Malaysian conservationists are urging a ban on the trade of endangered marine turtles’ eggs.
KUALA LUMPUR: Age-old customs and traditions that allow licenced traders to collect and sell marine turtle eggs to locals and tourists alike are driving the creatures to extinction, Malaysian conservationists charge.
Citing the extinction of the leatherback and Olive Ridley sea turtles, which in the 1960s nested on beaches here by the thousands but today have all but disappeared, environmentalists have now called for a ban on the collection, sale and consumption of turtle eggs.
Others highlighted the precipitous decline in the number of nesting hawksbill turtles, a critically endangered species, and called attention to the disappearance of green sea turtles, in an effort to urge authorities to take strict action.
The authorities, meanwhile, are caught between determined traders and the widespread belief that turtle eggs cure asthma and promote male virility.
In Kuala Terengganu, the east coast capital of Terengganu state, popularly known as the country’s ‘turtle town’, traders are vehemently defending their livelihoods.
“There is a market for (the eggs), so we sell them. It is not illegal either except for leatherback turtle eggs,” said Abang Dok, who pays a mere RM5 annual fee to collect and sell turtle eggs.
Traders have been selling turtle eggs for decades and argue that the eggs have not run out.
“As long as we eat only the eggs and not the turtle, the species will continue to come and nest…I see no reason why the turtle will not survive,” said Dok, who earns RM25 for every 10 turtle eggs sold.
When told that several species have become extinct and no longer nest on the beaches due to human activity, another trader calling himself Ismail Wok said that other species would soon “replace” the disappearing ones.
“It is a big ocean and the turtles come and go as they please…we should not be blamed if they don’t come anymore. Maybe they like other beaches,” he said.
“It is a question of our livelihood…our survival,” he said.
Though conservationists are fighting hard to educate local communities and tourists, the state government allows the practice under the pretext that livelihoods are at stake – but recent studies show otherwise.
A 2010 study of a village in Terengganu, which faces the South China Sea, conducted by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) found that only a few villagers actually rely on the trade for their monthly income.
Roughly 200 villagers are licenced to collect eggs but some of these traders are inactive or have sold their licences to others.
“The question of livelihood is irrelevant because turtle eggs are also imported from elsewhere for sale in Terengganu,” Rahayu Zulkifli, head of the WWF’s Terengganu Turtle Conservation Programme, told IPS.
Using football stars
Still, illegal collection and sale of eggs is rampant. Collectors earn up to RM200 a month but traders can earn as much as RM2,000 monthly through sales to tourists.
Turtle conservationists and other concerned members of the public are up against the age-old belief that turtle eggs cure asthma despite the fact that numerous medical experts have refuted the claim.
Numerous people also believe that turtle eggs, if eaten twice daily, enhance male virility.
Zulkifli, who is working round the clock to save turtles from extinction, has urged tourists who visit Terengganu not to buy turtle eggs and respect the ban that locals are pushing for. She believes if there is no market for the eggs, then traders will be forced to stop collecting them.
Terengganu state, which ironically exploits the turtle population to attract international tourism, is also a football-crazy region, where football stars have a huge public impact. The WWF has successfully tapped into their popularity for the conservation effort.
“They (the footballers) are our partners…we have to create greater awareness among villagers, officials, state authorities and tourists,” Zulkifli said at the launch of the first ever World Sea Turtle Day celebration last week.
The campaign theme, ‘Telur penyu, beli jangan, makan pun tidak’ (‘Don’t buy or eat turtle eggs’) was promoted among the 1,000 attendees, who joined together with famous footballers to urge the public to respect and protect the turtle population by leaving the eggs alone.
While the leatherback and Olive Ridley species are nearly extinct, green turtles still nest on a 20-kilometre stretch of beach at Rantau Abang, averaging about 2,000-2,500 nests a year.
Turtle species are also threatened by the destruction of their feeding and nesting grounds, turtle-snaring fishing gear, pollution and illegal trapping by foreign fishing vessels.
Other hurdles to conservation include inadequate national laws – currently turtle protection falls under the jurisdiction of the country’s 13 individual states, some of which have no laws concerning turtle conservation.
Turtles are excluded from the purview of the recently enhanced Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, while the 1985 Fisheries Act only protects turtles found more than three nautical miles offshore.
WWF Director, Dr Dionysius Sharma, has been pressing for holistic federal legislation that would streamline all state legislation into one special law for turtle conservation.
“The current laws are not conservation-oriented,” he told IPS. “They don’t ban egg consumption but focus (solely) on licencing egg collection. There is little emphasis on habitat protection and penalties for offences are minimal.”
In most states, the fine for killing a turtle is a paltry RM100.
Sharma stressed that if turtles are to survive, their nesting habits and offspring must be protected and licenced trade must be banned immediately. The prevailing attitudes of authorities and many local actors have remained unchanged since colonial times – but with an endangered species at stake, they will be forced to seriously rethink their customs.
“As long as we eat the eggs, we’ll create an imbalance and cause the decline of the species. There will be no juveniles to grow into mothers,” Sharma warned.
[Photo credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS]