Perhentian Turtle & Community Project, Malaysia

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On June 18th 2016 I set off for the Perhentian islands, which sit neatly in the South China sea in the upper Eastern reaches of Malaysia. These spectacular islands are fringed by bustling coral reefs, white sandy beaches and seagrass beds. Their warm waters provide vital feeding and nesting grounds for marine turtles, amongst other ocean going creatures.

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There, I was involved in a marine turtle conservation project that aids in the plight of these creatures, whose numbers have been continually declining in Malaysia for over 6 decades due to excessive egg poaching, nesting ground loss due to beach development, fishing related mortality and pollution. Of 4 species found in Malaysia, Leatherbacks have gone locally extinct, Olive-ridleys and Hawksbills are critically endangered, and the Greens, though endangered have viable populations. And so working with the fisheries department of Malaysia we performed night long watches during the nesting season to collect Green turtle eggs and incubate them in hatcheries, so as to protect them from poaching.

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We also performed snorkel surveys in order to build up a database of turtle individuals and their movement patterns, as well as to assess feeding behaviours and seagrass distributions. Beach clean-ups across the islands were too a regular activity.

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Before leaving for the project I had worries about the nature of the project, whether I was going to be just another tourist under the guise of a conservationist, or whether the efforts of the project would be a genuinely effective way of protecting marine turtles in the long term, educating the local community about the importance of environmental awareness and actually furthering the ultimate purpose of establishing a protected marine region in the islands. However, this wasn’t so, and after 3 weeks on the project I’m certain that it’s goals are genuine and it’s contributions essential to protection of marine turtles in Malaysia. I also had concerns about acquiring the skills needed to carry out the project, particularly effective swimming and learning how to free dive, but these concerns were too resolved with aid from the project team and training.

It was the challenges faced during my stay at the project that had the most to teach me. One outstanding challenge was educating the community to withdraw support of turtle egg poaching. Turtle eggs are a traditional malay delicacy, and therein lies the difficulty, that their consumption is engraved into a centuries old culture, so despite the goodwill of locals it’s not something they would so easily give up. And so I learnt that solutions aren’t often about absolute changes, but rather finding moderation.
It was in the general unconcern of the older people towards the issue of littering that I realised the greatest potential for making a positive change lay in the education of the younger groups, which the project has a major hand in doing.

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Ultimately, it was an enlightening experience that has left me with a more refined understanding of the complex problems faced by turtles and other wild creatures, and the role people play.

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