Terrapin conservation has a voice and a determination to survive the odds.
WHEN you were young, what did you dream of being “when you grew up”? Is that what you’ve ended up doing?
For Chan Pelf Nyok, her childhood penchant of collecting turtle-themed memorabilia has somehow led her to become a champion for river terrapins in her adulthood.
“My mother always reminds me about my turtle fixation when I was younger,” laughs Pelf (as she is better known).
“I loved collecting turtle-themed pins, hairclips and T-shirts. I used to spend hours staring at turtles swimming in the ponds at the temples we used to visit. It is unsurprising especially to my family that I ended up in this line of work,” she says.
The Kuantan-born conservationist and co-founder of the Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia (TCS) is raising funds to build a new river terrapin centre in Kemaman consisting of proper hatchery, a “head-starting” area, a mini turtle museum, an office and volunteer quarters at Kampung Pasir Gajah where TCS has been running a river terrapin project since 2011.
TURTLES IN TROUBLE
“River terrapins are lesser known than their sexier counterparts, the sea turtles,” explains Pelf during our video call.
“It was only natural that I took on this animal as nothing much was being done to help conserve our terrapins despite its ‘Critically Endangered’ status by the IUCN.”
River terrapins (Batagur affinis) here face an uncertain future. Sand-mining along the river banks where it used to be found in large numbers, development, flooding and pollution have inevitably damaged its feeding and nesting grounds. Coupled with the years of harvesting these creatures for their meat and eggs, these species have been placed on the “death row” of extinction.
The Turtle Conservation Coalition, a global alliance of turtle and conservation organisations has listed the river terrapin as among the 25 most critically endangered species in the world.
“We are facing a turtle survival crisis unprecedented in its severity and risk. Humans are the problem, and must therefore also be the solution. Without concerted conservation action, many of the world’s turtles and tortoises will become extinct within the next few decades. It is now up to us to prevent the loss of these remarkable, unique jewels of evolution.”
“The Batagur affinis species are only found in Thailand, Cambodia and Peninsular Malaysia,” discloses Pelf.
“It is vital that we do something to protect these species in our rivers and that’s exactly what TCS has embarked in this project in Terengganu.”
In order for TCS to successfully run a conservation project for river terrapins, it was important for them to have local allies at the nearby villages to help.
“It is never easy penetrating into villages to raise awareness,” says Pelf, who is based in Kemaman.
“Fortunately for us, there were people who were already keen from the very beginning to help us despite knowing that their participation would be strictly voluntary. We did not have any budget to pay anyone back then for their help. However, the then village headman for Kampung Pasir Gajah told us that he had always wanted to do something positive for the dwindling terrapin population.”
The 35-year-old Marine biology graduate believes strongly in community-based conservation.
“When local villagers buy into conservation goals, they bring valuable insights, knowledge and resources which include surveillance and social controls. It is effective even if the numbers who believe in our conservation goals are small.”
While she admits that not all of the villagers at Kampung Pasir Gajah where she runs the project are converted, there has been some head-start in changing mindsets.
“We have managed to convert some turtle egg collectors into turtle ambassadors!” she says.
What’s more important is the fact that after three years into the project, there has been a great of trust established between the society and the kampung folks.
This is something Pelf is proud of. “They have become like family to me now.”
She cites an interesting story about a local villager, Wazel Mahad, whom TCS had hired to assist for the project.
Wazel (or better known as Pakcik Wazel), 53, had been largely unacknowledged by the other villagers and considered an “outsider” as he hails from Kuala Berang despite having stayed in the village for many years.
“Pakcik Wazel’s involvement in our project — helping to collect the eggs and head-starting, i.e. incubating the eggs and raising the hatchlings to the point they can be released back into their native habitat when they are big enough, has earned him the respect from the villagers,” says Pelf, not without a little pride emanating in her voice.
