Sea turtles are approaching extinction: what can we do about it?

Sea turtles have existed for hundreds of millions of years, surviving asteroids and prey. In Malaysia, as elsewhere, they face their greatest existential threat yet.
 
Turtles are incredibly curious creatures. Living almost their entire life out at sea, they only return to land to lay their eggs when they are ready, about 20 to 30 years later. The most wondrous part of this is they return to the same spot they were hatched all those years ago.
 
To wait 30 years and then circumnavigate the globe to return to the exact beach seems ludicrous, however the favourable environmental conditions of soft sand, the right temperature, few predators, and an easily accessible beach are not easy to find. It seems effective, as sea turtles have been around for 220 million years. To put this into perspective, dinosaurs were wiped out at the KT extinction event around 66 million years ago.
 
With such a predisposition for longevity, why did I spend months patrolling up and down a beach at night? In actual fact, two out of seven sea turtle species are listed as critically endangered (and the rest endangered to some degree). So what has changed over the last 220 million years that has put them in danger? It’s simple: humans.
 

The natural habitat of these extraordinary animals is under threat… from us. // Source: Duncan Maguire, TU

There are plenty of predators for turtles, and in natural conditions the survival rate is around 1 in 1000 or, according to more dire estimates, 1 in 10,000! But they survive as a species by giving birth to large numbers of offspring rather than investing in parental care.
 
The defining factor for the rapid decline in many species globally, just like sea turtles, is the new predator that doesn’t play by the ecological rules, the (relatively) new global apex predator. We are, unfortunately, tipping the scales in a big way. This hasn’t always been the case, but as our numbers have grown, our societies have evolved and our technologies become more advanced, we have pushed and exceeded many of the natural boundaries and ecological balances.
 
Turtle poaching in Malaysia is not uncommon. Even government dinners serve turtle eggs to the guests present. It is a major part of their cultural history and has been going on for centuries. As the population increased, and living standards improved, the demand for turtle eggs among the population grew substantially. The results aren’t pretty.
 
One of the leatherback turtle’s largest nesting sites in the world was in Terranganu, a state in Malaysia. There used to be over 10,000 nesting turtles a year here, producing around a million baby hatchlings annually. Now, they reach a grand total of 0. They are functionally extinct. No leatherback turtles come here to nest anymore. And, considering turtles return to nest where they were born, it is more than likely that we will never see the iconic leatherbacks in Malaysia ever again.
 
Source: Duncan Maguire, TU

It is very difficult to predict what could happen if species disappeared from food chains. However, consider these four essential contributions of the sea turtle:
 

  • Feeding on the sea grass, preventing overgrow which would cause a loss of productivity of the whole ecosystem.
  • Allowing room for coral reefs to grow by eating sponges that compete for space with coral.
  • Bringing valuable nutrients to beach ecosystems that help allow for more plant growth, beach stabilisation and increase of other plant eating animals.
  • Maintaining food-webs by eating jellyfish and providing food to smaller angelfish/shrimp/wrasse by allowing them to feed off their shell. Other larger species also prey on them.
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    So, what’s being done? Does anybody really care? Well, the islands are now a marine park, with revenues going towards the rangers who monitor the illegal activities going on. However, the thin veil of ‘protected islands’ soon vanishes when the night comes round and the whirr of poaching boats fills the peaceful bays. I’ve had my fair share of flashlight battles warning off poachers from our beach. It usually ends in shrieks of excitement and laughter as they speed off to another bay. Poaching is illegal but prohibition, as you usually find, doesn’t stop the local community carrying on activities that have been a part of their culture for centuries.
     
    There is always an issue with enforcing an external decision on a local population’s customs. But this isn’t just a few turtles. This is the local extinction of a number of turtle species – the Leatherback, the Olive Ridley, and likely the Hawksbill soon as well, leaving only the Green turtle. The most frustrating part of this for me is the shortsightedness. After all, the money brought to the area from tourism is based on its natural beauty and the biodiversity – especially the turtles! The locals are undermining both their economic and environmental futures, except a few responsible resorts (like Bubbles where I was based). There are other dangers too. The corals – the other major tourist attraction – are being decimated by the droves of tourists who trample, break and destroy many parts of the reefs they are there to see.
     
    We have to ask some hard questions. Do we only protect nature if it gives us something? Is it morally justifiable that we save turtles to generate income, rather than protecting them for their inherent value? With increasing populations and demand for holidays, how do we balance development and conservation? Should we start valuing whole ecosystems and the species in them, rather than individual species? There are currently a few turtle conservation programmes popping up. However, they are yet to collaborate effectively, and there seems to be a frustrating amount of local politics that cause inefficiencies and slow effective progress.
     
    A collaborative management plan with inclusion of the locals and an education programme for both locals and tourists would go a long way. The real victory here would be keeping the essence of the islands while introducing an unobtrusive conservation element. There aren’t any easy answers and each year the Perhentians get busier, with time running out for the sea turtles. Just 15 years ago you had to hop on-board with fishermen to get across. Now, fleets of speedboats fill the shallow sea.

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