KEMAMAN: Terrapins brought Dr Chen Pelf Nyok, well known among villagers in Kampung Pasir Gajah as “Mek Tuntung”, and her husband Dylan Wang whom locals call “Along Dolloh”, together, and their love for the reptiles led them to tie the knot early last year.
But their love for the turtles also kept them apart for months as they took notes on the animal and worrying why the number of terrapin landings and nesting grounds have dropped drastically over the past eight years.
With no funding, the couple showed their dedication and love for the reptiles by spending their money to buy terrapin eggs and raised funds through a terrapin adoption programme or sale of merchandise.
Wang slept in tents in the lower reaches of a river in Kampung Pasir Pok Yok, while Chen focused her research on the sandy banks of Sungai Kemaman River near Kampung Pasir Gajah, enduring mosquito bites and avoiding snakes when terrapins landed from 9pm to 6am.
While Chen has been setting up camps with villagers since 2012, she met Wang only in 2016.
Their love for terrapins and turtles changed their lives.
Wang, who is assistant project manager of the Turtle Conservation Society (TCS), a non-profit and non-governmental organisation, is seeing a drastic drop in the number of terrapin nesting grounds.
He shares the concern with Chen, the co-founder of TCS, set up in 2011.
“In 2012, we recorded 105 nests. Last year, we found six nests. This year, we discovered three nests and this is supposed to be the peak of the nesting season. This is worrying.”
He suspected that the big floods of 2012 had changed the river landscape where the terrapins’ sandy nesting grounds sites disappeared and, instead, formed in areas not familiar to the terrapins,
He also believed that the turtles were drowned in fish traps and killed by fishing hook and lines.
“We are concerned about the use of poison by anglers who kill not only terrapins, but also fishes in the river.”
He said sand dredging affected the terrapins’ nesting grounds and this was made worse as their eggs were eaten.
“This must be stopped. We are doing what we can to save the eggs and incubate them in safer sites.
“We are educating the public on the importance of terrapins in a river system as they can be considered a barometer of a river’s health.”
Chen said that educating the people on the need to protect terrapins and restrain them from collecting and eating their eggs could boost the animal’s population.
“It is not something that can be achieved immediately.
“We can educate children about nature camps and get villagers to join in (the conservation effort) by helping out collecting terrapin eggs and incubating them in conservation sites.
“There are also those who fail to see the importance of our work. I am trying to influence change by working with the community.”
She said gatherings with egg collectors facilitated by village heads or assemblyman could manage expectations and concerns.
“No eggs equals to no terrapins in the future. In fact, the adults that nest now are from eggs that missed detection 20 years ago. And since there are more people combing nesting banks this year, in 20 years, there would be no more terrapins.”
Chen said TCS badly needed support from local authorities, which acted as a bridge that connects locals with outsiders like her, handicapped by being a woman and a non-Muslim.
She said TCS had adopted SK Pasir Gajah and ran turtle camps with the school yearly,
She added that it held annual World Turtle Day celebrations with the community, and had started a women’s group.
On funding, she said she had drained her three savings accounts.
She said on Tuesday she had uplifted a fixed deposit to pay for terrapin eggs this year.
“It is tough but someone has to do it.
“My husband and I are risking everything for the future of the turtles and terrapins in Sungai Kemaman.
“We have been hearing news of the extinction of (animal) species too often. We hope to save this species from disappearing forever.”