Regulating trade in turtle eggs may better serve conservation
THERE'S nothing new in the call to ban the sale of turtle eggs by Turtle Conservation Centre co-founder Professor Chan Eng Heng on Friday. Conservationists have been urging the Terengganu government to do so for some time. World Sea Turtle Day on June 16 in the east coast state co-organised by World Wide Fund for Nature-Malaysia (WWF-Malaysia) had the theme "Don't buy or eat turtle eggs". In fact, Terengganu had banned the sale and consumption of leatherback turtle eggs way back in 1989. But not of the other species, such as the Olive Ridley, Hawksbill, or green turtles, which still nest in large numbers on the sandy beaches of Terengganu. Which explains why there is a brisk business in turtle eggs in the state.
Naturally, conservationists want a ban on the turtle trade. Period. Turtles are protected from the trade in "individuals, parts and derivatives" under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). But as turtle eggs seem to be more widely and openly traded in the markets in Terengganu --some 422,000 were sold there in 2007 according to a study commissioned by WWF-Malaysia -- there seems to be a strong case for picking on the state.
Indeed, as the 2008 National Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sea Turtles categorically stated that "turtle eggs harvested for consumption and commercial purposes in Malaysia should be banned in all states", there seems no reason for delaying its implementation. The evidence from Sabah, where there is such a restriction and where there has been a recovery in the turtle population, also seems to support the contention that a prohibition on egg sale would be a major step forward for turtle conservation.
However, as Chan noted, "as long as there is demand, the trading will go on in the black market even if the state government decides to impose a ban". What seems clear is that until the demand for turtle eggs can be restrained and monitoring and enforcement measures are in place, a trade stoppage, especially one which is restricted to one state rather than one which is nationwide, will not stop all the trade in turtle eggs, but rather, it would encourage poaching and smuggling. As such, the focus should be on raising consumer awareness and strengthening and streamlining turtle protection laws. Until then, it would be premature to outlaw the sale of turtle eggs. Indeed, as the CITES experience with the ivory market suggests, turtle conservation may be better served by regulated trading rather than by a total ban.