It was the first day of our Wildlife Conservation Project adventure! I was super excited. The 11 of us travelled from Batu Caves to Kemaman, Terengganu to visit the first NGO on our list - Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia (TCS.) Located in a quaint village, Kampung Pasir Gajah on the very edge of Terengganu, TCS is the first non-profit that focuses on the protection and conservation of freshwater turtles in Malaysia.
Upon our arrival, Kak Aliah, the Education & Community Outreach Officer of TCS, and her two interns, Nadjihah and Atiqah greeted us. We even (briefly!) met Dr Chen Pelf Nyok, marine biologist and co-founder of TCS Malaysia (mini fangirl moment.) Kak Aliah took us into their turtle exhibition centre to give us an educational talk about turtles and the work TCS does - especially regarding their Kemaman River Terrapin Conservation Project. We learned extremely interesting facts, such as the different species of sea turtles and terrapins. The fact I found most intriguing during the session was when Kak Aliah shared with us the challenges TCS faces with the conservation of river terrapins in Kemaman itself. She explained how there is a deep rooted culture of eating terrapin eggs amongst the locals.
They treat the collection of terrapin eggs as a thrilling “game,” as the eggs are rare. Terrapin mothers only lay about 25-35 eggs at one time, and the nesting period of terrapins are brief - about 3 months. This makes the “game” of collecting and eating the eggs more exciting and challenging for the locals. I realised that conserving a species takes so much more than just an organisation, it takes an entire community to shift its mindset and adopt new habits.
After the educational talk, we got to visit the terrapin hatchery, clean the terrapin head-starting pond and scrub some terrapin shells as well. We each adopted a terrapin and received the cutest certificates of adoption. Then, we headed over to the river bank with our terrapins to release them. This was the highlight of the day as we “raced” our terrapins to see which one would make it to the river first. Mine won yay! It was also heartwarming to see our terrapins in their natural habitat, and we hoped that they would thrive well there.
That concluded our day at TCS. We went back to the homestay that Aliah organised for us. After having dinner (nasi dagang!) at a nearby shop, we settled in for our first reflection. During these sessions we learned what went well that day and what could’ve been done better. Then, tired after a long day, we retired for the night.
On the 2nd day of WCP, we started the day with a visit to Cherating beach. It was one of the prettiest beaches I’ve ever seen, with clear waters. After enjoying the scenery for a bit, we noticed something less pleasant - garbage littered on the beach left by irresponsible tourists. So, our team of volunteers conducted a quick beach cleanup. Then, our project director, Bella advised us to categorise the garbage we had collected. After doing so, we realised a lot of the garbage were single use plastics.
After that, Aliah and her interns brought us to the nearby Cherating Turtle Sanctuary. In the sanctuary, they had a Turtle Museum with plenty of useful information about sea turtles and freshwater turtles. We learned even more thanks to the guided tour given by one of Aliah’s interns - Atiqah. On a less happy note, we also saw some green sea turtles at this sanctuary.
Initially, we were very excited to see these beautiful creatures up close. But then we realised that they seemed stressed by the conditions they were kept in - small tanks with several turtles in one tank. This form of captivity completely goes against their nature - to live in solitary in the open ocean and swim great distances every day.
After the Cherating Turtle Sanctuary, we headed over to Rimbun Dahan Turtle Hatchery. Here, we witnessed the devastating impact of the recent beach erosion on the shores of Rimbun Dahan that severely impacted the number of turtles who nest on their shores. Abang Alang explained to us a little about the work that Rimbun Dahan does to conserve sea turtles in the area. All the funds they raise from donations are spent on purchasing turtle eggs from poachers, and then incubated in their hatchery. I was so inspired by Abang Alang and Kak Along who are continuing their father’s Pak Su’s work in conserving turtles. We volunteered by painting turtle murals to brighten the area. I’m a fairly unartistic person, but I had so much fun in these 2 hours of drawing and painting. After mural painting, we were surprised with baby turtles! After explaining a little on the anatomy of a baby turtle, Kak Along allowed us to release some baby turtles that evening - an experience I will never forget.
As if the day wasn’t amazing enough, we headed over to the Cherating Firefly Sanctuary. There, we went on a fireflies tour through the mangrove swamp with Mr Hafiz, an expert on fireflies and their communication patterns. Surrounded by fireflies under a sky full of stars, it was truly a magical experience.
