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Value of our turtle heritage

Value of our turtle heritage

THE arrest of 12 men transporting 19,000 sea-turtle eggs into Sandakan last week is cause for congratulations to the law enforcement process. But it also represents a much larger crime with a staggering economic cost. Twelve men did not collect 19,000 eggs by themselves! This haul required a network of people for collection, transportation, storage and preparation before they were dispatched internationally.

An adult female turtle can lay an average of 80 eggs at a time so this haul represents approximately 240 nestings. Since the eggs cannot have been poached from the well documented (and well protected) popular nesting beaches of Turtle Islands park, they have been taken from the infrequent nestings on more remote beaches and less inhabited islands of which there is a huge number between Malawali (near Kudat) and Sandakan. Conservationists agree that anything more than one nest per kilometre of sandy-coastline is unlikely, so those 240 nests came from 240km of beaches.

Even with refrigeration, unpasteurised, fertilised eggs are unlikely to keep for more than a week which reduces the likelihood of them having been collected over a longer period of time.

Therefore, criminals have collected every single egg that has been laid along 240k of our coastline within the last week. And if they’ve done it this week, with all the logistics involved, who’s to say they didn’t do it the week before? And the week before that?

While the poaching of one of our national icons is reprehensible in itself, there is a huge, economic impact that must not be overlooked. Sabah is famous for its beautiful marine life; divers from all over the world come to enjoy the richness of our underwater heritage. But they also come to snorkel and to see turtles. A three-day snorkel holiday on Pulau Pom-Pom specifically to see turtles retails for between RM1,000 and RM1,800. The resorts confirm that they have about 60 people taking this package per nesting season and that their resident turtle population was 30 individuals. They also said that the turtles were a big draw to the hundreds of people paying significantly more to participate in their diving packages.

So 60 people pay RM1,400 to see 30 turtles every year. The value of 30 turtles is RM84,000 annually.

Going back to the 19,000 intercepted eggs, not all of those will make it to adulthood; 99% of them will die. They will drown in fishing nets, eat or become tangled in trash, be hit by boats or simply be hunted for food. Only 190 of them will reach maturity at around 30 years old and return to the coastal zones to feast on seagrass, grow fat, mate, lay eggs and enchant tourists.

But if 30 turtles are worth RM84,000 per year, 190 turtles are worth RM532,000. And that’s only per year. Over an (extremely conservative) adulthood of 30 years (many turtles live well past 60), 190 living adult turtles are worth a staggering RM15.96mil.

That money goes directly to the Malaysian economy. It pays taxes. It employs people. It educates, develops, preserves and protects. A RM50,000 fine, even applied to 12 boatmen, doesn’t even come close to compensating the economy for this theft.

Someone collected those eggs. Someone paid the beachcombers and transported them to a central location. Someone washed and re-packed them. Someone stored them. Someone arranged the boat and someone in Sandakan was ready to receive them.

We are certain that the authorities will pursue the threads of this crime back to the mastermind and bring them to justice. However, the debt to Malaysia’s economy and national heritage can never be repaid.

PROF STEVE OAKLEY

TRACC.org