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June 02, 2005 10:29 AM E-mail this news to a friend Printable version of this news

The Reef Balls Way To Turtle Conservation In Sarawak

By Caroline Jackson

KUCHING, June 2 (Bernama) -- Marine Park Warden Christopher Kri's heart leapt these days on seeing more turtles able to make it to the beach and lay eggs at the Sarawak's turtle islands of Talang-Talang and Satang.

The phenomenon is proof of the success of the artificial reef ball project which was started in 1998.

But since then, around RM1 million has been spent on turtle conservation at the island which has been gazetted as the Talang-Satang Marine National Park.

The national park, comprises the three main turtle islands of Pulau Satang Besar, Pulau Talang Talang Besar and Pulau Talang Talang Kecil, is accessible by a 30-minute speedboat ride from either the coastal bazaar of Sematan or Telaga Air in Santubong.

The project saw the deployment of 1,000 reef balls within 4.8 km radius of the turtle islands, situated on the South China Sea, off the state's north-western coastal tip.

Initiated by the Sarawak Reef Ball Working Group (SRBWG), led by the Sarawak Forestry Department, the environment-friendly concrete balls are dropped on the seabed.

The idea is to protect the nesting and swimming areas of sea turtles from illegal fish trawling activities.

With the assistance of seven enforcement personnel, including two rangers, Kri has seen the number of dead turtles found on the beaches, decreasing from 70-100 to 10-30 annually since implementation of the project.

About 90 percent of the landings on the islands' shore during the nesting months of April to September, are the green turtle (penyu agar) with some very rare hawksbill turtle (penyu sisik), olive ridley turtle (penyu lipas) and leatherback turtle (penyu belimbing).


The reef ball project has also spawned other marine life like shrimps giving extra catch for the small time fishermen.

"Local fishermen from Sematan and Telaga Air are (also) very happy because their catches have increased as shrimp trawlers are avoiding the sea area after their nets get caught at the reef ball and torn," he said during a recent media trip here.

One trawl net costs them around RM1,500-RM2,000.

Prior to this, encroachment within the two nautical miles of the area has been very rampant despite it being marked as Fisheries Prohibited Areas.

He said the Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC), which took over the project has not receive any public reports of dead turtles around their villages.

Dead turtles, mainly due to the strangulation by trawl nets, was once a common sight at the beaches.

The turtles also face the threat from poachers going after the eggs by savagely ripping off the stomach.

Kris recalled a saddening experience that sent the enforcement officials almost into tears when they found the carcass of a huge turtle on the beach.

"That particular mother turtle was tagged No. 9738. She was very healthy and very big, laying about 120 eggs, twice.

"After she did not come back to lay eggs, we are puzzled until we receive a report from a coastal villagers on the mainland that they found a dead turtle," he said.

"I sent an investigating team (because we cannot afford to patrol the beach round-the-clock) and when we came to check, we saw people were extracting eggs from the turtle's tummy," he said.

Despite being a totally protected species in Sarawak, turtle eggs and meat are a much sought after items by especially among Asians who considered it not just a delicacy but an aphrodisiac as well.

With the passion for the need to conserve the sensitive ecosystem, Kri and his team are kept busy, particularly during the nesting months.

Their array of "things-to-do" are those so-called "turtle things" like preparing tags, data sheets to record time of landings and preparing turtle holes.

"You can observe they (turtles) have so many beautiful features and are so different from other marine life...they really know what they are doing, they slowly dug their nest and then hide it away in the sand..they are really gentle creature," he said.


Their abiding nature, especially the hatchlings, make them vulnerable to predators like eagles, sharks, fishes as well as monitor lizards.

To reduce their exposure to these natural nemesis, hatchlings are released to the sea at night as they leave their magnetic imprints in the sands.

"We release them at a certain area of the beach at a certain time of the day and hopefully to confuse the predators," he said.

Releasing of the hatchling should be done soon after they are hatched and not wait until they grow to a certain size to increase their resistance to predators.

"According to our research, probably, it will not be able to survive because it, sort of, interrupts the natural behaviour of these animals to breed and reduce more hatchlings," he added.

Conservation programme involve two considerations -- that for the in-situ eggs and those exposed to the tides.

Turtle eggs under the latter are moved to the hatchery at Pulau Talang-Talang Besar.

Marine biologist, James Bali said normally survival rate is very high, at 75-80 percent, with the highest record of an individual female coming back to the islands to lay eggs up to 11 times.

Bali, who is in charge of marine wildlife conservation in Sarawak said that takes 20 to 30 years for a turtle to mature.


To further enhance the turtle survival rate, he said many more reef balls are needed to protect the migration routes from the islands' totally protected areas to their feeding grounds in waters off Brunei, Sabah, Philippines and Indonesia.

He said there was also a need to protect the turtles' feeding ground, with a recent scientific expedition identifying seven species of sea grasses at Kuala Lawas.

A proposal would be submitted to the State Management and Resource Planning Ministry for the gazetting of the Lawas Sea Grass National Park, he said.

And like the "Turtle State' of Terengganu, he said the Sarawak Museum, an initial authority on the creature in Sarawak has been recording the annual turtles landing at the Turtle Islands since 1949 when conservation started.

Record shows that the last ten years had seen a stable population of between 1,500-3,000 nests per year from a drop by 90 percent between 1950 and 1995.

Back in 1951, the first hatchery was set up, followed by the formation of the Turtles' Board and designation of the islands as a turtles' sanctuary six years later.

Taking advantage of the picturesque Turtles' Islands as a lure to nature lovers, Bali said the SFC encourages marine education and recreation that does not have a negative impact on the marine environment.

In view of the sensitive ecosystem, visitors are not encourage to dive at the islands as such activities might disturb the nesting areas of the turtles, he said.

Certain section of Pulau Talang-Talang would also remain off limit to visitors due to the small size of the islands, which coincidentally resemble the shape of a turtle when view from a distance.

But tourists will get to enjoy nature's best gift at the marine national park with development being planned with the landowners and various tour agencies.


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