“He is popularly known as Wazel Tuntung in the village now. Tuntung is terrapin in Malay. He is often called upon to give talks about the terrapins in the village”
ROAD TO CONSERVATION
It’s been quite a journey for Pelf and her efforts to conserve the river terrapin population in this country.
Her connection and affinity with turtles since childhood was cemented during her undergraduate days at University Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) when she was formally introduced to turtles.
“My first job was to take on the role of a research assistant in a river terrapin project on campus. It was then that I met Professor Dr Chan Eng Heng, well-known for her contributions in the field of turtle research, conservation and education,” she says.
It is interesting to note that in 2008, Pelf became the first Malaysian to be awarded a turtle conservation scholarship from the Asian Scholarship Programme for the in-situ Chelonian Conservation to the United States.
After graduating with her Masters in Biodiversity and Conservation in 2009, Pelf joined Chan who had by then retired from UMT to venture into river terrapin research and conservation.
“We were toying with the idea of establishing a non-governmental organisation dedicated to the conservation of turtles but decided to approach it conservatively by first applying for funding to pursue a terrapin conservation project in Kemaman.”
In 2011, TCS was born with the main objective of restoring the wild population of freshwater turtles in Malaysia.
“I have never looked back since,” says Pelf.
TURTLE STEPS FORWARD
Conservation efforts in restoring the population of river terrapins have been admittedly slow.
“There is still so much to be done because collecting eggs and releasing juvenile terrapins back into the wild form only part of the efforts needed to protect this species,” says Pelf.
“We also need to look into protecting our rivers and estuaries.
“Back in 2012, we collected about 1,080 eggs from just one river bank along the Kemaman river. Fast forward to 2016, we have only collected 348 eggs,” she shares.
She attributes the decline to the flooding and sand mining which has without doubt impacted the topography of the river banks tremendously.
“Terrapins need high nesting banks to lay their eggs. The flooding along with other development and human activities has degraded the banks and this ultimately results in fewer eggs being laid.”
All is not lost however, thanks to the efforts of TCS and their conservation efforts in Kampung Pasir Gajah.
“We have received feedback from local fishermen that they are sighting juvenile terrapins in the rivers where once only the matured terrapins were spotted. This news is very heartening to us,” she says.
“There is definitely a need for expansion,” acknowledges Pelf. “We have been working from the home of Pakcik Wazel who graciously shared his space with us for many years. However it is time for us to move to a bigger space.”
Thanks to the trust established with the local villagers, the Village Development and Security Committee (JKKK Kampung Pasir Gajah) has offered TCS a piece of land next to the Community Hall to carry out their work.
She is especially touched by the gesture of the villagers and attributes their generosity to the fact that TCS had worked hard to build the trust and friendship with the villagers for many years.
Even with the generous donation, there is much to be done. The society would still need to raise sufficient funds to build a bigger place which can accommodate volunteers as well as a proper hatchery, “head-starting” area, a mini museum and an office.
“We have actually embarked on crowd-funding to help kickstart our expansion plans,” explains Pelf.
“We need all the help we can get to ensure that our conservation work goes on unimpeded. We rely entirely on funds, grants and donations to continue our conservation work. As such, we need the public’s help to continue to secure a viable future for these fascinating creatures.”
For further information on how you can help Pelf and her efforts to conserve the Critically Endangered river terrapins, go to www.generosity.com/animal-pet-fundraising/a-new-center-for-our-river-ter....
Interesting facts about river terrapins
•Sea turtles lay an average 100 eggs in one nest, river terrapins lay an average 15-20 eggs in one nest
•Sea turtles in one season can lay multiple times to a maximum of 11 times, and can nest up to an average of 5-6 times. River terrapins only nest a maximum of three times.
•Similar to sea turtles, river terrapins’ gender is determined by incubation temperature.
•High temperature will result in females hatchlings while lower temperature will produce male hatchlings. Perhaps this is where the terms “hot babes” and “cool guys” originated from!
•Adult terrapins are herbivorous and feed on mangrove leaves, fruits and shoots.