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On trail of returning turtles

Severianus Endi
Severianus Endi

The Jakarta Post

Sambas | Tue, January 9, 2018 | 08:56 am
On trail of returning turtles

Newborn: Newly hatched turtles have food reserves within their bodies that last for seven days before they are released into the sea. (JP/Severianus Endi)

The 63 kilometer beach at the northern tip of West Kalimantan has been witnessing the emergence of thousands of turtles of succeeding generations.

Three motorcyclist were traversing the beach under the dim moonlight, their headlights and head-lamps turned off.

“Turtles are sensitive to light, which is retained in their memories and may even cause blindness,” Andi Priansyah, one of the three men, said.

They were riding on the banks of the Belacan River that forms part of the beach in Sebubus village, Paloh district, Sambas regency, West Kalimantan. It takes about 12 hours to reach the area from the provincial capital, Pontianak, by land. 

“We’re lucky because turtles are coming ashore to lay eggs when it’s not even their peak season,” added Junaidi.

Around 2.5 km from the camp on the Belacan River, two green turtles (Chelonia mydas) came ashore that November evening. Another followed at dawn. The peak season is from April to August, when dozens of turtles lay eggs in just one night. Any sound, vibration, crowding and light have the potential to disturb and even thwart the egg-laying routine of the animals.

“Be patient. Don’t take pictures, wait until they laid their eggs,” said Herman, 43, who is popularly known as Pak Itam.

Departure: Tourists accompany a female turtle leaving her nests after laying eggs to return to the sea. Torchlight is only allowed to be directed on their back or sides, as shining torchlight on their eyes could cause blindness because of their high sensitivity to light. Departure: Tourists accompany a female turtle leaving her nests after laying eggs to return to the sea. Torchlight is only allowed to be directed on their back or sides, as shining torchlight on their eyes could cause blindness because of their high sensitivity to light. (JP/Severianus Endi)

The practice of digging up turtle eggs died out when locals started conserving them. Andi, Junaidi and Pak Itam used to be a turtle egg hunter before 2011, when no serious attempts were made to protect the reptiles. They have now become patrol officers on part of the 63 km beach, the longest turtle egg-laying haven in Indonesia.  

In 2011, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Indonesia set up a turtle monitoring station close to the Belacan River.

The arrival of turtles is marked by their footprints in the sand around 90 centimeters apart, the width of their carapaces or shells, forming a track from the edge of the beach to a gentle slope. They stop in a warm place to dig 70-centimeter deep holes to their eggs by using their webbed feet. A female turtle lays 80 to 100 eggs, which are then covered with sand. It takes two hours to complete the whole process.

“Let’s accompany them back to the sea. Don’t take pictures frontally facing their eyes,” said Albertus Tjiu, the manager of WWF Indonesia’s West Kalimantan Program. He was with four junior high school students from Pontianak, who were eagerly watching the reptiles laying eggs. After taking photos and stroking the turtles, they followed the slow-moving animals back to the sea.

“Goodbye, see you again,” said Albert as a female turtle, aged about 50, reached the sea and disappeared amid rolling waves.

The turtle will return five times to the same place over two weeks to lay more eggs. Andi, Pak Itam and Junaidi recorded coordinates of the place, measured the tracks and carapace size, photographed and dug up the nests to relocate the eggs to prevent theft or seawater inundation.

Gently does it: Turtle eggs are dug out of a nest and moved to a relocation site to prevent theft or seawater carrying the eggs away.Gently does it: Turtle eggs are dug out of a nest and moved to a relocation site to prevent theft or seawater carrying the eggs away. (JP/Severianus Endi)

At the relocation site they prepared semi-natural nests marked with a bamboo pole bearing the date, number of eggs and names of officers. These eggs will hatch within 52 days to produce cute young turtles that will be crawling over the sand protected by wooden fences and net roofing. Baby turtles called tukik have food reserves for seven days in their bodies, during which time they are moved into a tub filled with water pending their release into the sea.

Pak Itam and his peers have built channels by using planks to connect the side of fences with the beach as exits for young turtles to reach the sea on their own in an effort to create a natural release. However, they face various predators such as crabs, fish and birds of prey, even fishermen’s nets and waste. Survivors will return to the beach after 30 years to lay eggs, guided by their memory data sensors.

Hendro Susanto, the Paloh site coordinator of WWF Indonesia’s West Kalimantan Program, said turtles have a long life cycle and low body resistance. Only one out of 1,000 baby turtles will grow to maturity. With the threat of egg hunting, turtle rejuvenation is very slow.  

Into the wild: Channels are created to connect the relocation site with the edge of the beach as a natural pathway for the young turtles.Into the wild: Channels are created to connect the relocation site with the edge of the beach as a natural pathway for the young turtles. (JP/Severianus Endi)

Natural selection has left seven of 30 turtle species alive. Four are found on Paloh Beach, namely green turtles, sisik or hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), lekang or olive Ripley (Lepidochelys olivacea) and belimbing or leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea).

The aphrodisiac myth made the eggs a prized commodity on the black market in the area around seven years ago. Sometimes egg looters were sadistic. Too impatient to wait until turtles finished laying eggs and for fear of being caught by patrol officers, they would dissect the animals and strip the bodies of their eggs. In September 2017, two dead turtles were found on the beach.

After 2010, locals joined a supervisory community group called Kambau Borneo, which has 22 members including former hunters, to help conserve the turtles. Last year, the group recorded 1,639 turtle nests, 15 percent of which were lost.

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