Malaysia's Rantau Abang

by AFP/Hazlin Hassan, Mar 9, 2003 | Destinations: Malaysia / Terengganu

Leatherback turtles are in danger of being lost forever from Malaysia's famed Rantau Abang beach where thousands of the marine reptiles previously came to lay their eggs. Only three landings of leatherback turtles were detected during the last nesting season between April and September 2002, according to the Fisheries Department.

"The leatherback population is experiencing more than 99 percent decline if you compare it to 40-50 years ago," Kamarruddin Ibrahim, head of the department's turtle centre told AFP. The three landings are a pale shadow of the 10,000 recorded in the 1960s in the Rantau Abang turtle sanctuary on a stretch of sandy beach in northeast Terengganu state.

Kamarruddin's centre is responsible for locating turtle eggs laid on the beach and replanting them in the centre's incubator, away from greedy poachers. Fourteen kilometres of the beach became a protected turtle sanctuary in 1961 in an attempt to prevent the eggs being stolen and eaten. But even with new laws passed in the 1990s banning the consumption of leatherback turtle eggs, the situation has not improved.

"We failed to recover any eggs from the three landings last year. They were most likely poached or eaten," Kamarudin said. Lau Min Min, scientific officer of the World Wide Fund for Nature Malaysia told AFP turtle eggs were a traditional source of protein for locals. "Before the ban, not many hatchlings got released into the sea. Even if they did, the mortality rate of hatchlings is very high. With every 1,000 released, only one will survive. And they take 30 years to mature," Kamarruddin said.

A high number of leatherbacks and other turtles are also killed by getting trapped in fishing nets in Malaysian and international waters. "We've been tagging our turtles for 30 years. We receive reports from countries like Japan, China, Taiwan, Borneo and the Philippines when they find our turtles drowned in fishing gear, which happens too often," he said. The people of neighbouring countries also hunt the leatherback for its meat or sacrifice it in religious rituals, he said.

"Uncontrolled tourism is also a factor. We could not control the crowds that gathered in Rantau Abang when turtles were plentiful. The beach was open to everyone," he said. Min Min agrees the tourism industry boom contributed to the decline, with hotels and bright lights near the beachfront causing turtles to shy away. In the early years, up to 2,000 tourists would camp in the area, build bonfires, and even ride on the backs of the turtles.

Inept hatchery methods also caused their decline. "We only now know the temperatures of 31-32 degrees celsius used at hatcheries around the country produced 100 percent female turtles. So that means we have been producing female turtles since 1961," Kamarruddin said. Min Min supported this argument, saying that turtles would lay their eggs either under vegetation, ensuring a cooler temperature which would produce males or under direct sunlight to produce females. This would also explain why no eggs were hatched in 2001, despite there being 21 detected landings. "No fertilisation or mating process took place, possibly due to the lack of males," Kamarruddin said.

Chan Eng Heng, a professor at the University College of Science and Technology of Malaysia and a turtle conservationist, had predicted this sorry state of affairs in an article published in 1996. An analysis of the number of nestings from 1960 to early 1990 showed a steady decline, she said. "Based on that, I predicted that leatherback turtle nesting will come to nothing by 2003," she said, adding that the zero record came a year earlier than the prediction. Despite government efforts, not enough eggs were protected between 1961 to 1987, she said.

"It is very sad. Rantau Abang used to be the prime location for leatherbacks in the world. I'm not sure if anything can be done now. There are no more eggs to protect. It's a bit too late to rescue the leatherback," she said. Min Min agreed. "There's no point in harping on about it. We must learn from this and save other species like the green turtle and the hawksbill turtle before they suffer the same fate," she said.

Both species are categorised as "threatened". WWF Malaysia is urging the authorities to take immediate steps to ensure the safety of the two remaining turtle species, whose numbers are still "good" according to the fisheries department. This would include total egg protection, which is currently limited to the leatherback, control over fishing gear and opening up more protected sanctuaries along the Terengganu coastline. On the leatherback, Kamarruddin outlined a new strategy to increase its dwindling numbers.

"We will gradually shut down our hatchery production and replace that with natural incubation. We will leave the eggs where they are laid and deploy rangers to patrol the beaches. It's costly but we have to do it," he said. "Tourism should be controlled. Not every turtle beach should be open to the public. Most should be turned into private or semi-private beaches," Kamarudin said. "We expect this year's numbers to increase. There is a tendency for numbers to fluctuate from year to year. Turtle nesting is cyclical. It would be good one year and bad the next. I expect this year to be better," he said. "We are not going to stop turtle conservation. It has been our commitment since the 1960s even through their continual decline."

* * * * *