JUNE is supposed to be the peak of the turtle nesting season in Terengganu. But two iconic turtles, synonymous with the state, the pre-historic leatherback and Olive Ridley, have not returned to their nesting sites in Ma’ Daerah in Kemaman, and Rantau Abang in Dungun.
The sites are instead being occupied by the green turtles, which are growing in numbers.
The absence of these two species has led experts to conclude that these reptiles that have survived for millions of years are now extinct — at least in Malaysia.
The reasons that led to this sad scenario are many, one of which is the turtles getting trapped in fishing nets cast over their feeding grounds.
Being a surface feeder with a basic diet of jelly fish, the leatherback turtles can easily get caught in fishing nets.
Pollution is also choking the reptiles as they consume plastic that look like jelly fish and float in the water.
Plastic pollution is a big problem around the world. One of the suggested ways to control it is to promote the use of biodegradable ones, but that requires a strong will to change industry and consumer preferences.
However, humans can at least help, by refraining from dumping plastic, which can choke the turtles, into the sea.
Satellite tracking by Universiti Malaysia Terengganu showed that the leatherback turtles roamed international waters far away from their nesting sites and this exposed them to the contraptions used by fishermen in these waters.
Despite being highly endangered species, the catch and release method does not seem to apply in international waters outside the exclusive economic zones (EEZ), which are too far for the enforcement authorities to patrol.
Moreover, these turtles are considered to be a delicacy by fishermen in some countries.
Experts also believe that the change in global weather patterns played a critical role in determining the sex of the hatchlings because warmer temperature leads to more males while cooler temperature means more females.
This was evident from the discovery of a nest with dud eggs in Rantau Abang a couple of years ago, leading to the assumption that the eggs were not fertilised or the male turtle population had dwindled drastically.
If these threats are not enough, the turtles are also confused. This is because the turtles navigate the sea by following the stars, but the bright lights lighting the coastal roads create glares that prevent the turtles from finding their nesting sites.
I have witnessed the release of thousands of turtle hatchlings since 1993, and 25 years later, these turtles should have matured and made their way back home to breed again.
Unfortunately, the money spent to care for the turtles seemed to have been wasted when none of them returned.
While the Fisheries Department took pains to discourage the consumption of eggs, buying back turtle eggs from collectors, hatching the eggs and releasing the hatchlings via many awareness programmes, it has no control over what happens to the hatchlings once they navigate out at sea.
The many inter-locking factors affecting the leatherback and Olive Ridley turtle populations, and maybe other species such as hawksbill and green turtles, are somewhat related to the growing human population.
The demand for turtle eggs, the disruption caused by lighting near their nesting sites, pollution and getting killed in fishing nets are all human related.
Where human contact was under control such as at the Cagar Hutan turtle sanctuary in Pulau Redang, species such as the green turtle and hawksbill, which are bottom feeding species that forage on algae and sea grass, the population had not been affected.
Turtle expert and Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia president Professor Chan Eng Heng said efforts should be made to impose a total ban on the sale of turtle eggs of any species to allow regeneration of the population.
To bring back the glory days of Rantau Abang when thousands of leatherback turtles returned annually to lay eggs may be impossible.
Similarly, it will be difficult to get the tourists to make a beeline just to watch the leatherback turtles nesting and help generate economic activities for the locals.
Elsewhere in the world, leatherback turtles are also showing signs of lower population in Gabon, Suriname, French Guyana and Irian Jaya.
The factors causing the dwindling population are similar to those affecting the turtles in Terengganu.
Perhaps, the government can consider imposing total protection at turtle landing sites in the country and revoke licences issued to traditional turtle egg collectors.
It is a thorny issue, but a decision must be made so that future generations can appreciate a heritage now at the brink of extinction.
**The writer is NST's Specialist Writer based in Terengganu. He is an environmentalist and enjoys capturing the beauty of flora and fauna in its fragile environment. He draws his inspiration from cross county drives on and off-road adventures.