Threatening the turtles

by Gan Pei Ling / 27 September 2010 © The Nut Graph

WHEN a friend said he wanted a photo of himself riding on a sea turtle’s back, it made me flinch.

And yet, I doubt I would have winced had I not heard stories about how divers and snorkelers have disturbed and distressed turtles in the sea. If not for my marine-biologist friends, I probably would not have given this friend’s casual remark a second thought. After all, humans ride on horses, cows and elephants. So why not sea turtles, too?

Green turtle

Putting humans on top

This friend and I were volunteering on a turtle conservation project for a week at Chagar Hutang, Redang Island in September this year. What he wanted to do was ironic, considering that we were there to help conserve turtles that have been swimming in our seas since the age of the dinosaur.

Underlying his desire to ride a sea turtle is a worldview that seeks to dominate nature. It is a view that places humans above all other species, and regards other creatures as existing solely to satisfy human needs, desires and greed.

I do not blame my friend for holding a prevalent worldview that has been passed on by previous generations. But I am troubled by a paradigm that considers humans separate from nature, when it is impossible to divorce humans from the environment that sustains us.

Isn’t it precisely this sort of worldview that leads to human exploitation of nature and her beings on Earth? Indeed, the major environmental crises confronting our generation – climate changebiodiversity loss, and pollution, to name just a few – are a result of this problematic worldview.

People who continue to hunt hawksbill turtles for their exquisite shells, who sell or consume sea turtle eggs and meat, and who destroy turtles’ nesting beaches in the name of “development” all hold the same worldview.

And whether it’s by throwing plastic bags that end up choking sea turtles, buying from fisherfolk who use methods that kill marine turtles indiscriminately, or by simply being apathetic, we are guilty of threatening these ancient beings into extinction.

Sea turtles in Malaysia

Green turtle hatchlings

Malaysia is blessed because four out of the seven living sea turtle species in the world can be found here. However, two of them – leatherback and olive ridley turtles – are effectivelyextinct in our country.

The leatherbacks, the largest among all, recorded over 10,000 annual nestings in Terengganu in the 1950s. However, over the past decade, the numbers have dwindled to just a handful. Once Terengganu’s star attraction, only one leatherback was reportedly seen in Rantau Abang this year.

As for the olive ridleys, nesting is only reported occasionally in Penang and Kelantan. None has been sighted in Terengganu since 2005. The numbers are probably insufficient to keep the population alive.

In comparison, hawksbill and green turtles are doing better. The Sabah Turtle Islands have the highest nesting concentration of hawksbill turtles in Southeast Asia, with an average of 500 to 600 annual nestings. Other nesting sites can also be found in Malacca and Terengganu.

Green turtles are the most widely distributed species in Malaysia. As with the leatherbacks, however, green turtle nesting has dropped dramatically since the 1950s, from 20,000 in the Sarawak Turtle Islands to a few thousand only in recent years. However, its population in the Sabah Turtle Islands has increased, and nestings in both Sabah and Terengganu also number in the thousands.

Changing our attitudes

Millions of ringgit have been spent to conserve our sea turtles during the past few decades. Turtle sanctuaries can now be found in Terengganu, Sabah and Sarawak.

However, The Star highlighted in a June 2010 report that laws relating to sea turtle conservation are still inconsistent and inadequate. The sale and consumption of turtle eggs, for example, have yet to be banned across all states. Additionally, turtle killings are allowed for a fee of RM100 in Johor, Kelantan and Negri Sembilan.


Conservation projects, educational campaigns. and strict laws regulating turtle conservation aside, what needs to change is the fundamental attitude humans hold towards other creatures.

As long as we continue to hold on to the worldview that treats nature as inferior and something to be dominated, we are unlikely to learn to respect it and its creatures, be it sea turtles, tigers or pandas. If we truly want to conserve the environment, our generation needs to re-learn that being top of the heap doesn’t mean those at the bottom can be exploited without repercussions for our species.

Gan Pei Ling has been wondering for a while if it is too much to ask members of the “superior” and “civilised” human species to learn to treat other Earthlings with respect and dignity.

Protecting our corals

by Gan Pei Ling / 4 August 2010 © The Nut Graph

Reef Check Malaysia conducting a reef survey (pic courtesy of Reef Check Malaysia)

IN July 2010, several popular dive sites in Peninsular Malaysia were closed due to coral bleaching. Marine Park Department director-general Abd Jamal Mydin told reporters that in Pulau Payar in Kedah for example, an estimated 60% to 90% of corals were affected by the bleaching. Besides the peninsula, signs of coral bleaching have also been reported in Sepanggar Bay, Sabah.