After our visit to the firefly sanctuary, we were very interested to learn more about mangrove swamps, their inhabitants, and of course their importance. We headed over to ECOCARE in Kerteh, Terengganu. ECOCARE is a nature resort surrounded by a lush mangrove swamp. Upon our arrival, we were blown away by how beautiful and peaceful the area was. We were given a tour of the mangrove exhibition centre by ECOCARE’s knowledgeable and friendly interns. During this session we learned about the different species of mangrove trees and the wildlife that can be found in the swamp. We also learned during the educational talk that followed about the exciting activities we would be doing later in the day.
After the briefing, we started our first activity - making mudballs! Mudballs are a combination of top soil, brown sugar, and a microorganism mix that will help clean the river naturally and promote the growth of healthy microorganisms that are essential for a well functioning river ecosystem. We mixed the ingredients together as a group and formed them into 250g balls. The mudballs have to rest for a period of time before they can be thrown into the river. ECOCARE had prepared several mudballs for us beforehand, so we had great fun throwing them as far as we could into the river.
One of the ECOCARE staff was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to take us on a tour of the mangrove swamp. We put on our rubber boots and set off. I loved “hiking” in the mangrove swamp because it was a totally different experience to hiking in a forest. We were surrounded by swamp water, and the mangrove tree roots towered above the ground. We met tiny critters like a mudskipper and little crabs that made our adventure even more exciting. It was so much fun to experience. Later in the day, we even got to plant our own mangrove seedling and sapling! We learned how to properly fill a poly bag with the right amount of mud for our seedling, and how to dig a hole using a straight hoe for our sapling. I found it incredible how these trees were able to thrive in such unfavourable conditions - salty water and muddy soil. Our time at ECOCARE really enlightened us on the importance of mangrove swamps to our environment as a barrier to natural disasters, and a key ecosystem for thousands of species of flora and fauna that depend on the mangroves.
After ECOCARE, we drove down to our new homestay in Kuala Terengganu, where more adventures awaited!
We woke up very early on Day 4 of our WCP project. This is because we were headed to a very exciting location - Chagar Hutang Island at Pulau Redang! This is the site for SEATRU : Sea Turtle Research Unit. We met Syam, the research coordinator of SEATRU, and Bella’s good friend from university. Syam was one of the friendliest, warm-hearted people I’ve ever met. Her knowledge on sea turtles is so vast, and our group of volunteers were able to clarify all our queries on sea turtles with her. A word on Chagar Hutang. Without a doubt, the island was the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life. The beach is not large, about 300 meters in length. But the waters were so clear and so blue, I was blown away.
The entire stretch of beach was covered with sticks sticking out of the ground. These were markers of turtle nests. All the nests at Chagar Hutang were natural turtle nests - meaning they were dug by mother turtles that came to lay their eggs. I was shocked to hear that over 30 mother turtles would come to the beach every day during nesting season to lay their eggs there!
At Chagar Hutang, we got to excavate some turtle nests. My group dug 2 nests, one with baby turtles that had hatched but had not crawled their way to the surface yet, and one with unhatched turtle eggs in it. I held a turtle egg for the first time that day. It was hard work excavating each nest, as they were over a meter deep. Of course, the experienced interns demonstrated how to efficiently dig a turtle nest before we had a go at it. Our project director, Bella excavated a nest that had been attacked by a fungus from the tree roots that grew alongside the nest, causing all the eggs to be rotten. We also got to see baby turtles again! At SEATRU, these hatchlings are not placed in water like at Rimbun Dahan. The SEATRU intern explained that it was to conserve the energy stored in the yolk sac, which was important so they had enough energy to swim to the open sea that had less predators once they were released. Experiencing all this and hearing the explanations from Syam, Bella, as well as the interns at SEATRU was truly eye opening.
I left Chagar Hutang feeling so grateful and blessed that I had an opportunity to visit that island, as only volunteers and individuals with permission could travel there.
After taking the boat back to Kuala Terengganu, our trip activities had come to an end. My fellow volunteers and I spent the rest of the day touring Kuala Terengganu and taking pictures as memories of our trip.