I Shadowed a ‘Turtle Guardian’ on Duty. Then, a Shocking Surprise.

In Wildlife
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A writer recounts her three-hour experience of shadowing a turtle guardian on duty. The mission: to secure as many turtle eggs in one night before the poachers do.

The first-ever field trip I had the privilege of covering was the nesting conditions of hawksbill turtles in Melaka a few months ago. My colleague Firdaus was my partner in crime. Most of all, we were excited to finally meet the ex-turtle egg poachers who have since become turtle guardians (read their stories here!). 

Firstly, if you’ve always known Melaka for its slew of food offerings, here’s another reason why it deserves to be on your radar. Melaka is home to the largest – and only significant – population of hawksbill turtles in Peninsular Malaysia. They migrate from Melaka to Singapore and the Riau Archipelago, and this population represents one of the key marine turtle populations in the greater Coral Triangle. 

The problem: It’s not yet illegal to sell or consume turtle eggs in Peninsular Malaysia with the exception of leatherback turtles in the state of Terengganu. As a result, the population is nearly extinct now. There are no policies for the other species too, which was why WWF-Malaysia started the Turtle Guardians programme in 2006. Even though there are no laws on the total ban of sale and consumption, the turtle guardians ensure that most, if not all, the eggs are secured for incubation. 

Left: Freshly collected turtle eggs from a night patrol. Right: All the eggs collected will be replanted at the hatchery for incubation – before releasing them back to the sea.

With that, let me offer you a window onto one unforgettable night in our assignment to document the critical patrolling work turtle guardians do. 

8:40 PM: FIRST PATROL

“Please remember to wear dark clothing and you have to strictly use an infrared camera. Also, no flash photography please,” Yana, the team leader of the Turtle Guardians programme, reminded us repeatedly. 

To Firdaus, Yana was like an older sister he never had. I understood why. 

While she gave her final briefing, she quickly passed me a mosquito repellent and whispered, “You need this.”

The nightly patrol would begin at 9 pm and end at 5 am the next morning. This was the timing our turtle guardians have to report every night during the nesting season. The reason behind the ungodly working hours? Nesting hawksbill turtles need dark, secluded, quiet areas to lay their eggs.

Each turtle guardian was provided with a nesting monitoring kit to enable them to tag turtles, collect data and transfer eggs safely too.

To minimise disturbance, Yana split the group and insisted that there could only be four people in each round of patrol. This meant Firdaus and I had to split. Though reluctant (I did not want to miss out on any turtle sighting, duh!), we agreed that Firdaus should go first. As if reading my mind, Yana reminded us that there would be many rounds throughout the night. 

9:05 PM: SETTING OFF 

Firdaus threw his final nervous glances at me and set off. 

I was honestly expecting a long wait and decided to walk along the road – just one metre away – parallel to the coastal beach.

While walking along the road, I couldn’t help but notice how bright the street lights were shining onto the nesting beach. 

There were also small groups of people and individuals who were fishing and hanging out at the beach. Did they realise that they might be disturbing the nesting turtles who were trying to lay their eggs at this hour?

9:16 PM: THE CHASE  

My thoughts were interrupted by a message. It was Firdaus. 

A message screenshot that was exchanged during the first patrol.

They spotted a nesting turtle!

I ran to the car and spent the next 40 minutes guessing if we would be able to witness this natural phenomenon – and help to secure the eggs! Yana told us that a hawksbill turtle usually takes about an hour to find a suitable spot to dig a nest and lay her eggs. This is considerably fast compared to green turtles who will take up to three hours. 

9:56 PM: A TURTLE SIGHTING

When we reached Tanjong Dahan beach, Zainal (an ex poacher and turtle guardian on duty that night) said a turtle had managed to lay her eggs – pointing to the turtle tracks and bucket of collected eggs. I was happy to see how efficient our turtle guardians were in safeguarding the eggs from the poachers.

But my heart sank a little. We did not make it.

