Malaysia's turtle island faces uncertain future

Posted: 16 November 2006

The future of Malaysia's critically endangered Hawksbill turtles lies in the uncertain future of a tiny seven-acre island, just two miles off the historic spice port of Malacca - now a rapidly growing city of some 200,000 people on the west coast of the peninsula. But, reports John Rowley from Malacca, the island is now up for sale and its future uncertain.

Turtle Island (Pulau Upeh), seen from Malacca.
The island of Pulau Upeh - also known as Das Pedra, or 'place of stone', by the early Portuguese sailors - has only one small sandy beach. But it is here that a third of all Hawksbill turtle landings on the beaches of Malacca State take place. It is also one of the most important Hawksbill nesting sites in the country because it is for the moment uninhabited, though not entirely out of reach of turtle egg poachers. Nor has it fully escaped the rapid coastal development which threatens all that remains of turtle beaches in Malacca State.

Malaysia, itself, was until recently one of only seven countries in the world where leatherback turtles landed in any numbers, but no more. Now the struggle is on to save the country's beautiful but critically endangered Hawksbill, with its golden brown, exquisitely patterned shell, which still nests in some numbers on the beaches of the Malacca Straits - the second most important nesting area in the country.

But the island of Pulau Upeh and its beach is now under immediate threat from two directions. Last week its present owners, the Tenaga National Electricity Company (TNB) which took over the island three years ago as a possible training centre for its staff, making use of a disused hotel and chalets left behind by a previous abortive development attempt, announced that the island was for sale.

At the same time, developers working with the state government, are busy reclaiming a second 400-acre slice of Malacca Bay, reaching within a mile or so of the island. The effects of this on Malacca's beaches, including the narrow beach on Pulau Upeh, already the subject of erosion, is unknown. No overall environmental impact study of this reclamation work, or of other coastal infilling and development in neighbouring Negri Sembilan State, on Malacca's coast has been undertaken - or if it has, it has not been made public.

Pulau Upeh beach
Pulau Upeh beach
Pulau Upeh beach. Photo © WWF-Malaysia/S. Hogg
But, environmentalists point out, any major obstruction of the tidal flow through the straits is likely to result in a loss of sand to the beaches, interrupting the flushing interplay of the tides which renews any sand that is temporatily washed away. Moreover, the sand for reclamation is dredged from the straits seabed, leaving depressions which are naturally refilled from coastal regions.

Leatherback crash

Hawksbill turtle hatchling
Hawksbill turtle hatchling
Hawksbill turtle hatchling. Photo © WWF-Malaysia/S.Hogg
The fact that erosion of the beaches is taking place was confirmed in a detailed study by the Federal Ministry of Drainage and Irrigation some years ago. It is also self evident to property owners along the shoreline and has caused the State government to take measures to build a new sea wall in sections of the Malacca sea front, and to place concrete barriers elsewhere to shore up the beaches. At Pulau Upeh, where WWF Malaysia has been working with the Federal Government's Department of Fisheries, to protect the turtles, spring tides are already covering the nesting areas and the narrow strip of sandy beach, already damaged by mud and rubble from previous building works, is in danger of being washed away.

This is especially disturbing since only in the last few years have serious attempts begun to conserve Malaysia's turtles. Already it is probably too late to save the leatherbacks which, in living memory, used to make over 10,000 landings to lay eggs on the less developed East Coat of the peninsula, but whose numbers crashed quite recently. In the past decade, the Fisheries Department recorded fewer than 10 leatherback nestings annually.

There is a much greater chance of saving the country's hawksbills, whose nests have been stabilised at 200-300 each year since records started being kept in 1988. The Fisheries Department has set up five hatcheries around the coast, so that more eggs can be moved to safety until they hatch out. And in Malacca State, where most of the Hawksbills come ashore, WWF began collaborating with the Department three years ago in a sustained effort to see that at Pulau Upeh and at the Turtle Management Centre on the coast at Padang Kemunting, the beaches were guarded during the nesting season, from April to August. As a result this last season has been one of the best in successfully hatching and returning baby turtles from 303 nests, with over 40,000 eggs, to the sea - a third of them in Pulau Upeh.

