Malaysia: Wanted - turtle eggs

TAN CHENG LI The Star 14 Jul 14;

Since saving the eggs will save the turtles, one turtle guardian is stopping as many eggs as possible from reaching the market.

WHEN word went out in early May that a new turtle hatchery has come up in Chendor, Pahang, and the owner was looking to buy eggs, the response was swift. In no time, collectors with pails of soft-shelled, golf-ball-sized eggs, freshly dug out from their nests, showed up at the hatchery. They were paid cash, which probably explained their willingness to sell to the facility instead of to market vendors.

In just over two months, the facility has purchased 3,069 green turtle eggs from 67 nests and 53 painted terrapin eggs from four nests – that’s over 3,000 eggs saved from being consumed, and potentially over 3,000 turtle hatchlings given a shot at survival.

At the new hatchery, the eggs were buried for incubation and in late June, Angela Hijjas caught her first sight of hatchlings emerging from their nest and scampering to sea.

“It’s a great experience to come face to face with wildlife, not in a zoo, but in a natural setting,” says the ardent supporter of the arts and the environment, who had set up the hatchery. “It’s also rewarding to know that you’ve actually had a role in nurturing something.”

Turtle nesting sites

The long shoreline between Cherating and Chendor in Pahang is known to host nesting turtles. The Fisheries Department has gazetted the southern stretch at Cherating as a turtle sanctuary, so all the eggs laid there go to its hatchery. However, the northern portion of the beach, which is where Angela’s property sits, is unprotected. That means the eggs are collected and sold in markets.

Angela shares that her husband, award-winning architect Hijjas Kasturi, had bought the 12ha piece of land in 1969. It was left idle all these years because the site lacked access, except from the beach. Recently, after acquiring land that provides a route to their site, they decided to build a resort there. Angela, being passionate about the environment, insisted on the project having a conservation value to compensate for the development.

Doing something for the turtles was the obvious thing: “Because my land is near the beach, and I know turtles come up there and people are digging up the eggs and selling them. That’s something I would like to change. It’s easy to do, and I can afford it. If the eggs are not re-buried, they’d be eaten.”

Keeping prices stable

Angela, 64, is based in Kuala Lumpur, so she employs a worker with knowledge of turtle hatcheries. She also gets advice and assistance from Pak Su, a tour guide experienced in turtle conservation efforts in Geliga, Kemaman. The facility will be opened to the public and the Pahang Malaysian Nature Society will support the centre by planning educational visits for students.

Angela has spent almost RM8,000 in two months just to purchase the eggs, paying RM2.50 for a turtle egg and RM4 for a terrapin egg. She keeps to the market rates, as advised by a Fisheries Department official.

“I was told that if I offered higher prices, it might lead to thefts of eggs belonging to the department. It’s in everyone’s interest to keep the price stable so we can get as many eggs as possible into hatcheries.

“We will buy any eggs available during the peak season, which is from April to October.

“According to Pak Su, there were 1,900 landings in the area from the southern coast of Terengganu to Cherating last year. Each nest averages 100 eggs. That means, about 200,000 eggs can be found. Some will go to hatcheries, but most will end up in markets. In Terengganu markets, there is no shortage of turtle eggs.”

The collectors are not selling all the eggs to her; it seems they keep half of what is collected, most probably for personal consumption. In any case, Angela’s effort is rescuing at least a portion of the eggs. And there were no records in the past of the total landings in the area; there is now, as her staff records all egg purchases and hatchlings.

She has also instructed her workers to release the baby turtles upon emergence from the nest and not keep them in tanks. In many hatcheries, it is common practice to retain the hatchlings in order to show visitors, but this can affect their survival in the wild.

Taking action

Of course, buying turtle eggs to prevent them from ending up in someone’s stomach is an expensive conservation exercise, but until state governments outlaw the consumption of turtle eggs, this is one way to safeguard the future of turtle species.

“For me, it’s a way of actually doing something that might make a difference,” says Angela. “We’ve already had over 3,000 eggs, out of that only two or three will make it to maturity (scientists say only one in 1,000 hatchlings will reach adulthood). But for me, that’s money well-spent. It’s something I can do.

“I have been involved in environmental conservation efforts, but sometimes the decision-making process must consider all parties. This was a decision and initiative I could take on my own.

“It’s something within my control and my capacity, so why not? Am I going to spend the money on a fancy handbag? I don’t think so.”

In any case, Angela is optimistic that when the resort is completed, guests and visitors will not mind having the cost of a turtle nest added to their bills.

“That may be one way of defraying the cost, but at the moment, I intend to continue (funding the project).

“I’ll go on as long as I can. Thanks to the inheritance from my parents, I have the money to do this. If they knew, they’d be pleased. So, it’s something for them as well.”

She says the resort will consist of only 27 chalets so that the natural vegetation is retained. The site has sand dunes and typical East Coast coastal forest consisting of casuarina trees on the beach and jambu laut and nibong palm further inland.

A survey by the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia shows it has over 50 tree and plant species. Botanists have also identified some sites worth conserving as these have unique species and are examples of coastal forests that we have little of now.

Angela also intends to replace the non-native and invasive acacia trees growing on the road leading to her property.

Given her way, this site might eventually mirror Rimbun Dahan, her 6ha home in Kuang, Selangor, where she grows various plants and tropical forest trees, effectively turning it into a repository of culturally important and rare flora. Her new project in Chendor will be that, and more, as there is the addition of a turtle sanctuary.