Plastic-Free Pledge

When I was working at the Perhentian Islands, seeing how much waste humans had produced every day, and how much trash we had collected from beach cleanups, I had begun a mini recycling project (read this if you are interested to know how it all began). Instead of just removing marine debris and transferring them to landfills, I thought there could be better ways for us to recycle or reuse some of the things we had picked up. Some of the things that we recycled had required more research like recycling used cooking oil into candles, while some others like sea-glass accessories and magazine-made earrings were easier to make.

Now that I live in a town, blessed that the local municipal council keep most of the housing areas spotless. With regular cleanups by the local government, it does feel like we are living in a clean environment. It is not until I go to the beach or river banks that I see unsightly rubbish being washed ashore. No matter how regular the cleanups are, there are always constant supply of trash from the sea, although they definitely came from land. Not only that, it is really a challenge to recycle most things that we throw away.

I have been looking for places that accept recyclable items, but honestly recycling is not made easy or convenient in a town like Kuala Terengganu. In fact, Vincent Chung, the founder of Sampah Menyampah, shared that “there are seven types of plastic, but it’s only practical to recycle three types in Malaysia”, meaning only “plastic under the categories of one, two and five are 99% recyclable” here (click here to read more).

In a country where an effective and functioning recycling system is not in place, most of us simply have no clue how to appropriately discard unwanted things. During spring cleaning before Chinese New Year every year, I would stare at the stuff I put aside, scratching my head figuring out ways to donate or give away clothes, bags, belts, shoes, books, etc. Sometimes I give them to friends who are in need of these things, but I throw most things away. They are either junk in my home or waste in landfills, and neither is better.

So, to produce less waste means reusing whatever we have and not buying more things. I stumbled across this webpage showing 100 Steps to a Plastic-Free Life, and I thought wow, there are actually so much more I could/need to change in my lifestyle if I want a plastic-free life. A lot of them are pretty much going back time, living like how our parents had lived just a few decades ago like packed lunch in a 4-tier stainless steel food container, nasi lemak wrapped in leaves and newspapers, freshly-baked bread packed in paper bags, heavy metal iron, etc.

Nowadays, it is not easy to entirely avoid plastic when buying products. For example, I still have to buy Milo in plastic wrapper (but not the 3-in-1 that comes with more wrappers) until I can find a shop that allows me to bring my own container for Milo refill. Nonetheless, I decided to be more conscious of plastic use, especially single-use plastics.

Always carry my own water bottle

I almost always carry a water bottle with me when I leave the house. It is not like I drink a lot, rather it is the fear of not having any water to drink when I am thirsty. A water bottle is a must on travel. I always look out for water cooler to refill my water bottle, and by doing so I can avoid buying bottled water. Reduce plastic water and save money.

 Use stainless-steel or no straws at all

I bought a few stainless-steel straws, and have always carried one in my backpack. But then when I change to another bag, I often forget to take the straw along. Sometimes I remember but sometimes I forgot to tell the waiter/waitress that I don’t want/need a straw. When I think ordering hot drinks could be an alternative to no straw, but it is not always the case because there are places that serve hot water/herbal tea with a straw. Good thing that I rarely eat or drink out, but I do need to consciously remind myself not to use single-use plastic straws when I am out for a drink. I hope it will eventually become a habit.

Bring a bag while shopping

I still remember when I lived in Switzerland, my host mother would constantly remind me to bring along a grocery bag until it became a habit. Neither I or anyone in my family has this habit. Therefore, I like how Giant in Kuala Terengganu charges 20 cent for a plastic every Saturday. Upon paying at the cashier, one of us would noticed “oh, it’s Saturday and we forget to bring a grocery bag”. Since we didn’t want to pay for the plastic bags, we would push the cart to the car and load every item into the car booth one by one. If I am on my own, I would stuff everything into my bag, but grocery load on family shopping trips is always more than what my bag can contain. So, in order to remember grocery bags, I would put some in the car. That way, it is less likely to forget them.

My essentials for reducing plastic use – a water bottle, a stainless-steel straw, and a bag

The advancement of technology improves humans lives, but it doesn’t always improves the state of our environment. Plastic is perhaps the best invention for mankind, but it brings the worse consequences to mother Earth. I am still far from living a plastic-free life, but I will do my best to reduce plastic use and waste.

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First Published Paper: Things I Learned

When the editors accepted the manuscript in March for publication, I was already over the moon. And seeing the paper being published in August, I was flooded with euphoria. I remember vividly the whole process, from deciding to start writing until it was finally published. Writing, for me, will always be a learning process. Writing the next paper wouldn’t be much easier just because I had done it before. However, there are things I had learned from this experience.

