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9 Mar 07
Rare Turtles up for Sale Along With Malaysian Island
Story by Niluksi Koswanage
MALACCA, Malaysia - For sale: a plain little island, overgrown by shrubs, offering a scrap of beach and sitting in one of the world's busiest sea lanes.
It would be a tough sell for any property agent, but Upeh island in the Strait of Malacca off Malaysia has one precious feature -- a nesting site for a rare and endangered turtle.
The good news for conservationists is that the Malaysian government wants to buy the island and turn it into a sanctuary for the hawksbill turtle, whose numbers have fallen by 80 percent in the last 100 years, according to the World Conservation Union.
The bad news is that the sale could take years, by which time there may be few of the beak-nosed turtles left to protect.
"Poachers can easily get onto that island and they can get to the turtle nests fast," Lau Min Min, a scientific officer for the World Wide Fund for Nature, said in Malacca, the former colonial fort and trading post. The island lies two miles off Malacca.
There are only about 15,000 female hawksbill turtles worldwide, according to a 2005 estimate by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. They make about 1,000 nests in Malaysia each year, data from the World Wide Fund for Nature showed.
About a third of the Malaysian nests are around Malacca. Lau, who has worked on conservation projects along the Malacca coast for three years, said poachers dug eggs out of their sandy nests and sold them to locals who believed they boosted male virility and soothed pregnancy-related ailments.
"From the time of our ancestors, turtle eggs were eaten for good health," said 66-year-old Rokiah Abu Noh, who sells fish caught by her sons at a coastal street market. She wants the turtle-egg trade to continue and is wary of government plans to buy the island and turn it into a sanctuary.
"The government should be more fair to humans than animals," Rokiah said. "Some of the eggs on the island should be given to our people to sell and eat and some can be saved. That is more fair," she added.
WHAT IS A TURTLE WORTH?
Sate-controlled energy utility firm Tenaga Nasional Bhd bought Upeh island four years ago for 10.3 million ringgit (US$3 million) and uses it as a training retreat for staff. Now Tenaga wants to get rid of non-core assets such as Upeh island and is ready to sell -- but only if the price is right.
"We are willing to sell the island back to government but this will happen if the price is fair for us," a Tenaga spokesman said.
Property deals can take a long time to conclude in Malaysia, usually because of red tape, so conservationists fear the sale of Upeh island could be held up for years.
The island is supposed to be off-limits to the public but is a target for poachers because of its proximity to the mainland. By law, people are not supposed to take turtle eggs without a licence.
Licensed egg collectors are obliged to immediately send the eggs they find to a fisheries-department hatchery in Malacca where the new-borns are returned safely to the sea.
Hawksbills are listed as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union largely because of the egg trade. Hawksbills inhabit the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific oceans with nesting sites in most tropical countries.
Female hawksbills, instinctively guided by earth's magnetic field, return after 20 to 30 years to lay eggs in the same beach where they were hatched. To do so, they must navigate the Malacca Strait, one of the world's busiest and most polluted waterways.
"It's amazing that the nesting population has remained steady over the past decade despite the perilous journey," said Lau. "Imagine trying to avoid debris, oil spills, ships and people just to lay eggs."
On average, hawksbills lay 150 eggs but only half the eggs will hatch, Fisheries Department data showed. And only one in a 1,000 hatchlings make it to adulthood.
"Those are babies, just a few weeks old," said fisheries department official Mohamed Akhaer, pointing to a shaded styrofoam box at the corner of the hatchery on a mainland beach in Padang Kemunting, Malacca state.
Tiny green turtles, the size of golf balls, were scrambling over each other. Mohamed, who manages the hatchery, said a tough battle had to be waged just so the baby turtles hatched safely.
"We have to go against the heritage of the people, we have to go faster than the poachers to find the eggs," he said. "(To own) the island would be a blessing for us."
Malaysia's turtle island faces uncertain future
People and Planet 16 Nov 06
Related articles on Global: marine issues and sea turtles
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