Malaysia: Retired Professor saving river terrapins

ROSLI ZAKARIA New Straits Times 2 Mar 19;

KEMAMAN: Being a retiree is not an excuse to laze around the house. For Professor Dr Maketab Mohamed, who retired from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Skudai, Johor, two months ago, it is time to give back to society.

And being a former two-term Malaysian Nature Society president from 2010 to 2014, Maketab has his heart set on the environment and matters that threaten the survival of animals, especially those listed under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (ICN) red list as “critically endangered”.

“Southern river terrapins are critically endangered. I consider it important to assist (in the conservation of the species).

“This matter needs greater publicity and awareness to ensure that the public understand the importance of their survival,” said Maketab, who often visited the Turtle Conservation Society in Kampung Pasir Gajah.

He has been helping Dr Chan Pelf Nyok and her husband, Dylan Wang, who funded their research on the landing and nesting trends of the turtles.

Maketab said universities, especially those with biological and marine sciences facilities, should carry out research and conservation projects on the species and suggest ways to protect the animals from extinction.

“State governments, together with the Wildlife and National Parks Department, can work together to conserve terrapins and turtles. Terrapins are found only in Terengganu, Perak and Kedah.

“Sungai Pahang used to have terrapins. Unfortunately, our two survey trips last year yielded nothing.

“This indicated that terrapins in Sungai Pahang are locally extinct.

“If there are enough funds and manpower, a terrapin conservation centre can be set up in Sungai Pahang near Chenor.

“We can reintroduce adults and hatchlings into the river,” he said, adding that the drastic drop in terrapin landings and nesting at Sungai Kemaman could be an indication of something worse.

He said terrapin researchers had predicted that without serious conservation efforts, terrapins could become extinct in less than 20 years.

“Terrapins are unlike sea turtles. They lay fewer than 40 eggs in a nest. This is unlike green turtles, which can lay more than 60 eggs.

“Taking into account the natural threats to the hatchlings, their survival rate is very low.”

He said extinction could also be caused by habitat loss, poaching of their eggs, and hunting of the animal for its meat.

“As such, education and awareness about terrapins and their habitat, as well as do’s and don’ts, must start at a young age.”

Couple brought together, kept apart by their love for turtles
ROSLI ZAKARIA New Straits Times 2 Mar 19;

KEMAMAN: Terrapins brought Dr Chen Pelf Nyok, well known among villagers in Kampung Pasir Gajah as “Mek Tuntung”, and her husband Dylan Wang whom locals call “Along Dolloh”, together, and their love for the reptiles led them to tie the knot early last year.

But their love for the turtles also kept them apart for months as they took notes on the animal and worrying why the number of terrapin landings and nesting grounds have dropped drastically over the past eight years.

With no funding, the couple showed their dedication and love for the reptiles by spending their money to buy terrapin eggs and raised funds through a terrapin adoption programme or sale of merchandise.

Wang slept in tents in the lower reaches of a river in Kampung Pasir Pok Yok, while Chen focused her research on the sandy banks of Sungai Kemaman River near Kampung Pasir Gajah, enduring mosquito bites and avoiding snakes when terrapins landed from 9pm to 6am.

While Chen has been setting up camps with villagers since 2012, she met Wang only in 2016.

Their love for terrapins and turtles changed their lives.

Wang, who is assistant project manager of the Turtle Conservation Society (TCS), a non-profit and non-governmental organisation, is seeing a drastic drop in the number of terrapin nesting grounds.

He shares the concern with Chen, the co-founder of TCS, set up in 2011.

“In 2012, we recorded 105 nests. Last year, we found six nests. This year, we discovered three nests and this is supposed to be the peak of the nesting season. This is worrying.”

He suspected that the big floods of 2012 had changed the river landscape where the terrapins’ sandy nesting grounds sites disappeared and, instead, formed in areas not familiar to the terrapins,

He also believed that the turtles were drowned in fish traps and killed by fishing hook and lines.

“We are concerned about the use of poison by anglers who kill not only terrapins, but also fishes in the river.”

He said sand dredging affected the terrapins’ nesting grounds and this was made worse as their eggs were eaten.

“This must be stopped. We are doing what we can to save the eggs and incubate them in safer sites.

“We are educating the public on the importance of terrapins in a river system as they can be considered a barometer of a river’s health.”

Chen said that educating the people on the need to protect terrapins and restrain them from collecting and eating their eggs could boost the animal’s population.

“It is not something that can be achieved immediately.

“We can educate children about nature camps and get villagers to join in (the conservation effort) by helping out collecting terrapin eggs and incubating them in conservation sites.

“There are also those who fail to see the importance of our work. I am trying to influence change by working with the community.”

She said gatherings with egg collectors facilitated by village heads or assemblyman could manage expectations and concerns.

“No eggs equals to no terrapins in the future. In fact, the adults that nest now are from eggs that missed detection 20 years ago. And since there are more people combing nesting banks this year, in 20 years, there would be no more terrapins.”

Chen said TCS badly needed support from local authorities, which acted as a bridge that connects locals with outsiders like her, handicapped by being a woman and a non-Muslim.

She said TCS had adopted SK Pasir Gajah and ran turtle camps with the school yearly,

She added that it held annual World Turtle Day celebrations with the community, and had started a women’s group.

On funding, she said she had drained her three savings accounts.

She said on Tuesday she had uplifted a fixed deposit to pay for terrapin eggs this year.

“It is tough but someone has to do it.

“My husband and I are risking everything for the future of the turtles and terrapins in Sungai Kemaman.

“We have been hearing news of the extinction of (animal) species too often. We hope to save this species from disappearing forever.”