1. Just start writing as the first few drafts will not be perfect.

It all began in December 2015 when I made up my mind to write a paper and hopefully, to get it published eventually. However, I did not have experience in writing/publishing a paper so I wasn’t quite sure what I should do, or where I should even begin. All I know is there were photographs of sea turtles collected by our team and citizen scientists, allowing us to study the sea turtle populations at Perhentian Islands. Nonetheless, I started writing but got confused many times of how the outline of the paper should be. The idea was to share about the sea turtle populations, but in addition to that, a big portion of the paper would also cover photo identification and citizen science. There was so much to share about the methods, not just the findings, and it seemed difficult to put everything in a paper. Still, surprisingly the first draft was completed in about 3 weeks. During that period, a lot of time was spent analysing the data and reading papers on photo identification. Looking at the first draft now, it was terrible!

2. Find people to collaborate from the beginning of the research, not during the writing stage.

Not knowing what I should do next, I thought of collaborating with other researchers in writing the paper. I approached one researcher, explaining about our data and seeking for his advice on how to write a paper, and ended up telling him I would email him the first draft. I also emailed it to a lecturer to get some feedback. They never wrote back, and I was too shy to ask again after. At the same time, I also emailed it to a few friends, and thank God, some of them took the time and gave me really constructive feedback of what was lacking. By that time, three months had passed since December.

3. Decide on the most appropriate journal before writing

I did not have a target journal in mind when the first and second drafts were written. However, to find the most appropriate journal, I listed all the journals according to the papers I had read on photo identification and sea turtle population studies. Not all journals were suitable due to the aims and scope of the journal. Some required paying a publication fee, which was more than what I could afford. It was also important to consider the target audience. When I finally found one, I realised I had to rewrite after reading the guidelines for authors. All the sentences had to be rewritten in first person, not third person. There were also changes to made to the format of the draft. That really took time, as it was not easy to change from third-person to first-person writing. Therefore, one thing that I would do if I write a paper again is to first decide on the journal I target to submit.

4. Don’t work on the manuscript forever, just submit it to the journal, together with a cover letter.

Another two months had passed when the manuscript (the fifth draft) was finally submitted to the journal in May 2016. It would be pointless to sit any longer on it as I did not know what else more to write or improve on after incorporating all the feedback I could get. The best thing about submitting a manuscript is taking the mind off it until the editors reply.

5. Revision means room for improvement.

One month later, the editors replied, and the manuscript was not accepted. The editors also provided very constructive and insightful feedback to revise and resubmit. It was actually good news as I wouldn’t have learned so much on revising the manuscript without all the comments! I got excited, knowing what to add/edit. All in all, another 3 months went by.

6. Only resubmit if all the comments (for major or minor revisions) have been addressed.

It was September when the manuscript was resubmitted. This time around, the manuscript was sent to two annonymous reviewers. Less than two months later, the manuscript was accepted with major revisions. The reviewers and editors also provided detailed comments, which added up to almost 150 comments. I started working on the manuscript by addressing every comment and realised that (OMG!) it was indeed a MAJOR revision which seemed all too overwhelming at that time. I started off with minor edits as the major edits required looking for and reading up more papers or study site information, as well as analysing the data again. Some figures, like the maps, also took time, especially to include all the sighting numbers for each location on a map. I remembered working on it for almost two months, and finally sending it off before Christmas holidays in December.

7. Revise, revise, revise until it is accepted.

After two more minor revisions, the manuscript was finally accepted in March 2017, which was then sent for copy editing (by another editor). Due to the number of papers in queue for publication, it was scheduled to be published in August. In July, a few edits were made upon the request of the copy editor, followed by proofreading of the gallery proof in August before the manuscript would be published.

8. Yay!! Published!

The journey is finally completed. It is indeed very true that to publish paper takes months, or even more than a year. So from the day when writing  began until it was published, that would be 20 months (1.67 years)! Long but a very important learning experience.

So, if you are interested to read the paper on sea turtle populations at Perhentian Islands using photographic identification and citizen science, click here!

I am grateful to Daniel Quilter, Neil Hinds, Sabina Gramaglia-Hinds, Thomas Horsell, William Forster, Thomas Brown, Yun, Nicholas Tolen, Petros Persad, Azri, Charlotte Babbs, Terissa Ng, Csaba Szilvási, Kevin Heitzman and Department of Fisheries rangers. This wouldn’t happen without you all! Thank you!

Turtle Art

Sometimes I wish I could squeeze out time to indulge in anything that requires creativity, not that I have much of it but it is my wish to do so. For some reason and by chance, I had the opportunity to do some turtle art in August, and by some, I mean more than what I had planned or intended for.