Just then, we heard loud rustling noises. Yana whispered exasperatedly, “There is another turtle who’s trying to dig her third nest. But please stay away, keep your distance, and don’t disturb her.”

Disclaimer: This picture was taken with an infrared night vision camera so as not to disturb nesting turtles.

We waited for an hour and got increasingly worried that she couldn’t lay her eggs because by then, she was still digging her seventh nest. What it meant: the previous six spots where she tried to dig her nests were just not suitable due to the shallow sand, marine debris like plastic and trash and the bright lights. 

From a safe distance, we watched how the turtle moved closer to the seawall and hit her head against it several times. It appeared like she wanted to reach the other side of the seawall. Marine turtles have a special superpower: a recorded memory which allows them to remember where they had nested before, even if it happened years ago. She was either trying to nest at the exact area or hoping to reach the darker side of the shorelines.

11:40 PM: BACK TO THE SEA 

“I am sure there must be something we can do to help!” we all thought. 

The most unexpected thing happened. The turtle turned around and started to crawl quickly in our direction. I held my breath. Yana whispered for us to stay low and not make a sound.

We were this close! The turtle passed by us and made her way back to the sea – out of our sight – without laying her eggs.

As we watched the turtle heading back to the sea, it was as if we could feel her exhaustion and disappointment.

I asked Yana if she would be back another day to lay her eggs. 

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

STARK IMPACT OF PLASTIC POLLUTION & EXCESSIVE COASTAL LIGHTING

You have heard of turtles ingesting plastic. You might also have seen the viral picture of a plastic straw getting caught in a turtle’s nose. 

But that’s not all. 

It was clear that plastic pollution in our environment is at crisis levels. It is predicted that plastic will be found in the digestive tracts of 99% of all seabird species by 2050 and that 95% of the individuals within these species will have ingested plastic by the same year.

Then I thought: How about the number of turtles who failed to lay their eggs due to plastic in nature?

Pieces of plastic and marine debris were found along the coastlines of Padang Kemunting Beach – the exact same spots nesting turtles have to lay their eggs.

“For the turtles to nest, it needs to be dark, secluded, empty – without human presence. But here at night, there will be street lighting from the chalet operators and infrastructures. What we are trying to have is long-term turtle-friendly lighting management where there can be reduced lighting after 6 pm.” Min Min, turtle conservation manager in Peninsular Malaysia explained. 

Min Min started the Turtle Guardians programme in 2006 and has since passed on the baton to Yana four years ago. 

There is only one word to describe how we felt having to witness how difficult and challenging it was for female turtles to lay their eggs: heartbreaking.

However, I have learned that I can trust committed field officers like Yana and Min Min to know what the turtles and the community need. And I trust the heart and passion of the turtle guardians who gave their all in ensuring the eggs are safe from the hands of poachers. 

From left to right: WWF-Malaysia’s Kimberly, Min Min, Yana – along with me and Firdaus.

As Firdaus summed it up perfectly, “Yana and Min Min are more than scientists. They are the definition of inspiring and the reason why we continue to press on to do what we do.”

WHAT CAN WE DO?

If there is one thing in common about environmental issues like plastic pollution and illegal trade, it is that they are still rampant globally.

While it is still my mission to report on less-talked-about stories such as this, I trust readers like you to not only share this with someone else but also take action.

Conservation projects like this need long-term strategies and funding as we continue to work on the ground to engage the communities and government to protect habitats, restore wildlife populations and stop the trade. 

“We provide turtle guardians with training to collect good data. And it is important for this programme to be long term as turtles take 20 to 35 years to mature. We have only been here for 13 years, and it has to be continuously done to see the impact of our work,” Min Min added. 

Marine turtles face other threats like climate change and getting caught in fishing nets. With rising temperatures globally, we are producing more female turtles. 

After all, for every 1,000 turtle hatchlings that humans release back to the sea, only one will survive.

Good news: We have partnered 42Race to create the “Run Wild with WWF” Virtual Race. When you register and choose a bundle here, at least 50% of the proceeds from the sales will go to WWF to conserve critically important wildlife and landscapes. 

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