Location matters: A tale of two Green Turtles, both alike in labour

Fair Aldabra is the scene for half of a troubling experience I recently had. The other half was Long Beach in the Perhentian Islands, where we holidayed earlier this year.

Long Beach, Pulau Kecil, Perhentian Islands Malaysia

Long Beach, Pulau Kecil, Perhentian Islands Malaysia

Stumbling along Long Beach at Pulau Perhentian Kecil after dinner one night we happened upon a growing cluster of adolescent travellers surrounding a large lump in the centre of a small sand storm. It turned out to be a Green turtle in labour. Normally I would have really enjoyed observing such an interesting spectacle, but the scene didn’t help me to dwell on the wonders of nature. The Perhentian Islands in the Pulau Redang National Marine Park receives approximately 125,000 visitors a year. Long beach is well known as the regional party beach, lined with bars, pumping music and an average age of 23 among the tourists. As someone who recently gave birth for the first time, I was particularly struck by the appalling labour conditions in which this turtle found itself. Since the 1980s, the number of nesting Green Turtles  in Terrenganu province has gone from around 5000 to 2000.  As we stood there watching this poor beast dropping ping-pong ball eggs into its nest to the thump of house music and yards from intoxicated tourists leaning in to truly experience the moment, it wasn’t hard to see why. Finally some of the local dive operators put parasols around the scene and people started to lose interest. Both the Leatherbacks and Oliver Ridleys have been driven to the point of extinction here and population decline is attributed to a long history of egg exploitation, commercial hunting and harvesting of marine turtles in neighbouring countries, fishing mortality, loss of nesting habitats, marine pollution, negative impacts of tourism and the lack of a national strategy on marine turtle conservation. As Eng-Heng Chan at the Turtle Research and Rehabilitation Unit, Kolej Universiti Sains dan Teknologi comments:Marine turtle conservation efforts in Malaysia are not lacking, but need to be upgraded and coordinated.”

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Nesting Green Turtle on Settlement Beach, Aldabra (photo credit: Annelise Hagan)

The only other time I have seen a Green turtle in labour up close was early one morning at Aldabra Atoll, a remote World Heritage Site in the southern Seychelles. Nesting populations here have been on the increase since this population received complete protection in 1968. Currently at around the 2000 nest are observed per year, which is still substantially below the 6000-8000 that were believed to nest at Aldabra in the early 1900s.  As labour environments go, Aldabra is the equivalent of having your own room in a private maternity unit with delicious food and a top obstetrician.  My friend Annelise took this photo of our Aldabra experience, which was a much more pleasurable encounter.

Location matters for birthing turtles, which often return to the same nesting sites for multiple years. Perhaps more could be done to protect nesting hotspots for these vulnerable creatures and ensure that potentially destructive activities do not coincide with favoured nesting beaches.

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