While volunteering for SEATRU at a hatchling release programme at Laguna Redang Resort, we sold merchandise which included turtle figurines. There was also a space for people, mostly kids, to paint the turtle figurines. It was a 3-day programme where we spent most of our time (10am – 6pm in rotation) at the booth, registering tourists who wanted to donate and participate in the hatchling release activity, selling merchandise (i.e., button badges, keychains, postcards, mugs, books, turtle figurines, t-shirts, etc), talking about sea turtles and painting turtle figurines. Since there was ample time to spare, I started painting a leatherback turtle figurine and ended up painting another bigger leatherback plus a green turtle figurine. I thought I would know how to paint leatherback and green turtles after learning so much about them. Yet, I had to google to get a more vivid picture to paint them. Initially, the intention was to paint them for display but I ended up buying two of them while Meena bought one.

Throughout my stay at Redang Island, I had been watching Meena doing watercolour painting every other day. I really love her painting and what amazed me was how fast she could finish one! There would be times where we would be sitting outside by a cliff or on the beach, watching over the ocean, and she would start painting while I would either read a book or just chill. The next thing I knew her painting was done. Watching her paint made me want to give it a try. It wasn’t as if I had never tried it before but I just couldn’t remember when did I last do it. During our last few days, I finally put off procrastination and started looking for something to paint in her book. I scrolled through all the photos we took at Redang to draw something on her book. I decided to draw a male turtle we frequently sighted when snorkelling at Teluk Dalam. I tried to sketch the facial scales as exactly as they were because these are the most important features in order to recognize any individual turtles. Watercolour painting isn’t something I’m good at but I did my best. Thank God, it looked like a turtle.

After my one-month fieldtrip at Redang Island, I was back in Kuala Terengganu, just in time to join the Peranakan Festival. I got a message from Pelf looking for volunteers to help out their booth at the festival. I wasn’t sure if I could come volunteer every night but I decided to put aside one night on the weekend to volunteer. Little did I expect to be doing anything creative but we had doodling session at the booth. I started on the big mirror where anyone could try doodle on it. After doing it for a while, I gotta say it is addictive. In a positive note, it was like doing meditation as all the focus was on doodling. It was fun doing it, also fun watching people doing it. I ended up doodling on one turtle-shaped mirror, which I also ended up buying as it could be a gift one day.

I realised I actually enjoy this but I could barely get myself to do it on my own if it wasn’t for an awareness programme or festival. So as much as I like it, I doubt I would do this very often but I always feel that I should. Let’s see what I will do next, when I can.

All in a Day’s Work

I thought it would be a leisure and relaxing day to go to Long Beach today. Lala was getting a boat back to mainland while Meena was supposed to meet her supervisor. Meena only found out later that her supervisor got the dates wrong and he would only arrive the next day. Thank God, Lala’s departure was smooth. Our plan was to snorkel after Lala left. Least did we expect a boatman informing us about a dead turtle. He saw us arriving on SEATRU’s boat. They had brought the turtle back. When he showed us, it was a hawksbill, still in the juvenile stage. So we brought the turtle to Laguna’s dive center. However, they did not have facility and tools to perform a necropsy, not even a measurement tape to take measurements!

We waited until the tourists left the dive center. Then we started checking on the turtle. There was no external injuries but blood was dripping out from its mouth. I tried to open the mouth but couldn’t. We measured the turtle using a rope and marked it using a masking tape. Before we left, we kept the hawksbill in a black plastic bag so that we could pass it to Mann from SEATRU. We went snorkelling after since we still have about one and a half hour to two hours to spare.

When we first entered the water, visibility was bad. As we swam further out, the visibility got better. We saw at least 4 baby sharks swimming around. So beautiful! We snorkelled at the other side after that, which had more boulder corals. We swam out until we found the underwater postbox. To the right, there was a big group of fusiliers. There were just so many of them!!

We left at about 2pm. We slowly walked back to Laguna Jetty. On the way we took many photos. While waiting for Mann, Asma tried to get in touch with Marine Park officer regarding picking up the dead turtle. Since we didn’t hear back from them, we left when Mann came. On our way to Tarras Jetty, Asma called and said Marine Park officer was going to pick the turtle up. After speaking to them again, it was decided to hand it over to SEATRU. They would do external examination and take measurements, but not performing a necropsy.

We were dropped off at Tarras Jetty. On our way walking back, Asmadi’s boy drove past and gave us a lift back. We went for a birthday party after shower. Giulia and Jurita came later. About the same time we started speaking to the father of the family, who is looking after the hatchery under Marine Park. By the end of the day, it felt like so much had happened in one day.

No matter what, snorkel is a must!

