While four types of marine turtle lay their eggs on Malaysia’s east coast, for years the sight of the largest – the giant, critically endangered leatherback turtle – was the star attraction, drawing visitors to Rantau Abang in Terengganu. In fact all other kinds of marine turtle – green (Malaysian nesting sites include the Perhentians, Pulau Redang, Cherating, Penarik, and the Turtle Islands National Park in Sabah), hawksbill (Pulau Redang, Turtle Islands National Park, Pulau Tioman and Padang Kemunting near Melaka), olive ridley (rarely seen), and Kemp’s ridley and loggerhead (neither of which nest in Malaysia) – are also at risk.
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Harmful fishing methods, such as the use of trawl nets, kill thousands of marine turtles each year, and help explain the dramatic reduction in leatherbacks nesting on the Terengganu coast. In 1956, more than ten thousand were recorded; in 2000, just three; in 2002, there were no sightings of leatherbacks in Rantau Abang for the first time since records began; by 2005, leatherback, hawksbill and olive ridley’s statistics in Terengganu were all at zero, and green turtle figures were significantly down. On the rare occasions when a leatherback turns up – there was a lone turtle in 2010 – their eggs often fail to hatch. This is probably because of the increasing rarity of male–female turtle encounters.
With a very meagre survival rate among hatchlings under ordinary conditions, any human pressure on turtle populations has drastic consequences for their survival. For the Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore, turtle soup is a classic delicacy, and while Malays eschew turtle meat, they do consume turtle eggs, which look like ping-pong balls and are sold at markets throughout the east coast. Their collection is licensed at certain sites, but there’s no guarantee that anything on sale was collected legally. There appears to be no political will to outlaw this traditional food, a sad irony given Malaysia’s general turtle conservation efforts: in many places, hatcheries pay licensed collectors for eggs rather than see them go to markets. At least the deliberate slaughter of turtles for their shells, once fashioned into bowls and earrings, has been banned since 1992.
Turtle spotting and conservation
Nowadays, humans are excluded from various designated sanctuaries for nesting turtles. At these sites the eggs are dug up immediately after the turtle has laid them and reburied in sealed-off hatcheries on the beach. Burying the eggs in sand of the correct temperature is crucial as warm sand produces more females, while cooler sand favours males. When the hatchlings emerge, they are released at the top of the beach and their scurry to the sea is supervised to ensure their safe progress.
There are several officially sanctioned opportunities to watch nesting turtles on the east coast beaches and islands, including at Cherating, Pulau Perhentian Besar and Pulau Tioman (at Juara Beach). One excellent resource is whelpourpenyu.com, set up by a company called Ecoteer which offers opportunities to volunteer on Perhentian Besar.