World Turtle Day Virtual Open House – The Giant Eye-Witness: Time Travel to the Past

Turtle conservation is a significant part of Malaysia’s National Biodiversity Policy today. However, this hasn’t always been the case. Malaysia’s commitment in protecting turtles today is a result of various lobbying efforts from turtle specialist, scientists and conservationists throughout the years. This session has brought together the first generation of sea turtle conservationist who set the foundation and direction for turtle conservation in Malaysia to set sail and become what we have today. The five panelist collectively have two centuries of working experience with sea turtles. They would share their involvement in this journey and obstacles they faced working with sea turtles as well as how they managed to overcome them. Thus, providing the new age of conservationist their know-how in hope to propel conservation efforts to greater heights.

The panel included a list of experts, here is a breakdown of who they are and some of their past achievements:

  1. Dr. Chan Eng Heng, President and co-founder of Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia, previously a professor in the Universiti of Malaysia Terengganu where she co-founded and co-led “the Sea Turtle Research Unit” aka SEATRU between 1985 and 2009. She also founded the Turtle Sanctuary on Redang Island.
  2. Dr. Dionysius S.K. Sharma, PhD in Conservation Biology, University of Kent, England. Currently an executive director of Green Growth Asia Foundation, former CEO of World Wildlife Fund Malaysia. He partake in Animal Planet’s TV programme, Planet Action, featuring orangutan conservation.
  3. Dr. Colin Limpus, chief scientist for Queensland’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, 53 years of experience researching on sea turtles and advocating for turtle conservation. Scientific Councilor for marine turtles to the United Nations Convention for Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) for 25 years. Successfully lobby for the implementation of turtle exclusion device for all fishing trawlers in Australia in 2001.
  4. Dr. Mazlan Abd. Ghaffar, deputy vice-chancellor of the Universiti of Malaysia Terengganu. First experience working with sea turtles as a research assistant for Dr. Chan Eng Heng in the sea turtles research and conservation project, SEATRU, in 1986. Contributed to ecological surveys of green turtle populations in the Turtle Island in Borneo, Sabah, Malaysia. Currently working with fish ecology changes due to climate change.
  5. Dr. Jeanne A. Mortimer, research scientist in the faculty of biology, in the University of Florida, with more than 20 years of experience studying sea turtles conservation and biology with respect to tropical marine and coastal ecosystems. A member of the IUCN/SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group since 1979, she has worked in some 20 countries on six continents for conservation organisations such as WWF International, WWF Malaysia, Fauna &  Flora International, Caribbean Conservation Corporation, and Museo Goeldi Brasil. Successfully lobby for the legislation protecting all sea turtles from slaughter, sale or disturbance in Seychelles. She also started several Turtles monitoring programmes, leading to the formation of the Turtle Action Group of Seychelles (TAGS),

Lastly, Dr. Nicolas Pilcher was the moderator of the session. He has a PhD in marine turtle conservation with a total of 33 years of experience working with turtle conservation and research. Previously the president of the International Sea Turtle Society and Co-chairperson of the IUCN SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group, he is currently the executive director of the Marine Research Foundation, a non-profit entity geared to saving marine life across various countries. He made significant contribution to the implementation of Turtle Excluder Devices (TED) on fishing nets in Malaysia, which is mandatory now by law by working with the Malaysian Department of Fisheries. He also conducted multi-countries joint research projects to help identify areas important to marine turtles that should be stipulated as marine protective zones.

I was attracted to this event as I had always been a fan of sea turtles especially with the recent news of turtles on our beaches here in Singapore. I hope to learn more about sea turtles as well as learn from these pioneering conservationist’s experience. I had benefited immensely from this session, one key takeaway from this session was that both political will and sensitivity are imperative components for scientific research to be translated into actions. This is especially important for marine conservation work, as the ocean is interlinked. Thus, conservationist have to bridge the gap between scientist and governments to initiate the political will for conservation work to be set into motion. Another key takeaway I had was the importance of education in spreading awareness to the general public, influencing general sentiments to a particular species or animal. This was highlighted in the session by the example of the success story by Dr. Dionysius S.K. Sharma, who managed to change the locals sentiments from harvesting leatherback turtles’ eggs as a food source to protecting and conserving them at Rhu Cikgu beach as ecotourism, in the village of Rantau Abang, Terengganu, Malaysia. I also learnt that the sex of turtle hatchlings is determined by the temperature of the sand. Thus, extreme weather and climate conditions could tilt the sex ratio of turtles, which could result in a quick catastrophic decline in turtle populations.

The most inspiring thing I learnt from this session is that governments from different countries are open to international collaborations to conserve migratory species like the leatherback turtle in the example of the Indian Ocean and South-East Asia (IOSEA) Marine Turtle Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). This allows for regional collaboration to conserve critical habitats like feeding and nesting sites for migratory species like the marine turtles. This is essential in tackling the issue of climate change, which is a growing issue that I believe could only be addressed through international cooperation.

In the session Dr. Mazlan Abd. Ghaffar mentioned the Turtle Islands in Sabah, Malaysia, used to be swarmed with marine turtles nesting, where it is similar to the arribada in the Costa Rica’s Ostional National Wildlife Refuge. I would hope to witness this sight back here in our the South-East Asian region, as it would be a prove of our successful conservation of marine turtle.

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