Together we can protect the (turtle) eggs

5th June 2017, World Environment Day

I was chatting with a friend over dinner while waiting for the heavy downpour to subside so that we both could get to our car and leave. We quickly ran towards our car when the rain began to ease off. Just as I started the car engine, a phone call came in and I saw “B” on the caller ID. B is from Lang Tengah Turtle Watch and his call caught me by surprise as I didn’t think he would call me, at least not at this hour. Then he broke the news of a turtle landing at Long Beach but he could not reach the Perhentian Turtle Project’s manager. Instead he rang me up. I always think it is a small circle of people working in conservation. It is just a matter of time that one will eventually know everyone in this field. Anyway, the next thing to do was to call someone from the project so that they could inform the rangers to collect the eggs.

Since the manager was out of reach, luckily I had R’s number saved on my phone so I rang her. “Hi R, how are you?”, and she replied “Hi Seh Ling, are you okay?” I burst into laughter. Thing is R and I don’t talk on the phone. We don’t call each other. We rarely even send Whatsapp messages. Still, her response cracked me up. But yes, the turtle! No time for catching up. I relayed the message to R after realising that the manager was not available as she was praying in the mosque. R said they would do something about it.

All this while, it has been rather difficult to save any nests at Long Beach. Most of the time, we received reports of turtle landing and often not in time to get there before the eggs were taken by someone else. Turtle eggs are sought after delicacy, as well as a source of income to some. Other than protected beaches, turtle eggs on other beaches really depends on who gets there first. The eggs are protected if the rangers get there first. However, that is not always the case.

Meanwhile, B continued texting, providing updates of the situation at Long Beach.

“From how L described it she is body pitting. She is under Oh La La Bar.”

“L is still with the turtle, so is there someone I should put her in contact with?”

“She is laying now.”

I just kept forwarding his messages to R. I was relieved when R managed to get in touch with one of the rangers, and they both were going to go over to Long Beach. Then I informed B that R was going and gave him her number. It was funny that B and I were not at Long Beach but the texting continued as we couldn’t reach R after she texted me that they were going to Long Beach.

“I have told L to expect R and apparently there is a group protecting the nest.”

“How far away is R?”

“Looks like R is there now though.”

Meanwhile, I managed to get hold of the manager, who had also received the news from Turtle Bay Diver. It wasn’t until more than an hour or more later that R replied saying that they managed to get the eggs. There was even a second turtle that came ashore when R was there but it did not nest.

We really appreciate and are always thankful to the staff and tourists from resorts and dive centers calling us to inform on turtle landing, as well as “sheltering” the turtle from the crowd. It is through such collective efforts that we can protect the species. Despite not working at Perhentian anymore, it was really good to be able still help to save the turtle eggs yesterday.

Do we really want to volunteer?

thank-you-volunteers

I have met volunteers from all walks of life while managing volunteer-based community and conservation projects for the past few years. Everyone has something to offer, bringing different invaluable skills and experiences, providing manpower, coming up with suggestions and recommendations to solve problems, etc. It is about having a wonderful volunteering experiences, not just to share and contribute but also to gain insights and experiences working with the community in conservation.

Putting fun aside, there were also times when having volunteers is challenging. I often asked volunteers the reason(s) they volunteer. Volunteers who did their research about the projects before signing up had a better idea of what they would be doing at the project. But, there were also those who came because they or their parents thought volunteering would look good on their CVs, they just wanted to volunteer but were not keen on doing much, they had some time while travelling and did not know what to do or where else to go, they wanted to help turtles but did not know it involves patrolling on the beach at night, etc. Then I wonder, why would they sign up to something without knowing what they were signing up for?

I am writing this as I think that there are a few things people who plan or want to volunteer should know before signing up for it. This is so that projects and volunteers can meet each other’s expectations.

First of all, ask ourselves why do we want to volunteer and what do we want to gain?

This is important because it helps us to know what to look for while searching for projects and decide whether or not a project is suitable. For example, if we dislike children, we should not volunteer for a project that requires us to spend time every day with children. Not only will we struggle to work with children, the children also sense it that we don’t like hanging out with them. The reason we want to volunteer will be our motivation that decides how much (more) we want to be involved while volunteering. If we are there just to pass time, that is what we will do. However, if we want to learn about something, we will make sure we utilise our time there to gain those skills.

How much budget do we have? How long can we volunteer?

Look for projects that are within our budget. Anything less than one week is probably not sufficient to learn or contribute much, especially when it involves work that needs specific skills. Most work that the projects carry out require a certain level of skills and experiences, which can be acquired through training (with time). Unless we have the skills and experiences, we need to allow us some time to go through the training and practice. For example, it is overly ambitious to think that we could get certified as an open water diver and do dive surveys in one week period, even if the project tells you otherwise. Some people are natural divers but some become one with experience, plus it requires training to do surveys for research. Understanding this means we are able to tell if we have the skills and experiences to volunteer for a certain project, or we probably need to pick up the necessary skills first and if not, stay longer.