Hawksbill turtle hatchery
Hawksbill turtle hatchery
Hawksbill turtle hatchery. Photo © WWF-Malaysia/S. Hogg
This year has also seen the start of the first long-term effort to work with local communities along the northern shoreline of Malacca State, where the last few hawksbill nesting sites on the mainland are found. Marine biologist, Lau Min Min, a senior scientific officer with WWF-Malaysia is one of three staff members working with the fishermen, licensed egg collectors and school children to increase understanding and support in saving the turtles.

Poaching rife

"The local people are used to eating the turtle eggs", she says. "We discovered that 70 per cent of children in some primary schoolks near turtle beaches had already tasted them. Many of the men believe that the eggs are good for virility, while many women are convinced that if they are unwell during pregnancy the eggs will protect the unborn child. Many villagers resent the fact that they cannot keep half the eggs, even if the rest are used for hatching." As a result, poaching is rife even though only licensed egg collectors are legally allowed to take them.

To combat this the official egg collectors are paid 1.30 Malaysian dollars, or about 15 pence, for each egg they bring to the hatchery. This is a carefully fenced shady enclosure near the beach, where holes are dug in the sand to hold the eggs, each surrounded by its own little wire fence to stop the hatchlings escaping towards the bright lights inland in their instinctive search for the moonlit sea. If the turtles are allowed to nest on the hot, sunny beach (as they can no longer nest under the shady trees, surrounded by concrete blocks to keep back the sea) they are not only stolen, but tend to be female, since the turtles' sex is influenced by the temperature of the sand. This could result in too few male turtles to mate with the females, leaving the eggs unfertilised.

The kampong (village) children have responded much more favourably to the conservation programme. Seven schools have now each adopted a turtle, and are kept informed about its nests and the resulting baby turtles and they start their hazardous journey into the Malacca Straits and beyond.

Hawksbill turtle. Photo: WWF Malaysia
Hawksbill turtle. Photo: WWF Malaysia
Hawksbill turtle fitted with satellite transmitter.Photo © WWF-Malaysia
To see just where the female turtles go after nesting, the first two have now been fitted with satellite transmitters. Named by the Chief Minister of Malacca, Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Mohd Rustam, the first of these turtles has already been tracked south to the coral islands around Singapore where they can find their favourite diet of sponges and crustaceans, using their hawk-like beaks to prize out food from among the corals. From there it could travel thousands of miles before returning, in two or three years, to the turtles' traditional nesting site - if it still there.

Turtle reserve

That, says WWF-Malaysia Programme Director, Dr Dionysius Sharma, is why he is 'extremely concerned' about the future of Pulau Upeh. That the Fisheries Department is keen to buy the island was confirmed to me this week by the Director of the Malacca State Fisheries Department, Mr Zawawi Ali (at a rumoured price of 10 million Malaysian dollars,or around 1.4 million pounds.)

"We would very much like to turn it into a turtle sanctuary and training centre" he told me. "This would not only allow us to apply the legal protection the turtles need but give us the chance to use the existing chalets on the island as a training centre for turtle management.

"This is being discussed with the Federal Ministry of Agriculture which could add it to the government's land bank, and hand it over for this purpose with the approval of the Chief Minister of Malacca". Whether that will happen will be a real test of the government's environmental credentials.

"My fear" says Dr Sharma is that the island might fall into the hands of a developer whose plans are even more incompatible with turtle protection than previous ones. The island should be set aside for this purpose. There is really no need for any other use". He would also like to see a macro environment impact assessment to guide all future development of this coastal region.

Dr Sharma, like others at WWF who are working hard with the Fisheries Department to save Malaysia's beautiful hawksbills - which have survived for 100 million years - will mourn their loss if action is not taken now to save this tiny piece of rock and its sliver of sand, without which another step will be taken along the route to extinction.

John Rowley is Editor in Chief of Planet 21 website.

Related links:

WWF's turtle tracking website can be see at wwfmalaysia.org/turtles

The State of the World's Turtles website is atwww.seaturtlestatus.org

For more about Indian Ocean and South East Asian turtles, see: www.ioseaturtles.org

On this website use the Home Page Search for Turtles.