Indonesia: On the hunt for sea turtle eggs

Agus Wahyuni, Jakarta Post 19 Jul 11;

Tanjung Kemuning Beach is crowded with dozens of turtles from June to October.

The turtles arrive to lay their eggs, but before they hatch, their eggs are the targets of man — their primary predator.

This uninhabited beach is part of the illegal turtle egg trade, which involves both local markets and those of neighboring countries.

Located in Paloh in Sambas regency, West Kalimantan, Tanjung Kemuning borders the South China Sea to the north and Kampong Telok Melano at the western tip of Sarawak, Malaysia, to the west.

The gorgeous beach, with its 63-kilometer-long sloping shore of white sand, is a source of food and a good habitat for mother turtles, especially green, leatherback and hawksbills.

From Sebubus village, Tanjung Kemuning is accessible by motorcycle along a bumpy 20-kilometer-long path followed by a 42-kilometer trip along the shore when the tide has ebbed.

Sebubus villagers leave their farms and plantations for weeks to hunt turtle eggs on this beach.

One night, Sebubus local Agus was tracking turtle nests along Tanjung Kemuning. With a flashlight he walked the shore looking for traces of turtles on the low sand dunes.

One green turtle was climbing ashore, taking about 20 minutes to dig a nest hole and lay its eggs. After the turtle had left, Agus promptly reached into the nest and filled his sack with eggs. He returned home that same night.

Another hunter, Mizan from Temajuk village, had his own way of gathering eggs so as not to have to share with his peers. He rubbed out any traces of turtle prints on the sand and covered turtles with sand, waiting at a distance.

Only when all eggs were laid did he hurriedly take them home, later to be sold in Melano, Malaysia, where the price could double.

World Wildlife Federation (WWF) — Paloh turtle coordinator Dwi Suprapti said the smuggling of turtle eggs to Malaysia had been going on for quite some time. In Serikin, Sarawak, turtle eggs usually came from the Riau Islands instead of Paloh.

The price of one green turtle egg is around Rp 1,200 (14 US cents). The eggs are sold at local markets like those in Tebas, Sambas and Pinyuh in Pontianak for between Rp 1,500 and Rp 2,000.

In Serikin, eight eggs cost 10 Malaysian ringgit. They are resold at the same market at prices reaching three Malaysian ringgit per egg. Dwi said he once saw turtle eggs for sale in Serikin for as much as 2.5 ringgit, or Rp 7,000, for one egg.

Every night between 40 and 70 turtles arrive at Tanjung Kemuning during their egg-laying season, with each turtle laying between 100 and 125 eggs. In one night, there may be as many as 6,000-10,000 turtle eggs on the beach.

Agus and Mizan said they could gather between 100 and 200 turtle eggs, or even more barring village restrictions. Thirty-two percent of their profits must go to a village group lead by Bujang Syabrani, 20 percent to a breeding center managed by Syabrani and the remainder to the egg collectors themselves.

The rules began three years ago when Latif, a former employee at the Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA), was assigned to handle the Tanjung Belimbing Nature Tourist Park in Paloh. In August 2009, Latif was dismissed from the agency because of his involvement in turtle egg thefts and sales in several regions.

The scandal also included disguised breeding under the BKSDA, in which a number of breeders moved turtle nests under the cloak of protecting turtle eggs against natural predators.

Sambas Maritime and Fisheries Office head Dailami sent a letter of protest to BKSDA, which had been entrusted with the task of conserving the turtle zone. In the release of young turtles, BKSDA claimed to have freed thousands, while it was actually just dozens.

“The BKSDA has never cooperated with the Sambas regency administration either,” Dailami said. The BKSDA was also allegedly involved in the smuggling of turtle eggs to Malaysia and other regions. Over the years, the turtle population at Tanjung Kemuning has also been declining.

Syabrani initiated the construction of a 10-by-5-meter breeding center on the beach, which is big enough to accommodate thousands of young turtles. Two village groups handled the building of the center, which they funded themselves.

About 10 meters from the center, a wooden house has been set up for villagers to rest in the daytime and hunt turtle eggs at night. Fredy, 34, who is in charge of feeding young turtles, said dozens of baby turtles were eaten by predators every night.

But, man is still the most dangerous predator. In 2010, Fredy found four dead turtles, killed by hunters who couldn’t wait to get their eggs. The mother turtles were slashed in two and the eggs inside their bodies scooped out.

Sakawana Nature Explorers Association chair Iswono alleged that the turtle breeding business of both groups was a syndicate masked as a breeding effort.

In his view, breeding turtles by moving their eggs will reduce the quality of the turtles that hatch, with humans raising the young lowering their survival capacity.

Sebubus residents have seized control of turtle egg hunting grounds from the BKSDA of Tanjung Kemuning and Tanjung Belimbing. Usman, 46, an egg gatherer from Sebubus, said he sold turtle eggs in Sambas for Rp 2,500 to 3,000 an egg.

In April 2011, Pontianak’s maritime and fisheries control officers, with the aid of military border guards in Jagoi Babang, Bengkayang regency, confiscated 3,405 turtle eggs waiting to be smuggled to Sarawak through Serikin.

WWF Indonesia portfolio manager Sudarsono Kimpul said the best method for conserving turtles should be to let them live in their own habitat independently, without any human interference.