How much time are we willing to spend on volunteering every day?

Not many people put much thought about it. At most projects, it is a full working day every day. However, if we have in mind, from the beginning, that we only want to volunteer half a day and have the rest of the day free to explore the area, then look for a project that gives us the flexibility to do so. Some projects have more rigid schedule that requires volunteers to follow through a fixed itinerary. Find out as early as possible whether or not certain arrangement can be made.

Once we know what we want, do the homework!! There is no shortcut to have a good volunteering experience. In most cases, volunteers do not have a pleasant experience because the project has not met up to their expectations. At the same time, projects also feel the pinch as they have to put up with unhappy volunteers. This could happen because volunteers do not receive full information about a project, finds out later that what is happening on ground is far from what it is on the brochure/website or they do not take the effort to find out more about the project. Be more cautious of anything that sounds too good to be true. If we are booking through agents, make sure we get the right information. I personally prefer to get in touch with the project I am interested to volunteer with, rather than booking through an agent. Look online, find out more about the project and read up reviews by past volunteers (if any). Project’s website only explains briefly what they do and agents probably tell us what we want to hear but it is from volunteers’ reviews that we know more about the day-to-day work and living conditions. Every volunteer has his/her standards so be smart in gauging the reviews.

Good projects tend to have certain requirements when looking for volunteers. Be honest. For instance, if we are not swimmers, don’t say that we can swim. This is because for projects that do snorkel surveys, instead of us helping them in the surveys, they have to constantly look out for us and make sure we don’t drown. Projects have risk assessments and safety measurements but it is also our responsibilities to inform them about our health conditions so that they can take appropriate measures when necessary. Not all projects have good or any medical facilities in proximity.

All of this is essential, if we are serious about volunteering. Take the initiative to get in touch with the project before arrival to find out if there is anything else we should know or prepare. Every project differs, some are organised and some not, which is why we should take the time to look for projects where we can share experiences and learn new skills. Lastly, having the right attitude is utmost important while volunteering. Volunteer because we want to help. Having say that, Happy Volunteering!!

Natuna Island – Beyond Expectation

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Natuna Island from the East – a view of Sepempang Village

Natuna Islands are not widely known, despite being situated between Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo in the South China Sea. The archipelago consists of 272 islands with the largest being Natuna Besar, an island that looks like a human head from the side. I had to find the location on Google Map when I first heard of it. My supervisor received news that someone from Natuna expressed interest in selling turtle eggs to Terengganu and it was to her interest to find out more about this. The concern was without the ban of commercial sale of turtle eggs in Terengganu, the state will eventually become a hub for illegal trade of sea turtle eggs. The aim of the visit to the island was to look for that person whom we knew by Halim, plus to explore and understand more about sea turtles and the communities.

Natuna

The location of Natuna Island

Getting there was quite a long journey. My travel began from Kuala Terengganu where I flew to Kuala Lumpur early in the morning. There I met my supervisor and her husband and we continued the journey taking a bus to Johor Bahru and a ferry to Batam. We stayed a night in Batam and the next morning flew to Ranai, the administrative centre of Natuna Islands. It was a small military-based airport. We waited for our luggage that was transported by a truck and it was funny seeing everyone walking after the truck. Our luggage was left at an empty space like a basketball court. It felt a bit uncomfortable not knowing how things work, like where to wait and when will the luggage arrive. My supervisor termed it as ‘chaotic organised’.

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The only airport at Natuna Island

We took a cab to look for accommodation. After showing us a few, we decided to stay at Wisma Star Inn, a three-storey building located right in the middle of Ranai town. The room is very basic but spacious. I found it strange that the toilet did not have a sink and a toilet cistern to flush the squatting toilet. However, I noticed that every toilet I used in locals’ houses do not have a sink and a toilet cistern. Therefore, bringing a toiletry bag with hook would be very useful.

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Wisma Star Inn at Ranai town

We started by visiting the market and saw hawksbill turtle eggs on sale. Compared to Terengganu, the eggs are much cheaper in Natuna. It was approximately RM0.80 and RM1.20 for one hawksbill and green turtle egg, respectively. In the search of Halim, we visited the village head who referred us to the Oceanography and Fisheries Department, who later referred us to a few locals. It looks like a fruitless search but we learned a lot about the communities in relation to sea turtles. There has been an effort initiated by the communities to set patrol a small island off the coast of Sepempang, namely Senoa Island. It was a pleasure to be able to join one of the locals patrolling the beach and listening to his stories. Lucky us, we found Halim on our third day. It turned out (thank God) that he did not want to sell turtle eggs to Terengganu but during his visit to Terengganu, he requested the authority here to provide him with satellite tracking to track the turtles at Natuna.