Reef Check Malaysia general manager Julian Hyde tells The Nut Graph that the bleaching was first observed in April 2010, and the situation got worse in May and June. However, he says some divers have observed that the colours have returned to some of the corals in the past two to three weeks. “Contrary to popular belief, bleached corals are not necessarily dead. The decision to close down some of the popular sites is a short-term measure to reduce stress on the corals and thus increase their chances of recovering from the bleaching,” says Hyde in a phone interview.

But why are our corals bleaching? And why should we care what happens to them?

Stressed and threatened

Hyde says coral bleaching may happen when corals are stressed due to a variety of reasons that include increased sea temperature and pollution. However, mass bleaching is usually linked to high water temperature.

“Corals are very sensitive; a rise in 1°C to 2°C may cause them to bleach. When temperature increases, the symbiotic micro algae that live within corals will begin to release toxic molecules. Apart from providing the corals with food, these algae, called zooxanthellae, are what give the corals their colours.

“Consequently, the zooxanthellae are expelled from the corals’ tissue and the corals turn white,” Hyde explains. He adds that the corals can survive for several weeks if water temperature goes down in time and the zooxanthellae returns.

However, prolonged high water temperature may severely damage the corals and their ecosystems. During the El Nino and La Nina events in 1997 and 1998, mass bleaching and mortality were reported in coral reefs worldwide.

Apart from bleaching, our corals are also threatened by other human activities that could directly damage the reefs such as dynamite and cyanide fishing that happens in Sabah and tourists who carelessly touch, break or step on the corals.

Water pollution and coastal development that leads to soil erosion are also making it harder for our coral reefs to survive and flourish.

Why should we care?

Coral bleaching in Pulai Tenggol, Terengganu (pic courtesy of Lau Chai Ming)

Southeast Asia reportedly contains the largest area of coral reefs in the world. In addition, Malaysia is located in the Coral Triangle together with Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste and the Philippines.

In fact, the biodiversity of coral reefs in Southeast Asia is unparalleled according to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network in their 2008 report on the status of coral reefs worldwide.

Additionally, the marine parks in Peninsular Malaysia have been receiving 400,000 to 550,000 visitors per year since 2000. Hence, the reefs also help to generate tourism revenue.

Coral reefs and their vicinity also supply over 50% of our seafood, according to Malaysia’s Marine Park Department. “Over 3,000 marine species live in our reefs, and from this breeding ground comes half of our seafood supply,” it says on its site.

The department adds that medicine for cancer treatment and heart disease have also been discovered in bioactive compounds produced in coral reefs.

Careless tourists

Despite that, many snorkelers and divers couldn’t seem to care less what they do to our corals as long as they have fun. “I’ve seen some divers leaning on the corals to take photographs,” says marine biology graduate student Lau Chai Ming from Universiti Malaya. He adds that even though he signals the divers not to touch the corals or pull them away, many don’t get the message.

Coral bleaching (pic courtesy of Reef Check Malaysia)

Responsible tourists are not supposed to touch, lean or stand on the reefs as they might break the corals that take hundreds or even thousands of years to form the structures seen today.

In May 2010, the Terengganu government said it planned to limit the annual number of tourists visiting Redang Island because the increasing number of tourists was taking a toll especially on the coral reefs.

Greenfins Malaysia was also set up in 2008 to encourage dive operators and their clients to adopt environmentally-friendly practices to help conserve coral reefs and marine life.

Alive vs dead

Shafinaz (pic courtesy of Izwar Zakri)

Reef Check Malaysia eco-diver Shafinaz Suhaimi says her most memorable experience when conducting reef surveys are the encounters with diverse marine life.

“Healthy reefs are bursting with marine life, sometimes turtles or a school of juvenile barracudas (ray-fined fish) would swim past us while we’re laying the transect line (to conduct the survey).

“I’ve also seen cuttlefish mating, and once I was almost attacked by a Titan triggerfish — they are very territorial when they are mating and nesting,” says Shafinaz, who has been conducting reef checks in Perhentian, Tioman and other islands on the east coast of the peninsula since 2007.

“The most exciting is when we see endangered species like sharks or the barramundi cod which have been severely fished out,” adds Shafinaz.

She says that the part of the survey she dislikes is when the transect line comes across dead reefs or marine life. “The survey can be done in less than an hour as there will be nothing much left to observe and record.”

JK Rowling once wrote in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: “If you want to know what a [person is] like, take a good look at how he [or she] treats his [or her] inferiors, not his [or her] equals.” Gan Pei Ling thinks the same could apply to how we treat our corals.