Conservation and Politics of Sea Turtles in Malaysia
Updated: Apr 5
After working in the depths of Turtle conservation on the East Coast of Malaysia, on and off for almost three years, I have learnt a lot about the physical conservation of the majestic Species that nest on the East Coast beaches, as well as a lot about the politics that are intrinsic to their conservation.
Our Team with two local tender holders
Many people are aware of the illegal poaching of Sea Turtle eggs around the world that are leading to the declines of Turtle populations. However, on the East Coast of Malaysia, there is a very different type of egg collecting, and its legal. In states such as Terengganu, at the start of every year the Department of Fisheries, who manage conservation amongst other things in the area, “bid” off egg collection rights to the highest bidder. This tender holder has the rights to collect eggs on sections of beach and do with, whatever they desire.
The result of this is that most eggs are sold to local markets for human consumption. The eggs supposedly have aphrodisiac properties (although scientifically proven to be false, and in fact have heavy metal levels that are dangerous to human health) sell for roughly 3 Ringgit each- with price varying depending on availability. Nests can have been 50 and 150 eggs, meaning that a tender holder can make 450 MYR per nest. This can be 30% of a monthly wage for these tender holders, who mostly have full time day jobs, and patrol their beach at night.
The organisation I was involved with, Lang Tengah Turtle Watch, "adopted" nests from local tender holders to put in our hatcheries. We pay all tender holders a flat rate of 3MYR. This price reflects market rate and is also capped by the Department of Fisheries Malaysia, of whom we work very closely with. These tender holders are normally middle aged local men, and once a conversation is sparked, are extremely friendly. They also normally know a huge amount about Turtles, with the tendership often having run for a number of generations in their families. Many of these men have thought out theories as to why the Leatherback disappeared from the East Coast officially in 2011 (although this is apparently not due to their egg consumption…) and they know a lot about Turtle handling and the eggs.
We learnt quickly that these men are not rich. They work two jobs to support their families. Turtles have been an income source to these families for many generations. One tender holder came and delivered a nest of 90 eggs to us, whilst taking his little boy to school. Some of these men have also worked with Department of Fisheries for many years, one unnamed tender holder had worked with DoF for 30 years before retiring. His knowledge of the Turtles is absolutely immense, and if he doesn't sell his nests to the government hatchery (who pay below market value for the eggs) his gives away nests to the village. So although at first it is easy to judge these local men, who either sell or eat eggs of a species that many Western tourists love to see whilst diving or snorkelling, its imperative to remember that this is often their way of life and a way to feed their families.
A hatchling, in pose for photos sent to an adoptee of a nest. This programme benefits a number of different people, including the family who happily received a nest update, the local tender holder and the clutch of Green Turtle hatchlings, who otherwise would have been eaten at market whilst still eggs.
It’s also important to take socio-economic perspective into account on the East Coast of Malaysia. During research into recycling facilities in the local area, our intern Tahlia found that there was not a single rubbish facility that was scored as sanitary. Although many of the local people will have the latest smart phone, many don't have a solid house. Although its not widely reported, there is a huge drug problem on the East Coast with bored young men turning to "ICE". There is potential to improve the social outlook on the East Coast of Malaysia, in ways that the community should decide on how income from turtle tourism could be spent. In light of the current tender system on the East Coast, it is vital to work together with the tender holders. If organisations can support these tender holders, namely by buying their nests, supporting the community, taking the eggs out of the market and hatching more eggs, everyone will win in the short term. A system similar to Blue Economy models and in line with Sustainable Development goals.
Long term the DoF and government of Malaysia should push for the sale of ALL Turtle eggs to be illegal. Alternate income for these local men could include hatchery workers or patrol the beaches in wait for the landing Mother Turtles, which would be an ideal role for these highly knowledgable community. This could bring in well managed, eco-tourism that again would bring in more employment. It is however, absolutely KEY to the conservation work on the East Coast that the goals of SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT are thought through. If economics and community are not included in models set up to protect the Turtles, the conservation will not work. It is highly immoral to take away entirely, a huge income source from a largely poor, developing state. Instead, policy makers and conservationists need to work towards diverting how income from the Turtles comes in. Only when the community trust that they can still make money, in a more sustained manner and run by local staff, will the conservation movement really work long term.