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A visit to the market and fishing port

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Some attractions at Ranai town (we missed Alif Stone Park)

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On a pompom to Senoa Island

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Senoa Island – such a beautiful island but not inhabited

We managed to visit Sedanau Island, off the West coast of Natuna Island, which is a fishing village that looks very organised and modern. We met a few people who shared a lot about their island and natural resources, etc and it was very interesting. A few actually owned fish farms where they raise mainly coral fishes or crustaceans. Indonesia has always been one of the main exporter of seafood, including Napoleon wrasse. I do not dive often and always only at Perhentian. Until today, I have not seen a Napoleon wrasse in the wild and the closest-to-the-wild encounter was in a fish farm. Some of the Napoleons were captured when they are offspring as small as our fingers and being raised in fish farms until they are at least 1 kg before they are sold to Hong Kong. It was heartbreaking to hear that juvenile and adult Napoleons were captured using potassium cyanide. There is a quota set to control the trade of Napoleon wrasse but there are more available in the market than the allowed amount.

Sedanau Island, off West coast of Natuna Island

Sedanau Island, off West coast of Natuna Island

In short, the trip was way beyond expectation. The lives of most people living off the coast are heavily depended on their natural resources. Fishing and agriculture are still their main sources of income. Tourism has started but not well developed yet. Many are also involved fish farming and trading industry, supplying any marine resources that are in demand abroad. Seaweed farming is also very common there and to my surprise, the drink made of seaweed actually tasted good! Unlike some animals like chicken that can be breed, most of the fishes cannot be bred and to supply for the increasing demand, they need to be caught in the wild. It is bizarre to learn that most of them feel that their natural resources won’t go extinct. I wonder how true it is for Napoleon wrasse when they fish the babies, the juveniles and also the adults, leaving them with a very slim chance to grow into adulthood and reproduce. I guess that is life and no matter where it is, there are always conflicts between human and wildlife.

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We ventured into an unknown island but left with new friendships and good memories!

36th ISTS in Peru

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For a turtle lover like me, it is a dream to attend the International Sea Turtle Symposium (ISTS), to meet like-minded people and learn from others. I first knew about it when I was a Research Assistant at Tortuguero, Costa Rica in 2011. Back then I applied to attend the one in 2012 but I accepted a job offer in Malaysia and it was beyond my monetary budget to fly from Malaysia. For the next few years, my work was mainly educational outreach activities involving local communities and tourists. Occasionally I had the opportunity to help with turtle night patrol. Slowly, the local staff started to ask me for help when needed and I helped out more. Last year, the Perhentian Turtle Project was set up to study and conserve the sea turtle population in the Perhentians through research and outreach activities. Thanks to many, the dream of setting up a turtle project and presenting at ISTS came true!

For the first time, the ISTS was held in South America and better still in Peru, where the famous Machu Picchu is! More of a reason to go and kill two birds with one stone. Nonetheless, it still took me a long time to source for fund and decide to go. After that, it was all about preparation and planning for the trip!

ISTS was more casual than I thought. The best part was seeing people who I have never seen for years! The first two days were workshops and I signed up for Photo ID Workshop. I was overwhelmed to meet people I only knew their names from reading their papers which had helped tremendously to start the photo ID research in the Perhentians, as well as the team from Wildbook and Hotspotter! Wildbook and Hotspotter will be working towards building a photo ID automated system integrated with online database for sea turtles, which is good news! On the second day, I presented an introduction of my PhD research on human-sea turtle interactions during the regional meeting, as well as volunteered for Shark Workshop.

Photo ID Workshop

Photo ID Workshop

The remaining days I was busy running between two halls to listen to oral presentations that were going on concurrently and looking through as many posters as I could. The silent auction had a variety of turtle-related stuff one can imagine – socks, shirts, usb drive, necklaces, stamps, bank notes, etc, plus the crazy live auction, which was so much fun!! Not forgetting the video night where the video from our project was played in Parque Reducto in Lima! I did not get a ticket for the gala night, hence only went after the dinner. Good memories of a mix of work and play at ISTS!

Clockwise: Brendan sharing what he has learned working with sea turtles; Oral presentation, Video night at Parque Reducto, Me presenting a poster.

Clockwise: Brendan sharing what he has learned working with sea turtles; Oral presentation; Video night at Parque Reducto; Me presenting a poster.

The silent and crazy live auctions!!

The silent and crazy live auctions!!

The last night of ISTS!

