I’m on a six month secondment to WWF-Malaysia, and was lucky enough to get the chance to do night patrol on the turtle beaches of Melaka. Here, WWF employs ‘Turtle Guardians’ to conduct research on Hawksbill and Green turtles and collect and incubate their eggs to thwart poachers.
Four of the world’s seven species of marine turtle live and nest around Malaysia’s coast, but turtle numbers have faced dramatic declines. Since the 1970’s, 70% of Hawksbills, 95% of Olive ridleys and a massive 99% of Leatherbacks have been lost, due to a combination of habitat destruction and coastal reclamation, pollution, bycatch and the poaching of eggs for human consumption.
So I wasn’t expecting to see any on two nights of beach patrol, but the first night got off to a good start when YC, the Turtle Guardian hosting me and three others, told us some baby Hawksbills had emerged at the hatchery.
Built on the beach, the hatchery serves as a safe place for eggs to incubate under close to normal conditions, safe from hatchlings’ many predators, the most deadly of which being humans.
We pay registered egg collectors 1.5 Malaysian ringgit (around 30p) for each egg they collect and deliver to the hatchery, where Turtle Guardians re-bury them carefully in an area surrounded by fencing, leaving them to grow and hatch undisturbed. But it’s difficult to make sure all the beaches are covered by egg collectors, and more money can be made by poaching eggs. So the Turtle Guardians are now doing a lot of the collecting themselves and managing the beaches at night.
Once the babies hatch, they need to be taken to a safe location to release them, and because it’s safer for them to be crawling into the sea for the first time in the dark, it has to be done at night. We could immediately see the tiny grey creatures pushing up through the sand with miniature flippers- only around 3cm long. My plush fake turtle key ring was a lot bigger than any of them!
We quickly scooped them up and placed them into boxes to be moved to a hidden-away stretch of beach. It was an odd experience holding on to a box of around fifty of these identical, scrabbling creatures in a car- a bit like hugging a small, rumbling washing machine. But when we got within hearing distance of the waves, the scrabbling suddenly stopped- they knew where they were and that their biggest challenge lay ahead. We found a secluded area, checked there were no birds, snakes or other predators or litter to get in their way and switched off our torches (turtles become disoriented by lights which can cause them to head inland). We then tipped the precious cargo out of the boxes and watched the mass of small, dark shapes scamper excitedly into the sea. Torches back on, we helped a few stragglers on their way and they were gone.
Sadly their chances aren’t great. Only one in every thousand survives to adulthood, and nobody knows what happens to them between birth and 15-20 years old, but it’s thought that through a magnetic connection, they’re able to return to beaches they started out on. YC is developing ways to track hatchlings’ movements by studying oceanic currents, but has yet to find a device small enough to track a hatchling without impeding them. Without projects like the Turtle Guardians, it may be that Hawksbills will be gone before this batch of hatchlings ever have a chance to come back and nest.
After the release, we headed off to another beach to start the patrol, and within minutes we came across a pair of what looked like small train tracks cut into the sand and a rustling in the bushes. An adult female Hawksbill had come ashore to nest. YC asked us to turn off our torches and we retreated a hundred yards to wait for the turtle to finish laying eggs. Seeing wild Hawksbills is rare even for locals, but the Turtle Guardians are experts on their nesting grounds and know where to look. Unfortunately they aren’t the only ones; another torchlight soon appeared coming towards us on the beach- a poacher who asked us why we were there before disappearing back into the gloom, probably realising we were conservationists. But the presence of a poacher meant we had to act fast, before he returned with friends.
Instead of waiting for the turtle to leave the beach, we decided to retrieve the eggs while she was cooling herself off in the sand. She’d laid 176 Ping-Pong ball sized eggs, with small indents, a little like miniature white Death Stars. We carefully pulled them out of the hole she’d made in the sand and laid them out on the beach, knowing that tilting them could disturb the embryos. We also took the opportunity to measure the mother’s carapace, remove intrusive barnacles with an instrument like a wallpaper stripper and tagged her fins with alloy strips to help other conservationists identify her and learn more about Hawksbill movements. There was a scary moment when she suddenly turned around and started out towards the ocean at pace, right into her own eggs, but we were able to pick her up and change her path in time. Who knows what she would’ve thought about these strange human creatures moving her eggs, but if we’d left them, both they and maybe even she would’ve ended up in the hands of poachers.
With the eggs needing to be buried to survive, we returned to the hatchery to carefully place them in a new hole. The holes are dug so that different eggs are incubated at different temperatures, as the sex of a turtle is determined by the heat the eggs develop at, and a healthy balance is needed for the species to recover. But back to the opposite stretch of beach, we found a more disturbing discovery- another Hawksbill’s new nest had been raided by poachers; just a few broken shells remained. It underlined why the hatchery is so important; ideally eggs should be left where they’re laid, but the reality is that it’s a race against time between the poachers and the Turtle Guardians; the eggs won’t stay there long.
So the next day we split into three teams, each patrolling a different beach. YC found another nesting turtle on his beach, but also ran into poachers. They were more aggressive this time round, but he managed to talk them down and retrieved the eggs. On our beach, no turtles were to be seen, but on a few occasions walking the beach in the dead of night, we saw other flashlights and motorbikes pulling up, taking a look and leaving; hopefully the poachers realised the beach was being monitored. So we patrolled once an hour and slept on the beach in between, until a storm out at sea lit up the night sky and blew ‘the haze’ in our direction. This thick smog and strong smell of burning wafts over the strait from Indonesia, caused by another environmental threat to the region; the burning of rainforest to make way for oil palm plantations.
With the light and winds scaring off both turtles and people, we returned to the field office, reminded that while we talk about protecting endangered species, our field officers are living that battle day and night against time, poachers and the elements. But they have the passion and expertise to win this battle. They just need the manpower and equipment, and that’s why our donors are so important to what we do- real problems and real solutions on the ground.
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