Taking the long view: the Singapore Scouts working on turtle conservation in Malaysia

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Life on Land
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Life Below Water
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by World Scouting from
Publication date: 19th Sep 2018

Every year thousands of turtles – no bigger than the palm of a hand - skit across the sand and plunge into the foaming surf on Malaysia’s east coast – the beginning of a life that is a daily battle for survival from predators, pollution and people. “Only one out of 1,000 hatchlings will survive to adulthood due to threats and dangers surrounding them all the time no matter where they are,” says WWF Malaysia, which works on turtle conservation in the country. “A sea turtle has to beat all odds in order to continue its life cycle.” Marine turtles have been swimming the oceans for more than 100 million years and are crucial to maintaining healthy habitats for fish and other sea life. But the threat to their existence is now so severe that over the past decade or so, the massive Leatherback Turtle has become functionally extinct in mainland Malaysia. Fight against extinction The country’s environmental groups are fighting to save the remaining species, including the green turtle, which continue to return each year to the sandy beaches along the peninsula’s east coast. Rangers patrol the sands each night during the nesting season, which runs from April to September, moving any eggs into sanctuaries to protect them from poachers until the young turtles emerge and can be released into the sea. For nearly ten years, they’ve been helped by a group of Scouts from Singapore. “The WWF were quite sceptical at first,” recalls Project Orion founder Tan Sijie, who has been the co-ordinator for the Scouts of the World Award in Singapore since 2006. “They wondered why we would be interested in this village and what we could really do.” The project is based in Kampung Mangkok, a fishing village of a few wooden houses bordering the South China Sea in Terengganu, a state where more than 90 percent of the population is ethnic Malay and Muslim. The Scouts stay in what’s become known as the “Pink House,” the WWF activity centre where they were forced to take shelter after a storm flooded their tent during their very first trip to the village in 2009, and work not only on conservation but also on odd jobs around the village and acquiring a better understanding of the local culture. “The Scouts have contributed a lot to the village and villagers there,” says Haramaini Arifin, who has been working with WWF Malaysia in the area since 2015 and is now Community Engagement and Education Officer. “Although the villagers were mostly quite shy in the beginning, they are now more open and have started to acknowledge the presence and the contribution the Scouts have given to the community.” "Total darkness, no talking" The oceans that have supported marine turtles for generations are now an increasingly dangerous place and the risks extend far beyond the animal’s traditional predators. Pollution and plastic threaten to poison them (turtles sometimes eat floating bags because they seem like their jellyfish) while fishing trawlers and nets threaten to ensnare turtles that get in their way. It is little better on land where – despite repeated promises - Malaysia has yet to issue a nationwide ban on the sale and consumption of turtle eggs, which some say are a traditional delicacy. Darryn Chiew, a Malaysian who acts as a translator between the Singapore Scouts and the locals, recalls seeing eggs on sale at a market near the village. During the nesting season, WWF rangers head out on patrol every night, walking the length of the beach in almost total darkness looking for signs of turtles coming ashore or attempting to nest. Members of the Project Orion team join them on most nights, helping the rangers move the eggs to the nearby hatchery where they’ll be protected from poachers. Chiew, who is now studying for a law degree, took part in the project for the third time this June and was thrilled to see a turtle emerge from the sea during a night patrol. “It’s totally different from anything I’ve done before,” says Chiew of his experience with Project Orion. “There’s lots of ground to cover and the rangers move very fast. It’s total darkness and there’s no talking.” If the rangers do discover a nest, the eggs are counted as they’re dug out and moved to the hatchery. There, they’re buried for a second time and when they hatch, counted again so the conservationists can keep track of landings – and what happens to the eggs - over the longer term. Any eggs that don’t hatch are cracked open and the contents analysed before the remains are buried in the sand away from the hatchery. Cultural exchange While they’re in Kampung Mangkok, the Scouts try to be as independent as they can, using bicycles, which they brought with them on their first visit, to get around. They’ve also helped with small construction projects, building walls and cement floors, and toilets for visitors – all of which have also helped the local people develop homestay programmes for tourists who want to experience life in a Malay village by the sea. Ong Han Wei, who’s been a Scout since 2014, joined Project Orion for the first time this year and admits he had little idea how remote the settlement was. “I didn’t realise how slow life was,” the banking and finance student says. “The village was just a road running through it and some houses.” Despite the language barrier, Ong says he felt he was able to contribute something meaningful beyond conservation. Cultural exchange is a big part of the programme. Villagers teach the Scouts, brought up in a densely-populated city, how to make local delicacies such as banana chips or keropok lekor (a kind of fish paste sausage) and build wau, the kites that are an integral part of life for Malay communities along the east coast. The Scouts play games with the children and help the community with their English. Conservation is a longer process and involves encouraging local communities to think again about age-old practices, as well as protecting the nests and eggs. “Whatever we do, we’ll only really know the impact in 20 or 30 years from now,” says Tan. “It’s a long-term investment in our planet’s future.”

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