The last night of ISTS!

Wildlife Tourism – For Conservation or Profit?

Photos showing human-wildlife interactions such as riding elephants, holding sea turtles, kissing dolphins, watching animal performance that show up on social media always attract a lot of attention and critics if animal rights come into the picture. It is not right to harm wildlife for the sake’s of human satisfaction but to totally prevent such interactions are challenging. Nonetheless, we should try to minimise any negative impacts arising from these interactions.

As a kid, I had been to circus where animals performed and I remembered being happy! I was unaware of the ugly side of how these animals are being trained to perform. As I grew up, I started learn about it and movie like “Water for Elephants” just shows how bad the animals are being treated. Of course, the internet has also provided a platform where people can read about, for example the worst tourist attractions for wildlife that are detrimental to wildlife. For some human-wildlife interactions, the line between right or wrong is blurred. However, ignorant act that has adverse effects on animals like bringing a dolphin on land for photography, knowing that it would not survive long out of water, is something that could and should be avoided. As for many other cases, whether it is right or wrong is often debatable.

I once visited the Elephant Village near Kenyir Lake in Terengganu, Malaysia, when it was newly opened for visitors. It is supposed to be an area gazetted as an elephant sanctuary due to the loss of habitats to development and human-elephant conflicts in some rural villages where the crops were destroyed by the elephants, which result in the killing of elephants. I was surprised to find out that visitors can pay more for an elephant performance. I feel that the elephants should have the freedom to live as they want and not being trained to perform shows for humans. Then I found out that these elephants were placed in a sanctuary as they were no longer safe in the wild but being put in a sanctuary managed by humans meaning these two species will have to learn to live with each other. Elephants are wild but can be tamed, which is the job of the trainers. Towards the end of the visit by a stream, the staff requested the trainers to bring the elephants out for a shower so that the visitors can have a closer look at the elephants. I thought it was not necessary, if the elephants were not showering at that time, then be it, but many tourists came here to see elephants so I can understand why it was important for them to ensure that tourists actually see an elephant. Maintaining a sanctuary is costly and tourism can provide the revenue to support the running of the sanctuary. Although elephant performance could generate more fund, it would be a better place if the elephants did not have to perform like puppets in order to sustain themselves and the people working at the sanctuary. I met a few of the trainers with their elephants and after speaking to one of them, I realised although he was training an elephant, I could see that he actually cares for the elephant’s welfare. In fact, most people who work directly with the animals care for the animals and many enjoy the interactions with wildlife, but whether or not the animals also enjoy being trained and doing performance, I don’t know. Animals are probably like humans, they probably do not always want to perform when they are asked to, just as how humans sometimes feel lazy to work. Wildlife should just roam freely!

Try to take the time and effort to understand what is happening in sanctuaries that are established to protect wildlife. It is easy to assume it is not good to support tourist attractions involving wildlife but some need the revenue, usually from tourism, to conserve wildlife. Do avoid those that misuse or harm wildlife to make profit but for some, without the profit from tourism, the sanctuary may not sustainable. Sanctuaries can protect wildlife but getting wildlife to do certain tasks for entertainment was not necessary. While visiting wildlife sanctuaries, try not to ask for or give suggestions like wanting to see elephant making tricks, dolphin spinning a ball or orangutan solving puzzles, as there is a tendency to fulfill such needs to attract visitors and increase revenue. A sanctuary can raise awareness but it is not a circus!

With all the information available nowadays, people are aware of the negative consequences from tourism activities related to wildlife but it does not mean people buy it. I am not here to judge as everyone has different perceptions of what is right and what is not. When two or more species occupy the same space, it is essential to coexist despite the conflicts. Although wildlife usually avoid human contact, human-wildlife interactions are inevitable, especially in places where people pay to see wildlife. Wildlife tourism can be beneficial to species conservation if it is practised sustainably but not for human’s greed, otherwise animals will have to pay for a price to be saved from other threats that may kill them.

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Because Every Picture Has A Story to Tell

When I first read about sea turtle photo identification, I was really excited because it provides an opportunity to study more about the sea turtles at Perhentian Islands. There is a lack of research done on sea turtles here, hence a paucity of data about the population around these islands. Moreover, tagging has not been practised for more than a decade.

Photo identification is a reliable method of identifying every individual turtles. Each turtle has unique facial scale and spot patterns on both sides and these features are visible on photos. It is less invasive to sea turtles as no physical contact is needed. Moreover, tagging only studies the nesting females on the beach but photo identification enables the study of both juveniles, male and female adults at nesting beaches and feeding grounds in the sea. Even if a turtle loses its tags, it is still possible to identify the individual through its face. It also enables the understanding of sea turtle habitat use around the islands. More interestingly, the locals and tourists can participate in the study as many take sea turtle photos when they encounter one. Of course, this is all possible if the photos are clear and sighting data such as date, time and location the photos are accurate.

