainly along a 15 km stretch of beach centered at Rantau Abang, Terengganu, there were two sightings off Sarawak in the last 10 years.

And to think that thirty five years ago, three million landings during a season would be common!

A female turtle over a lifetime can lay over 10,000 eggs which is in itself a reproductive strategy. Out of this, 1 baby turtle out of 1,000 to 10,000 survive.

As a result of natural factors and human activities, all species of turtles around the world are threatened with extinction. Once stable populations continue to decline due to fishing, development of nesting beaches, pollution and poaching.

Among the most serious marine environment threat to turtles is trawler fishing. Thousands of turtles drown each year when they become entangled in the nets. Although turtles can remain underwater for long periods of time, they need to breathe.

The continuing loss of nesting habitat is also a major reason why marine turtles throughout the world are in danger. Turtles tend to come to the same beach where they were first hatched and normally imprint the beach. The loss or reduction of a single nesting beach, due to resort development or setting up of recreational facilities can have serious effects. Turtle eggs are particulary vulnerable to predators. Many animals seem to be aware of the nesting cycle of marine turtles, and eagerly gather to ravish nests once the turtles have made them. For example, in Sarawak, wild boars and monitor lizards often destroy nests on the mainland beaches.

Unfortunately, for sea turtles, their eggs are still considered highly desirable for a number of reasons. In parts of Asia, they are considered to be aphrodisiacs. The truth is however, turtle eggs contain extremely high colestrol, which can lead to early death and certainly reptile eggs are bad for humans.

Unfortunately, turtle meat, is also considered a delicacy by some people. Commercial exploitation of eggs and meat is the major cause of the decline of the green turtle and hawksbill. There is a continuing demand for hawsbill shell as well as other products including leather and oil for perfume and cosmetics. The hawksbill turtle's shell consists of attractively coloured shell of thick overlapping scales. This shell is the source of "tortise shell" which is prized for accessories. It is ironic that the whole shell of the hawksbill is often mounted on the wall as a symbol of longevity.

A lot has been done to bring about the awareness of the turtle population decline in Sarawak. Effort by the State Government and inter-agency coordination has helped to a certain extent that the turtles in Sarawak are given maximum protection by implementing tough legislation.

Under the new Wild Life Protection Ordinance 1998 marine turtles in Sarawak are totally protected species. This is because they are now extremely rare due to hunting and habitat destruction. Everyone's help is needed to ensure that they do not become extinct in Sarawak. Under this ordinance you are not allowed to keep them as pets, hunt them, disturb them, sell them, or keep any of their parts or trophies. The penalties for hunting or possessing marine turtle dead or alive and possessing any of their parts is a fine of RM25,000 and two years jail.

Situated 3 nautical miles from Sematan, the Talang-Talang Region is protected in part by the Tanjung Datu National Park. Just opposite, on the mainland is also the Samunsam Wildlife Sanctuary. Currently, the Talang Talang islands are under the Turtle Board and one needs a permit to enter � nautical miles from the island. The Talang-Satang National Park is now constituted and a permit is, therefore, also necessary from the Forestry Department.

A recently formed "Talang -Satang Turtle Research Working Group" consists of Turtle Board, Museum, Forestry Department and Marine Fisheries Department. The group meets every month discuss and coordinate reasearch and conservation of the turtles on the islands.

This shows a strong local commitment by the various agencies. RM 1.4 million has been approved from the Federal Ministry of Science Technology and Environment for the implementation of a three year Research and Development Project. This fund has been supplemented by RM1.6 million by the state government through the Forestry Department which is the lead agency.

The project is a remarkable commitment by both the state and federal governments towards turtle conservation, especially considering the harsh economic times. This project incorporates both state of the art scientific monitoring such as satellite telemetry and ultrasonic/radio telemetry, as well as "grass roots" level daily and systematic ecological observations by local staff.

There are three local marine biologists attached to the Forestry Department, two who are working full time on Talang-Talang Kechil and another biologist on Satang Besar. They are conducting a monitoring programme on the breeding population.

On the ground level, 3 local graduates are about to initiate masters at local universities. Also three local undergraduate students conducted their final year projects at Talang-Talang kecil, and more have indicated their interest in the next two years. The Forestry Department has also employed 12 contract staffs from the local kampungs working full time on the project. In addition, 10 staff from the Forestry Department are helping out on a rotation basis. The Sarawak Museum has four staff also on a rotation basis.

The overall aim of the project is to ultimately increase hatching success rate of the turtle and to get as many baby turtles out to the ocean as possible. They are also looking at all factors, which affect the breeding rate and hatching success rate.

The recent deployment of the reef balls which will extend the existing coral reef in the Talang-Talang Region will give Sarawak the opportunity to start a model for the rest of Asia in planned and responsible marine conservation - turtles in particular. The main objective of the project is to protect the strategic resting places for the turtle population, and to rip the nets of illegal trawlers.

Everything is done now to hopefully see more turtles coming back. The Forest Department is monitoring satellite tracking of turtles. The results of these conservation efforts, nevertheless, will not be seen in the next 30 to 40 years, when the same turtles that are being saved now will one day come back to our shores to nest.