Listed as endangered, a green turtle 'shares' what it takes to survive in today‘s world.
‘If we could talk to the animals, just imagine it…’, sings Louis Armstrong in his song Talk to the Animals. So that’s what I did with a green turtle that has so much to tell the world.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Green Turtle (GT): My real name is Chelonia Mydas, and I was born in Kerteh, Terengganu, with my 130 siblings. I am 40 years old and measure about 100 centimetres in length and weigh some 100 kilograms. I have an olive green shell. People call me Green Turtle because I have a green tinge in my internal fat from the green pigment of the seagrass I eat.
We know that you swim great distances and come on land only to nest. So how far can you go?
GT: We are migratory animals, so we cross a lot of sea. I migrate as far away as the Yap Islands in Micronesia. My friend, the Leatherback, goes farthest. She swims the deepest and can cover more than 16,000 kilometres in one year!
So all your friends love Malaysia?
GT: Of course! The beaches in Malaysia are where we were born many, many years ago. Among my friends, Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) loves Rantau Abang and will go back there to nest. Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) likes Pantai Keracut in Pulau Pinang, and Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) will always love Pulau Upeh in Melaka. For me, home sweet home is Kerteh in Terengganu.
Awesome! So how long does it take for you to mature and start breeding?
GT: This varies widely between species, but I started to mature at the age of 30 years. The breeding age for some of my friends can be anywhere between 26 and 40 years.
I see. So why do you come back to your birthplace to nest?
GT: This is something many scientists still scratch their heads over. They have attributed this practice of ours to several factors. For instance, the taste of the water when we first enter the sea as hatchlings creates a unique memory or ‘fingerprint’ for nesting. We also navigate by the stars, the sun, ocean temperatures, ocean currents, geological features or by using the patterns of ocean waves. However, I think it is because of a variety of cues that we collect throughout our existence. We’ve been around for as long as the dinosaurs, so we have learnt some cool abilities over the years!
Well, Malaysia has nice beaches too. That’s why.
GT: Yes it has. But when I was born 40 years ago, the nesting beach was really pristine. Over the past 10 years, I have seen huge structures being built with very bright lights that scare me. Even hatchlings can get confused by the lights. Instead of following the reflections of the stars and moon on the ocean horizon, they instead head towards these artificial bright lights and end up being eaten by predators, dying of dehydration and, in some cases, getting run over by vehicles as they head for the road.
That sounds scary. Tell us what you do when you want to lay eggs.
GT: When my eggs are fertilised, and I feel it is time for me to nest, I will leave the surf and come to the beach. I am wary of any disturbances such as light, movement or loud noises. When I am certain that the area is safe, I slowly climb up the beach and select a suitable nest site. I then create a pit in the sand that is wide enough to fit my body (in turtle language, it is called the ‘body pit’). Then I start digging an egg chamber with my hind flippers. When the egg chamber is deep enough, around 70 centimetres, I deposit my eggs. Once I am done, I carefully fill the egg chamber with sand, packed in nicely by my hind flippers. To ensure no one steals my eggs, I have to disguise my nest carefully. Once I am satisfied that my nest has been perfectly camouflaged, I head back down the slope towards the sea and re-enter the surf.
How many eggs do you lay and how many will survive?
GT: On average, I lay about 100 eggs per clutch and five to six clutches during each nesting season. Although it sounds like a lot, the mortality rate is, sadly, very high. While still in the nest, many will become victims of natural predators such as crabs, ants, feral dogs and monitor lizards.
So you do not wait for the eggs to hatch?
GT: No. We turtles don’t offer parental care to our offspring, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love them! It is tough love, and we do try our best to care for our offspring by choosing a suitable nesting site and meticulously camouflaging our nests. But hey, even if we waited, we turtles still face many threats throughout our lives, many of which are man-made. You even eat our eggs!
Ermm. I don’t. But yes, I’ve heard they are sold in markets. I am sorry.
GT: I hear that scientists have conducted a study on the content of turtle eggs that they took from several markets in Terengganu. They found that turtle eggs pose considerable risks to human health.
Is that why you ‘cry’ every time you lay eggs?
GT: The tears you see rolling down my face are not due to pain or a feeling of sadness. It is actually a way for me to get rid of excess salt from my body. Did you know that I actually have special salt glands located near my eyes, which constantly pump excess salt out of my body?
I didn’t before. But I do know now. So what do we do to endanger you?
GT: Sometimes, we accidentally get caught and drown in fishing gear. I was once swimming near a seagrass bed with other turtles, when suddenly a huge boat came close to where we were congregating. They lowered huge nets to catch us in large numbers. I was very lucky to have escaped. Those of my friends who were unlucky were caught in the net and hauled up onto the boat. I hear they were later killed for their meat and carapace.
So what can humans do to ensure that you and your friends are not threatened by extinction?
GT: Please dispose of rubbish properly. Non-biodegradable plastic bags often end up in the ocean. Because they closely resemble jellyfish, many turtles accidentally eat them and die. When you go on island holidays, please tell the boatman to be careful not to hit us when we come up to the surface to breathe. Please spread the conservation message to your family and friends.
Do you think that the current laws being enforced for your protection are good enough?
GT: No, unfortunately, the current laws in Malaysia on turtles are not good enough. I say this because many of these laws were written a long time ago, and have become outdated. Turtles are viewed as a resource and not as a species requiring protection. The laws do not provide uniform and comprehensive protection for turtles. Three states in Malaysia — Johor, Negeri Sembilan and Kelantan — allow the killing of turtles for a fee of RM100. Some states have no laws governing turtles at all. Marine turtles are not protected by the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010.
So there you have it. The decision to act is now yours.
The voice of the Green Turtle is Rahayu Zulkifli, who is associated with WWF-Malaysia as the Team Leader of Terengganu Turtle Conservation.
By Nurafiqah Azizan