Turtles and Malaysia

After a long break from blogging I-am-back! GCSEs are over, results day is out of the way and I thought now would be a good time to talk about what I’ve been doing this summer.

I was lucky enough to travel to Malaysia with a few friends from school where we worked with a turtle conservation charity on the east coast. We learnt a lot about turtles while working at the turtle sanctuary and we were given many opportunities to get hands on with the turtles, helping to release hatchlings, clearing out old nests, cleaning tanks and painting a table to help promote turtle conservation.

There are four main types of turtle in Malaysia not including the freshwater turtles (called Terrapins). They are the Leatherback, the Olive Ridley, The Green and the Hawksbill. An Olive Ridley turtles diet consists of crustaceans, molluscs, jellyfish, fish and seagrass and they are generally greyish to olive green in colour. Green turtles are sort of olive green to brown and black in colour and they feed on mostly sea grass, seaweeds and occasionally jellyfish. A Hawksbill turtles colour is a mixture of yellow, brown and darker brown streaks and they eat sponges which are hard coral-like marine organisms. Hence why these turtles are called Hawksbill, due to their distinctly shaped bills used to break off bits of sponge. Leatherback turtles are generally black with whitey grey patches and their diet consists of mostly jellyfish. The population of Leatherback turtles in Malaysia has reduced by 99.9% with current rates of nesting at about 4 nests per year compared with over 10,000 nests recorded in the 1950’s, therefore the Leatherback is listed as critically endangered. The job of the turtle conservation society is to stop the three remaining populations of turtle in Malaysia from going the same way as the Leatherback by protecting and caring for them in their sanctuaries.

While working with the charity we visited two of their sanctuaries. The first was an inland sanctuary where injured turtles were kept and cared for. It also has an information centre to help educate young Malaysians on the importance of protecting and looking after turtles. The second was a hatchery on the beach. The volunteers who work here are responsible for looking after the turtle eggs that are laid by turtles who make their nests on the beach. Because of the danger to these eggs posed by wild dogs and the locals (turtles eggs are a popular food Malaysia and tend to go for a high price in the market), the eggs are removed from the nests laid by the turtles and put them into pre dug nests in the hatchery. This way the eggs are safe from predators and this increases their chance of survival.

After the newly laid eggs are in their nests the sanctuary waits 60 days which is the average time in takes for them to hatch. Once they hatch, the turtles crawl up through the sand and when the first signs of movement appear we moved the sand from the top of the nest to help the turtles out and conserve their much needed energy. We released the hatchlings as soon as possible after they hatched because the energy that they get from the egg only lasts them seven days after hatching before they must get food, so there was no time to waste. Rather than releasing the baby turtles straight into the sea we released them from the top of the beach to allow the turtles to acknowledge and ‘map’ the beach in their brains so that they may come back in the future to lay their own eggs.

After the turtles have hatched the nests are left for ten days to give any unhatched eggs the chance to hatch before the nests are cleaned out and prepared for the next load of eggs. We were given the job of digging up the nest and removing the old shells as well as unfertilised eggs and unhatched eggs. The amount of eggs in each nest is known when they are placed inside and so the removed eggs must be counted to insure none are left in the nest. The removed eggs are catalogued so the sanctuary can keep track of how many eggs have hatched, been unfertilised or are unhatched. The unhatched eggs are usually eggs where the turtle inside has died as the majority of turtles hatch within 60-70 days after being laid so when we were digging up the nests the last thing we expected was to find an unhatched egg with a living turtle inside. But to our surprise when we were opening up the unhatched eggs (to see if they were dead or just unfertilised) we found not one but two of the eggs in one of the nests contained living turtles. The first we named Milo but unfortunately he was blind and died 30 minutes after we found him. The second we named Lippy, he was a lot smaller than hatchlings should be but he still had a chance so was released along with new hatchlings from another nest.

During our time at the sanctuary we worked on painting an old wooden cable reel which the sanctuary was using as a table to help promote turtle conservation and increase awareness of the importance of protecting turtles in the people that see it. We created a scene of the sea and the beach merging and produced images of turtles swimming, laying eggs and feeding as well as including slogans in all different languages that promoted turtle conservation and discouraging the eating of turtle eggs. It acted as a summary not only of a turtles life but also of our time with the turtle sanctuary and allowed us to leave our mark.

This was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, not only did I get to help an animal charity carry out its important work but I was able to witness wonderful things and spend my days helping animals on the beach, my idea of heaven.

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