Fighting the marine turtle trade in Malaysia

Posted on 22 June 2018

Thousands of eggs and animals are lost each year to turtle hunters, and WWF-Malaysia is pushing for a total ban on the trade of eggs for all species of turtles. In the meantime, solutions envisioned include patrolling and multi-agency enforcement, better funding, and continuing education
Thousands of eggs and animals are lost each year to turtle hunters, and WWF-Malaysia is pushing for a total ban on the trade of eggs for all species of turtles. In the meantime, solutions envisioned include patrolling and multi-agency enforcement, better funding, and continuing education

THEIR eggs are considered delicacies, their meat consumed, and their shells used as decorations and fashion accessories. It is a trade that has taken its toll on turtle populations in the Coral Triangle, and Malaysia is working to address it.

In Sabah, populations of green (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) turtles are threatened by the egg trade and direct take.

“The turtle trade is the act of buying and selling turtle eggs, transported in sacks on boats,” explains Monique Sumampouw, People and Marine Biodiversity Manager, WWF-Malaysia. “Direct take is the act of hunting and capturing turtles at sea."

Turtle eggs are traded domestically, transported from neighbouring countries via boat and plane to the largest market in Terengganu, Peninsular Malaysia, where the eggs are sold openly, according to the 2009 “Survey of Marine Turtle Egg Consumption and Trade in Malaysia” report by TRAFFIC-SEA, commissioned by WWF-Malaysia.

The centre of the Malaysian egg trade is Sandakan, on the east coast of Sabah, with eggs allegedly from the Philippines and other sources brought here via boat. Meanwhile, slaughter and poaching occur in Semporna; turtles are hunted right in their foraging grounds and nesting beaches.

Between 1999 and 2017, there were 129 egg trade cases reported, mostly in Sandakan, involving a total of 238,396 eggs, according to WWF-Malaysia records. Between 2004 and 2017, 23 cases of direct take, mostly in Semporna and amounting to 835 turtles, were recorded.

The continuing trade remains a huge problem. “In Malaysia, turtle eggs are not afforded total protection uniformly across states,” says Sumampouw. “Sale and consumption of eggs of all species are banned in Sabah and Sarawak. However, there is no similar ban in Peninsular Malaysia, with the exception of leatherback turtle eggs. Instead, egg collection for incubation is regulated by government-run licensing systems.” Thus, an open market in Terengganu continues to drive the demand for green turtle eggs in particular. The expansive waters surrounding Sabah, and its proximity to other countries, give hunters easy access.

Changing profile of hunters

The profile of these hunters has also changed, Sumampouw reports. While in the past, green and hawksbill turtles were suspected to be hunted by foreign fishermen from China and Vietnam, as reported by WWF-Malaysia and the Sabah Wildlife Department, today many local fishermen and communities are involved in hunting turtles, employed by such foreign fishermen. The turtles are stockpiled in small island villages before they are collected by foreign fishermen, for distribution to China and Vietnam. Fresh turtle meat is sold at about RM (Malaysian Ringgit) 300/kg (about US$75), dried meat at RM100/kg (US$25), a whole adult turtle fetches RM2,000 (about US$503), and a small-sized or juvenile turtle, RM1,300 (US$327). For their efforts, fishermen get an average of RM100/kg.

The TRAFFIC-SEA 2009 report estimated the volume of eggs traded in Terengganu to range from tens of thousands to as many as 400,000 pieces traded annually. In 2016, an article in the New Sabah Times reported the confiscation by marine police of 9,900 eggs, worth about RM20,500 (about US$5,100), being smuggled into Sandakan from the Philippines in five boats.

Marine turtles play a critical role in maintaining Malaysia’s ocean ecosystems, habitats, and marine food webs. “Green turtles forage on seagrass beds,” says Sumampouw. “When they graze, they increase the productivity and nutrient content of seagrass blades. Without constant grazing, seagrass beds become overgrown and obstruct currents, shade the bottom, begin to decompose, and lead to the growth of slime moulds. Turtles can be considered the lawnmowers of the sea.” Hawksbill turtles also feed on sponges, controlling their population on the reefs. Leatherbacks, meanwhile, feed on jellyfish, and control jellyfish populations to keep them from consuming excessive fish eggs and larvae.

Turtle hatchlings are also prey for crabs, rats, dogs, and monitor lizards. Reef fish, such as grouper and jacks, prey on hatchlings and juvenile turtles, while larger animals like killer whales and sharks eat adult turtles.

WWF-Malaysia is working with the government to curb the illegal trade and serious threats driving turtles closer to extinction. “Continuous strategic beach monitoring and patrolling at important nesting beaches and habitats by government agencies, NGOs, and community members to prevent poaching is key,” says Sumampouw. The establishment of a multi-enforcement agency to address illegal turtle trade and strategic mobilisation of resources—such as through a wildlife task force for Sabah—is envisioned for this year, 2018. Stakeholder NGOs must work together to push for additional resources and manpower for enforcement by government wildlife agencies. Continuing education and awareness for target audiences is also essential.

“At the national level, WWF-Malaysia is pushing for a complete ban in trade and consumption of eggs for all species,” Sumampouw concludes. “This is in line with the National Plan of Action for Conservation and Management of Sea Turtles in Malaysia, in which a national ban is one of the key priorities.”
A slaughtered turtle in Semporna, showing the plastron and marginal scutes removed. This was taken during a turtle patrolling and monitoring activity by Sabah Wildlife Department and WWF-Malaysia, accompanied by Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM)
© WWF Malaysia
The hawksbill turtle is one of the species victimised by the marine turtle trade
© Eric Madeja/WWF-Malaysia
Children during one of WWF-Malaysia's activities for World Sea Turtle Day in 2017
© Marine Programme/WWF-Malaysia