Wildlife Matters - Every turtle egg counts

IF anyone has had the misfortune of seeing what may have been potential offspring of an endangered species on sale for human consumption, it is a most unsettling sight. Despite years of advocacy by conservation groups to ban the consumption of turtle eggs, nothing has changed. A recent visit to a market in Terengganu confirms that the sale of turtle eggs is unabated. It's difficult to rationalise why something so simple as imposing a ban cannot materialise despite the precarious status of marine turtles in Malaysia.

I have encountered various reasons (which are really excuses) on why such bans aren't forthcoming; that the issue of consumption ban is sensitive to the state and its people, that it has social economic implications, it has cultural and traditional roots, and it's not necessary. None of this really holds water in light of the extinction risk faced by turtle species in Malaysia.

Malaysia is privileged to call our own four species of marine turtles (out of the seven in the world) namely the green turtle (Chelonia mydas), the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), the hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and the Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea). None of these species can be said to be thriving as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists them in various categories of extinction threat.

In Malaysia, marine turtles are facing multiple hazards. These include development pressures that destroy and erode their nesting beaches, being caught accidentally in fishing nets, predation on eggs and hatchlings by other species, the capture of adult turtles (for meat and to satiate our cruel vanity for turtle shell accessories or trophies to be hung on walls) and last but not least the trade and consumption of turtle eggs.

Readers old enough to recall will remember Rantau Abang in Terengganu as being the bastion of leatherback nesting in Malaysia. In the 1950's leatherback turtle nesting populations used to number up to 10,000 nests a year. From such staggering numbers, leatherback turtles are now declared functionally extinct in Malaysia. There have been no landings since 2010.

The combined effects of development threats, fishing mortality and unregulated turtle tourism turned the tide on leatherbacks in Rantau Abang. Contributing to its detriment was also the wide sale and consumption of its eggs. The State Government of Terengganu did eventually administer a ban on sale and consumption of leatherback turtle eggs, but disaster nevertheless struck.

The Rantau Abang legacy is unfortunately tragic; but other species of turtles in Peninsular Malaysia do have a chance of making it if efforts were intensified. All threats to turtles have to be holistically addressed in equal measure but I focus on the one I deem the easiest to execute; the ban on trade and consumption of all turtles eggs.

I say that it's easy to do so, simply because the prerogative lies exclusively with the state government. Our Federal Constitution prescribes turtles (the only singled out species) to be a matter regulated by the state. This wasn't the original plan by the drafters of our Federal Constitution; it was first placed under federal purview, but in the many stages of deliberation of the final text for adoption, the states were given rights over turtles. The federal government does have some authority over turtles, specifically when they are found outside of state waters; but they are very limited provisions in the wider context of threats faced by marine turtles.

Save for the leatherback turtle egg ban in Terengganu, eggs of all other species in Peninsular Malaysia are considered fair game for consumption. States in Peninsular Malaysia have long been dragging their feet on this issue. Some may think that with so many eggs laid at a time surely consumption of some portion of the eggs is unlikely to jeopardise its survival prospects. This is a notion that must be absolutely dispelled. Not all eggs hatch, and when they do, the hatchlings have to make an arduous and perilous journey to the sea. Even if the hatchlings do make it to the sea, the odds are heavily stacked against them. It is estimated that only one in one thousand hatchlings will ever make it to adulthood. Therefore, EVERY egg counts.

To address the states' reluctance to act, conservationists have called for turtles to be fully regulated by the federal government. The call has merit. Federal legislation has advantages that would benefit turtle conservation immensely. Laws can be streamlined and thereby achieve uniformity, environmental treaty obligations and national action plans can easily be implemented and resources can be pooled to achieve better conservation goals collectively. But federal laws can only be developed by invoking certain provisions of the Federal Constitution.

If states can recognise such benefits, then my hope is that the states take the easiest pathway towards achieving federal law on turtles, by means of Article 76 1 (c) of the Federal Constitution. Under this provision, even if a matter comes under the state, federal government may make laws in respect of that subject matter if "so requested" by the state legislative assembly of that state. Jurisdictional sensitivities between the states and the federal government really have to be set aside if this is to be a feasible proposition.

A friend suggested that I write about the haze. I did ponder the topic. In the end, I figured that I will surely see blue skies in the near future, but it's improbable that I would ever see a leatherback turtle on our shores in my lifetime. Hence.

Preetha is an advocate and solicitor. She has spent many years in the environmental conservation arena. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com