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Sabah Conservation: Hero of the Sea

Meet Borneo island local, guide and turtle protector, Harun is a true hero of the Sulu Sea. Find out how you can visit this turtle island eco-tourism project in Borneo.


Every little boy likes dinosaurs and for my guide, Harun, who grew up with turtles in the sea and sands around his island village, it is the reptilian link to those antique giants that most holds his interest and awe. For the turtle to go the way of the dinosaur would be a tragedy of dual proportions: losing the turtle and losing its ancestor all over again.


At the equator darkness falls quickly. The sky and sea which are a vivid blue by day are inky black at night. The golden beach glistens in the moonlight and we follow its path looking for turtles. Harun intermittently flashes his light into the bush. There's a clump of trees the turtles particularly like. The staff call it the 'turtle hospital' as expectant mothers flock to it. There's no signs of activity tonight however, just the hollows where Harun and his co-workers have raided the nests to take the eggs to the hatchery.


The hatchery isn't what I expected. There are no pools of cute baby turtles, just mounds of sand surrounded by mesh with a marked stick next to it declaring date laid and turtle type. It looks more like a gravesite than a nursery, but under those mounds are hundreds of baby turtles waiting to hatch. The philosophy here, Harun explains, is to protect incubating eggs and immediately release hatchlings. They found nursery-ing them to an older age only led to the young turtles remaining near their home beach after release, waiting for feeding time.


Since the program started in 2010, over 1000 Green and Hawkesbill turtles have been released from Libaran Island. Not much is known about the first years of a turtle's life, or how many of the released turtles survive. The hatchlings are too tiny to tag and, as it takes 15 years for a turtle to reach maturity, the program hasn't been going long enough to see significant increases in numbers of returning turtles. However, the steps they have taken to protect the beaches and eggs seem to have made it a more desirable place for the turtles to come nest. A year after the project began they found double the number of nests. It increased the year after that again. Now around 65-75 nests a year are made and live litters of hatchlings are released on an almost weekly basis.


While increase in turtle numbers is the objective of the conservation project, with so many threats in the ocean from food, fishing and plastics, perhaps stability in nesting numbers is the most realistic outcome at the moment.


As if to illustrate the dangers of the sea we come across a dead turtle on the beach. A sad, immovable, grey lump in the moon light. An adult male that, Harun estimates, is about 30 or 40 years old. As turtles live up to 100 years this turtle met an untimely end. A common cause of turtle deaths is through eating plastic, mistaken for jelly fish, which blocks the turtle's intestines. This one, Harun thinks, given its relative health at time of death, was caught in a fishing net and drowned. Turtles surface to breathe once every hour or so, making fishing nets a death sentence. Harun says he sees around one turtle a month wash ashore dead. He doesn't care so much for the males but seeing a dead female, having managed to survive all the hazards from hatchling to adult, only to die trying to give new life, saddens him.

Harun, who grew up on Libaran Island, takes me down the beach to his village. 400 people live in this village on the beach and as we arrive wedding preparations are in full swing. A couple of men are building a pavillion made of driftwood while the women set up floral decorations, sweets make their way to the tables and the karaoke has already started. Harun's mother-in-law greets me, it's her son who is getting married and she invites me to the wedding celebrations that will last the next 3 days.


The Sulu islanders have, since time immemorial, relied on the sea for food and income. Turtles eggs have been part of that food source. When the resort leased a section of the island from the village it struck a deal that included cessation of turtle egg hunting. With Harun's involvement the locals are becoming accustomed to this significant change in their lifestyle.


What's happening on this small island reflects what is being attempted by the Malaysian government at large. In an effort to save the turtles, the government has introduced education programs, fines for littering or wildlife poaching, as well as financial incentives for clean up and conservation action. They are slowly making an impact but the Sulu Sea, which Malaysia shares with the Philippines, is still full of plastics and the markets clandestinely sell turtle eggs while villagers will obstinately stick to age old traditions.

By midnight we have walked the length of the beach a couple of times without seeing the miracle of birth. The tide is well on the way out and Harun admits our chances of seeing a turtle tonight are done. I'm not entirely disappointed. I didn't see any nesting turtles, but I did get invited to a turtle island wedding.

FIND OUT MORE:

Libarian Island hosts a privately owned turtle conservation project run in conjunction with the Sabah government. Neighbouring the government declared marine park it aims to extend turtle conservation into populated inlands. Walai Penyu Resort

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