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Asia Dive News : Malaysia's turtle island faces uncertain future

The island of Pulau Upeh off the Malaysian State of Malacca has only one small sandy beach. But it happens to be one of the most important hawksbill nesting sites in the country.

Although the tiny island (seven-acres or 0.03km 2 in size) is for the moment uninhabited, it is 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.

Malaysia, itself, was until recently one of only seven countries in the world where leatherback turtles landed in many numbers, but no more. Now the struggle is on to save the country's beautiful but critically endangered hawksbill ( Eretmochelys imbricata ), with its golden brown, exquisitely patterned shell, which still nests 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 are under immediate threat from two directions. Recently, 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, announced that the island was for sale. At the same time, developers working with the state government are busy reclaiming a second 1.6km 2 (or 400-acre) slice of Malacca Bay, reaching within a kilometre 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.

But, environmentalists point out that 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
The fact that beach erosion is taking place was confirmed in a detailed study by Malaysia's 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 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. 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 ten 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 has been collaborating with the department in a sustained effort to see that the beaches at Pulau Upeh and at the Turtle Management Centre on the coast at Padang Kemunting are being 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.

Poaching rife
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 fishermen, licensed egg collectors and school children to increase understanding and support in saving the turtles.

“The local people are used to eating the turtle eggs,” she says.

“We discovered that 70 per cent of children in some primary schools 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, official egg collectors are paid 1.30 Malaysian Ringitt (or about €.27) for each egg they bring to the hatchery. This is a carefully fenced 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.

The village children have been responding favourably to the WWF-supported conservation programme. Seven schools have now each adopted turtles and are kept informed about their nests, the hatchlings and their hazardous journey into the Malacca Straits and beyond.

To see just where the female turtles go after nesting, two have now been fitted with satellite transmitters. Named by the Chief Minister of Malacca, Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Mohd Rustam, the first one has already been tracked south to the coral islands around Singapore where they find their favourite diet of sponges and crustaceans. From there it could travel thousands of kilometres before returning, in two or three years, to the tutles' 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.

"We would very much like to turn the island into a turtle sanctuary," Dr Sharma said. "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."

“My fear,” he added, "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".

Dr Sharma, like others at WWF who are working hard with the fisheries department to save Malaysia's beautiful hawksbills, 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.

Source: WWF