The river terrapins release is an annual programme organised by Turtle Conservation Society (TCS). I have been wanting to join but couldn’t make it for the past few years due to work. I adopted a river terrapin once and named it Lucky. Although I didn’t release the terrapin, TCS sent me a photo of the terrapin I adopted.
I was really excited that I could make it this year with my family. I was quite surprised that they were interested to go. The terrapins had been headstarted. The ones we released hatched last year. There is always a lot of controversial when it comes to raising, releasing and taking photos with turtle hatchlings, be it sea turtles or river terrapins. What I learned throughout these years is everything in conservation has to be considered within its context. It is easy to misinterpret a situation from a photo or hearing it from someone else. A conservationist who puts the best interest of the animals in heart would strive to do the best for the animals.
Firstly, I remember wondering why is it okay to headstart, or in layman term, raise river terrapins as my experience with sea turtles told me otherwise. It is best that sea turtle hatchlings make it to the ocean upon emergence from their nest even though they are very vulnerable to predators. Imprinting is a process considered crucial in their life cycle, for them to return one day to their natal home again. After knowing the situation of the river terrapins at Kemaman, I understand the need for TCS to raise the hatchlings. Pelf shared that the population of the river terrapins are decreasing over the years despite conservation efforts. They are threatened mainly due to loss of nesting beaches along the river banks as well as egg consumption. A female sea turtles produce more nests with an average of 120 eggs per nest within a nesting season. Meanwhile, river terrapins lay eggs every year but only one nest with a maximum of 45 eggs. The latter requires 3 months to hatch whereas green turtle eggs take about 55 days or less to hatch. Besides that, unlike sea turtles, river terrapins do not migrate far. Their habitat range is within the same river. They can only migrate to another river if two different rivers connect, for example, from flooding. For those reasons, the river terrapin hatchlings are raised to increase their survival rate against predation.
Secondly, how do we justify manhandling hatchlings for selfies and wefies during hatchling release activities? The river terrapins are being raised so they have been manhandled since they emerged. They live in a human-made pool and are being fed every day until they are released into the natural habitat. This does not entirely justify posing turtles around for photos but is acceptable. On the other hand, in a natural setting, the hatchlings would crawl straight into the sea after they emerge from the sand. One of the compromises for hatchling release programme is to put them all in a bucket before releasing, which would cause a delay of these hatchlings starting their life journey in the ocean. The delay is longer when every human picks up a hatchling and starts posing and taking photos with the hatchling. By not releasing the hatchlings immediately after emergence, the hatchlings would end up using their energy moving around in the bucket when the energy could be used to crawl down the beach and swim out the bay. This is the reason why some hatchlings appear exhausted and not moving actively towards the ocean. This is when people like to gently tap or push the turtle from the back to make it move forward. Come on, give the little fella some time. When someone is giving birth to a baby, it is one thing to say “push” and another thing to tap on her buttocks so that she would push the baby out. I personally don’t think it is necessary for everyone to pick a hatchling up for release, I am okay just watching them being released. However, it might not be the same for others. Watching a release and releasing one is a different feeling. It can get very emotional releasing a baby turtle. I have seen joy, sadness, excitement, etc.
During this release, the river terrapins were put in a big black bucket and transported to Kemaman River. I was debating if I should just watch the release or pick one up and release it into the river. I got the green light from one of the organiser that it is okay to take one and release. So our family took one and released. The terrapin retracted its head inside when we picked it up. It only came out after we put it down on the ground. It took some time for the terrapin to go into the river, and thus allowing us plenty of time to take photos. It is really quite sad to know that their numbers are declining. There are only two known rivers that have river terrapins, Setiu and Kemaman Rivers. They are even more endangered than sea turtles. Let’s hope that conservation efforts and outreach activities can increase their survival by reducing the threats that they face.