Out of curiosity, I started looking for sea turtle photos that I have and looked at the facial scale patterns of these turtles. True enough, it is actually possible to identify each and every one of them! Hence, the Perhentian Turtle Project was set up in hope to better understand the sea turtle population size here. As some turtles were seen more than once and for a few years, I realised photo identification is not merely about identifying individuals and knowing their movements. It also enables us to monitor their progress, more of like every photo taken of the same turtle at different times shows how the turtle is at a particular time.

For example, we saw P15F for the first time in May 2012. The next recorded sighting of P15F was in August 2014 and the photos showed a cracked shell, which looks like boat strike. However, lucky for the turtle, it survived and the injury healed. The scar is visible on photos taken in May 2015.

P15F, a female adult green turtle first seen feeding in 2012

P15F, a female adult green turtle first seen feeding in 2012

When P15F was sighted again, it had a cracked shell

When P15F was sighted again in 2014, it had a cracked shell

In 2015, P15F was seen with a scar on its shell that showed a healed injury from the hit by boat propeller

In 2015, P15F was seen with a scar on its shell that showed a healed injury from boat strike

Unfortunately, P5F, an adult female green turtle, suspected to be hit by boat, may not be that lucky. The first photo of P5F was taken in 2012. In 2013, it was seen having tags on both of her front flippers. After zooming in the photos, the tag numbers showed 5911 (left) and 5912 (right). They were tags from SEATRU (UMT Sea Turtle Research Unit). SEATRU confirmed that P5F was tagged in May 2013 and up to July that year, she laid 9 nests at Redang Islands. It was seen again in September 2013 at Perhentian Islands. It has been around since. It is one of the tame turtles that don’t mind having snorkellers watching it feed. Sadly, when it was seen on 8th September this year, it had a huge crack at its shell. She seemed to be feeding like normal, only God knows how it felt. The crack looked severe and I can only hope it survives the hit and continue to live and breed. It has not gone back to Redang Islands to nest since 2013. If it survives, it may still in the future lay more nests. Most feel for injured animals. In this case, P5F is not just an animal. As it is frequently seen, it feels like I know P5F, which is why the more heartbreaking it is to see this happening to it.

P5F was first spotted in 2012

P5F was first spotted in 2012

One year after, it was seen around Perhentian Islands with tags at its front flippers

One year later, it was seen around Perhentian Islands with tags at its front flippers

Recently, P5F was seen with a really bad cracked shell

Recently, P5F was seen with a really bad cracked shell

Every adult female can lay on average of 100-120 eggs, between 2-10 nests a breeding season. Most conservation efforts are put into protecting the eggs and hatchlings because sea turtles have a very high mortality rate when they are young. It is believed only 1 in 1000 to 10000 hatchling survive to adulthood. It takes them an average of 25 years to become sexually matured. The fact that only that small number of hatchlings will make it to adults makes it more important to increase protection measures to protect these adult turtles so that they can continue to breed.

Boats are one of the main threats for sea turtles at Perhentian Project. There are many identified turtles with injuries and scars from boat strike. Some survived, some didn’t. So far this year, the project received 3 reported death of sea turtles. 2 had decomposed and were beyond identification. Meanwhile the other one was not found on the database, meaning it has not been spotted anywhere in the water or on the beach.

Malaysia has started using TEDs to reduce turtle bycatch which is also one of the main threats to sea turtle besides turtle eggs consumption. What about threats from boat propellers? To come up with mitigation measures, that everyone agrees to, is always the hardest part. Everyone acknowledges the problem and when it comes to solutions, there are conflicts. To entirely protect the feeding grounds by not allowing boat traffic is not entirely impossible but locals would disagree because their livelihoods depend on bringing tourists to these areas to see turtles. To enforce a rule that every boat needs to slow down the speed of their boats at feeding grounds needs continuous monitoring which requires manpower that the authorities involved lacks of. Maybe a boat propeller cover can be a solution, as long as it doesn’t affect the speed and fuel usage of the boat.

However, the mortality of juvenile or adult sea turtles is increasing in an alarming rate. Is it really enough to only increase the efforts on nesting beaches without taking more protection measures to mitigate threats to sea turtles in the ocean?

The project is new and we only have photos from 2011. An on-going photo identification research allows a better and more comprehensive understanding of the sea turtle population, their habitat use and movement around these islands. Any turtle photos taken, even from previous years, can be submitted to the project for identification. Conservation efforts can be improved with a strong and sound understanding, which is what the project is trying to achieve.