A New Future for Turtle Conservation in Malaysia

by TSA Admin on August 01, 2009

Turtle conservation in Malaysia is set to enter a new and exciting era with the country‚Äôs current King, who is also the Sultan of Terengganu giving the nod to the establishment of a turtle institute under his foundation, the Sultan Mizan Royal Foundation.  

The institute is the brainchild of Dr. Eng-Heng Chan who has been working closely with Tan Sri Dr. Salleh bin Mohd. Nor.   Salleh, an eminent conservationist in Malaysia, is the Deputy Chairman of the Sultan Mizan Royal Foundation, President of the Malaysian Nature Society and Secretary-General of the Malaysian Academy of Sciences.  The timing could not have been better for Chan who has just retired from the university.

The institute will be located in Setiu, the heartland of important nesting habitats for both Batagur affinis and B. borneoensis as well as Chelonia mydas.  TSA has supported Chan‚Äôs work on B. affinis in the Setiu River where she has engaged local villagers in various aspects of the recovery program for the species.   

Plans for the institute are ambitious.  It will have multiple functions as a centre for research, conservation, education and conservation-tourism activities related particularly to freshwater turtles in Malaysia.  It will also serve as a rescue centre for turtles confiscated from illegal trade.  It is envisaged that the institute will bring benefits to the 
local community in Setiu that has been identified as one of the poorest districts in the country.

Physical facilities for the institute will include an open-air hatchery, buildings to house laboratories and offices, ponds and tanks for head-starting of freshwater turtles, ponds and other outdoor enclosures for rescued turtles, breeding ponds for captive breeding work, outdoor exhibits for interpretive purposes and housing for staff, visiting scientists, interns and volunteers.

TSA has pledged support for the institute and help to develop it into a world class centre for the conservation of freshwater turtles. 

Recovery programs for both Batagur affinis and B. borneoensis will be given a boost with the development of the Turtle Institute in Setiu. It will help to facilitate our plans to 
expand work on the Setiu River and to concentrate our efforts there.  This river is located about 60 km north of Kuala Terengganu, and runs parallel to the coastline for about 10 km before emptying into the South China Sea.  The main nesting bank for B. affinis is located  along this stretch of the Setiu River, about 8 km from its mouth.  This river therefore offers an ideal site to continue needed conservation work, i.e. egg protection, hatching, headstarting, release and monitoring of released B. affinis

The Setiu River is interesting in that wild populations of both  Batagur affinis and B. borneoensis are found here, presenting an excellent opportunity to better understand how two such similar species co-exist in the same habitat.  According to available information, the Setiu River is home to the largest population of B. borneoensis in Malaysia and possibly throughout its range.  A recent project initiated by Chan in the Setiu River has processed a total of 90 individuals of wild caught B. borneoensis ranging in weight from 320 gm to 17.8 kg between February and June 2009, with seven recaptures within the same period.  

The TSA has supported Chan‚Äôs research with both Batagur affinis and B. borneoensis over the years and the time has come to begin implementing the results into management strategies of the various Batagur headstarting programs throughout Malaysia where the basic science of egg incubation, TSD and reintroduction technology has been lacking.  We will also help upgrade physical facilities in existing Batagur head-starting programs to improve rearing conditions for the terrapins.  

Illegal trade in turtles in Malaysia is still rampant.   In February 2009, with Chan‚Äôs help, we visited a facility which held 10 - 12 adult Manouria emys, remnants of a 15 ton shipment that had been recently sent to China. In April 2007, Chan organized a rescue operation at the same facility in which a Buddhist Group bought 7 individuals of Chitra chitra, 25 Pelochelys cantori, 13 Manouria emys, 3 B. borneoensis and 20 Amyda cartilaginea for release into a private pond.  This demonstrates the urgent need for a rescue centre to be developed in Malaysia and we are excited that this could soon be a reality under the Turtle Conservation Centre.

We are now planning to hold a Batagur workshop in 2010 and Terengganu in Malaysia will be the most logical venue.  It will be held in February or March to coincide with the nesting season for Batagur.  Range countries are expected to prepare recovery plans for presentation.   The workshop will present an ideal opportunity to launch plans to develop a model Batagur breeding and headstarting program at the government-run Terrapin Conservation Centre  at Bukit Paloh, Terengganu.  Space for new construction is available and the facility is situated very close to the Terengganu River with a major Batagur nesting population ‚Äì 99 nests in 2008.  The TSA intends to mobilize support for this facility in the hopes that it will provide a model for other Batagur operations to follow.  This model will take an eco-physiologic approach to husbandry, providing deep water for thermoregulation, adequate nesting beaches and improved opportunities for basking.  Water circulation, biological filtration and the ability to grow food plants will be incorporated into the plans and a TSA team will visit Malaysia to begin the design process in September 2009.

- Chan Eng Heng and Rick Hudson

The TSA began supporting Dr. Chan‚Äôs work on the Setiu River in 2005, and works collaboratively with her to coordinate a range-wide Batagur conservation program.  A TSA team will begin designing new turtle facilities in Malaysia in September 2009.