KUALA LUMPUR, July 11 (Bernama) -- For a 100 million years, turtles thrived on Planet Earth, astounded human beings with their longevity and became the icons of the sea.
And then came modernity, progress and human beingsâ€™ apathy towards the environment and the ecology around us. However, playing with nature has its consequences, and unless we want our fortunes to turn turtle, we need to act.
If turtles are unable to land on the beaches of Malaysia, it will not only be a loss of a natural national heritage but also a potential loss in the income that tourism generates for states where these turtles take shelter and procreate.
Thanks to ecological mistakes, these turtles have already made it to the list of endangered species. Fittingly, Malaysia has been quick off the block to come up with a conservation plan to ensure the continued existence of turtles on our beaches and also as the nation's sea icon.
Turtles are ancient reptiles that have existed on our planet for 100 million years, and have a long lifespan with 20-50 years taken to reach maturity.
Since a turtle takes a long time to mature, it is vulnerable to man-made causes of mortality.
Nevertheless, according to historical records, sea turtles have been a part of the country's rich natural heritage for years, but now stand threatened due to loss of habitat and nesting sites, increasing pollution, predation, over hunting and a lack of understanding of their important role in maintaining the equilibrium of the ecosystem.
Out of the seven species of sea turtles that exist in the world, four seek shelter in Malaysia. These species are the penyu Belimbing or Dermochelys coriacea, which is the world's largest turtle, the penyu Agar (Chelonia mydas), the penyu Karah (Eretmochelys imbricata), and the penyu Lipas or Lepidochelys olivacea.
The landing of the penyu Karah on the Malaysian beach is, in fact, recorded in the "Description of Malacca, Meridional India and Cathay," written by Emanuel Godinho de Eredia in 1613.
ONLY IN RANTAU ABANG
Terengganu, for instance, has recorded the highest number of turtle landings. In fact, turtles enjoy a special relationship with the people in the state who have appropriately chosen it as the stateâ€™s icon; whatâ€™s more, it is also the state football teamâ€™s mascot.
Therefore, it did not come as a surprise to many when Chief Executive Officer of WWF-Malaysia Datuk Dr Dionysius Sharma described Terengganu as the luckiest state in the country for being the most important landing location for the four species of turtles that land on Malaysian beaches.
Unfortunately, all the four species are now on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Critically Endangered.
"For 60 years, the term â€œRantau Abangâ€ was popular among foreign tourists as they could gaze at the Belimbing turtle," he said, adding that once, more than 10,000 turtles of the Belimbing species, a leatherback turtle variety, had landed on the beach.
Sadly, over the last 20 years, the number of Belimbing turtles on the beach has declined drastically, with the country losing about 99 per cent of the turtles. In fact, in the last two years, no belimbing turtle has landed on the beaches of Terengganu.
The number of turtle species in the country is declining at an alarming rate. In fact, the number of penyu lipas in the country has gone down by 95 per cent, and the population of the penyu agar has dropped by 60 per cent.
The only states in which the penyu karah has been spotted in large numbers are Melaka and Sabah, which claim there are 400 and 600 nests respectively.
The population of turtles in other states such as Terengganu and Johor has reduced by more than 60 per cent.
Researchers are contemplating the disappearance of these turtles since these ancient reptiles have the uncanny ability to return to the same beach where they had laid their eggs.
"We need to realise that the declining population of the turtles is not only a great loss to the country's heritage but also a loss to the Malaysian economy. Turtles used to land in Terengganu, Pahang, Melaka, Sabah, and Sarawak. Now, they cannot be seen in these states," Dionysius said.
Most of the turtles used to land in Terengganu, with approximately 2,500 turtle nests made by the penyu agar species.
HEALTHY MARINE ECOSYSTEM
Terengganu's ecotourism industry generated a revenue of RM3.34 billion last year. The state welcomed close to 3.38 million tourists, including 2.77 million domestic tourists. Many of them were believed to have been on a quest to see these turtles.
The turtle landing season has been listed as one of the eight attractions for people visiting Terengganu.
Dionysius believes that a low-impact turtle ecotourism plan, if implemented according to the relevant guidelines, will continue to generate revenue for locals, while helping to sustain the existence of turtles, which plays an important role in the maintenance of a healthy marine ecosystem.
"On the other hand, an ecotourism plan which exploits turtles will only bring about negative effects and ultimately decimate the turtle population. This will have a negative impact on the marine ecosystem, too," he stressed.
Many turtles get trapped in the fishing nets, and also lose their habitats to unplanned coastal area development. In addition, people steal turtle eggs from beaches for trading purposes. These are some of the reasons for the decline of the turtle population.
Till today, there are no laws at the federal level to prevent the trade of turtle eggs. There is one law in Terengganu that prohibits the sale of penyu belimbing eggs. Turtle eggs are sold in other states even though turtles are on the brink of extinction.
WWF-Malaysia, meanwhile, has appealed to the Terengganu government and other states where turtles land, to amend the state laws and ban the sale of turtle eggs.
Dionysius also hopes that other parties will remain committed and ensure that related industry players continue to adhere to the guidelines and laws so that Malaysia can conserve the turtle species.
"This will also assure tourists of a meaningful experience besides promoting Terengganu as the leading turtle ecotourism destination, both at home and on an international scale," he said.
WORLD TURTLE DAY
This year, the World Turtle Day was celebrated on June 22, and the theme of the event was "Race Against Extinction."
The joy was redoubled when experts heard a beep, a sound of hope, on the same day. This was the sound of the WWF-Malaysia successfully receiving the first signal transmitted from a penyu Agar, which had been fitted with a satellite transmitter.
The turtle had been released into Pantai Chakar Hutan after being fitted with the transmitter on June 16.
This sophisticated technology will enable WWF-Malaysia to track the journey of the turtle back to its food hunting area. This way, we will be able to understand its way of life.
The World Turtle Day was celebrated in Taman Awam Batu Burok in a jubilant manner. In Kuala Terengganu, several activities were organised to educate the public on the importance of conserving turtles and coastal areas.
A turtle costume contest, an exhibition, a drawing competition, a turtle race, and an entertainment show were organised for the public.
Remember that if we remained apathetic towards the fate of turtles, the future generations may never know what it felt like to watch baby turtles enter the surfs upon hatching, to be seen again as juveniles in the foraging areas.
Turtles have become a symbol of environmental-friendly activistsâ€™ fight against ecological disasters, and Malaysia is playing its role with aplomb. That beep proved it, and we must not let our guard down.
SAG SD INE CR