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News 10 Feb
Taste for leatherback eggs contributes to Malaysian turtle's demise
by Hamish Townsend
TERENGGANU, Malaysia (AFP) - The mass nestings of leatherback turtles on Malaysia's beaches was once one of nature's great spectacles but since 2000, not a single baby leatherback has scampered to the sea.
The demise of the iconic turtle, which many scientists say is now effectively extinct here, is blamed on a local appetite for their eggs, coastal development, destructive fishing practices -- and a heartbreaking scientific mistake.
"Frankly there is very little hope for the leatherback, judging by the nesting trends and that none have hatched for six years," said Professor Chan Eng Heng of the Universiti Terengganu Malaysia.
Malaysia once had one of the biggest leatherback populations in the world and the coast of Terengganu state in the country's east was one of the 10 principal nesting sites globally for the gentle giants.
In the 1950s, up to 10,000 female turtles struggled up the beach to lay their eggs each year, but by 1984 this had fallen to 800 and by 2006 only five nests were found from two turtles, with no hatchlings emerging. It is believed the breeding population is now too small to be sustainable.
The previously common Olive Ridley Turtle is also thought lost to the area, and the hawksbill and green turtles are also in danger.
Kamarruddin Ibrahim has laboured in the hatcheries of Terengganu's Turtle and Marine Ecosystem Centre (TUMEC) for over 20 years and admits he is bitterly frustrated by the current situation, but refuses to concede defeat.
He hopes to resuscitate the population with a complicated egg relocation programme in which fertilised eggs around the world would be flown to Malaysia where they would hopefully survive and return to breed.
"It's very expensive and difficult, but it's worked in America before and I think there are populations in the Philippines that we could use," he said. "There is some hope, we've released nearly half a million hatchlings and they will come back. The leatherback takes 30 to 50 years to reach breeding time, they are out there," he said.
"I admire Kamarruddin's optimism, but the figures show leatherbacks around the Pacific are all in serious decline," said Chan.
A hatchery programme for the leatherback was begun in Malaysia in the 1960s when concerns were first raised about turtle numbers, but unfortunately what was designed as a helping hand turned out to be disastrous.
Turtle eggs are extremely sensitive to heat and movement. If the ambient temperature sits above 30 degrees the offspring are almost guaranteed to be female, but if it is below 28 degrees it will almost certainly be male.
Early on turtle eggs were kept in open boxes to collect the sun's warmth, but unknown to the scientists, for 30 years Terengganu's turtle hatcheries were releasing hundreds of thousands of almost exclusively female turtles.
"The research came out in maybe the middle 1980s, but because of distance and knowledge we didn't know until the 1990s." said Kamarruddin.
The harvesting of millions of eggs over the years for sale in local markets is credited as the major factor in the leatherback's decline. Turtle egg soup is considered a delicacy in Malaysia's east coast states and despite consumption being illegal since 1989, the egg trade continues in Terengganu.
World-renowned turtle scientist Colin Limpus of Queensland Parks and Wildlife in Australia lays the threat to the leatherback's survival firmly on poachers.
"Unfortunately insufficient eggs were protected in the early decades of the hatcheries to provide sufficient recruitment for replacing the old-age adults in the population until the mid-late 1980s, by which time the population was severely depleted," he said.
For many years, turtle watching was one of the major tourist drawcards to Terengganu, and visitors were even known to haul themselves aboard the egg-laden females for rides up the beach.
But Limpus dismissed the long-held theory that the unruly tourists did significant harm. "Tourists didn't kill turtles and tourists didn't kill turtle eggs or prevent nesting females from laying their eggs. After 1978 tourists only had access to a small part of the total nesting area. The egg harvesters had exclusive access outside the small tourist areas," he said.
With some turtle species migrating as far as Japan and Irian Jaya, scientists also highlight the use of drift nets and long-line fishing in the open seas as another major contributing factor in the decline.
"In the 1970s a lot of leatherbacks were killed by the high-seas drift nets. They were dubbed the curtains of death," Chan said.
Related articles on Global: marine issues and sea turtles
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