Lang Tengah Turtle Watch

Environmental scientist Leander Kruger explains his commitment to gentle giants and their hatchlings

By Leander Kruger, January 20, 2017

In May 2016, I accepted a Research Assistant’s post in the Lang Tengah Turtle Watch Malaysian project, planning to stay for 10 weeks, but I stayed for the entire turtle nesting season of 5 months.

A commitment’s germination

Malay lady, Hayati Mokhtar, inherited a piece of land on Lang Tengah Island, off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. As a child, Hayati had spent a considerable time on this pristine island. When she returned to it many years later, she was shocked at the development of resorts, beach pollution, destruction of corals, and the widespread poaching of turtle eggs.

A Green Turtle hatchling

She initiated the Lang Tengah Turtle Watch project in 2013. Friends, WWF conservation specialists, Terengganu state government officials, local Malaysian volunteers and international students helped her. While travelling through South-East-Asia, Raphe van Zevenbergen met Hayati's friend who mistook him to be a Lang Tengah Turtle Watch volunteer. Riveted by what he heard from Hayati’s friend, Raphe hopped on board and became the project’s co-founder.

Crystal clear vision

Lang Tengah Turtle Watch’s first priority is to ensure that new sea turtle generations make it out to the sea. Egg poaching is so common along the Malaysian coast, it is the most detrimental cause of shrinking sea turtle population in this region. Other factors - entanglement in fishing gear, bright lights from beach resorts that deter female turtles from nesting - add to population decimation.

Fostering hatchlings

A female Green Turtle returns to sea at dawn after laying eggs on Turtle Bay, Lang Tengah island.

The night of my arrival on Lang Tengah, I witnessed two Green turtles laying eggs 10 meters’ from each other. That was my first close-up experience with these living dinosaurs, sand flicked into my face while the turtles coverered up their nests. It is incredulous that they come back to the same beaches each generation, for generations.

Turtle Bay is a private and secluded beach on this island where Green and Hawksbill turtles nest between April and October every year.

The Turtle Watch project is set up along this bay, protected by the project staff and volunteers, who live in a rustic jungle camp behind the beach. Every night, staff and volunteers patrol the bay and the other beaches on the island in shifts using red lights to minimise disturbance to the nesting turtles.

It is important to keep a distance from female turtles till they start laying eggs.  At this stage, the turtle is in a trance, not easily disturbed. To protect them from poachers, eggs are then carefully removed from the nest and relocated to Turtle Bay. Once the turtle has laid eggs and starts covering the nest with sand, project staff take measurements, check for a tag on the turtle or tag it. Facial and front flipper scales are photographed. Then we sit back to watch the magical moment of a gentle giant making its way slowly back into the sea. 

Hot girls & cool guys

During the day, I snorkelled along the coast, explored the island and interacted with resort guests and staff. We carried out nest inspections frequently. Quite often hotel guests showed interest. They watched and learnt about the turtle’s lifecycle, the threats, our conservation efforts and toured our camp. Two thirds into the incubation time, nests are inspected to check whether any fungal infection or predation has occurred.

Leander Kruger briefs tourists before releasing hatchlings at night

Disturbing the eggs before this, hampers sexual development of the hatchlings. The gender of each turtle is determined by the temperature in the nest. A good way to remember it: hot girls, cool guys!

Working with tourists

Rangers that patrol 8 kms of beach every night during the turtle nesting season, May to October

After spending a fortnight on the island, I was transferred to the mainland for assisting in the launch of a new project in collaboration with a luxury beach resort. Here we deployed local rangers to patrol the surrounding beach at night and relocate the eggs into hatcheries constructed at the boundary of the resort. We set up a visitor’s information hut, nest inspection schedules and released hatchlings at night, as activities for resort guests and the local community. 

Winning solutions

Majority of the Lang Tengah Turtle Watch project funding comes from the fees paid by local and international volunteers, Hayati's own contributions  earned from her visual art work and proceeds of renting The Resthouse situated on the neighbouring Perhentian island. 

A nest adoption programme at Tanjong Jara Resort near Dungun city started in 2016 proved successful. Interested people adopted a nest and saved the eggs so that it did not reach the food market. The project started off with one hatchery, then expanded quickly to two hatcheries. 

In 2017 a third hatchery was constructed, a total of 83 nests were adopted. In the 2017 season, 7507 endangered Green sea turtle eggs were saved from being sold in the market. The result: 5476 hatchlings were released into the sea. The highlight was the release of 73 critically endangered Painted Terrapin hatchlings.

The Lang Tengah Turtle Watch team organised regular beach cleanups on the island as well as the mainland. 60 school kids, 12 university students and 10 representatives from KOSÉ, a cosmetics company who sponsored the beach clean-up as part of their Save the Blue campaign did this on the mainland last year. With support from Tanjong Jara Resort and the public, a total of 785kg of trash was collected. Beach clean ups are very effective in spreading ecological

The Nest Adoption Programme hatcheries

awareness, knowlege about turtles, the issue of marine pollution and on the marine ecosystem in general. Approximately 3 tonnes of waste has been removed by the Turtle Watch Team from the island. As a waste management initiative, 1200 kilograms of this was recycled.

Lang Tengah island launched some more projects in 2017. In collaboration with Ecoteer Perhentian Turtle Project, a Malaysian Sea Turtle Photo ID network has been set up to consolidate the photographs of sea turtles from Lang Tengah Island and Perhentian Island in one photo identification database. The image matching software tool, Interactive Individual Identification System, is used to analysis the facial scales of turtles and compare/match individual turtles that visit the two islands.This facilitates the study of the spatial-temporal pattern of sea turtles between these neighbouring islands.

The first successful match under this project was made in June 2017 when Green turtle Sandy nested on Lang Tengah Island. With the aid of the matching software, it was possible to identify Sandy as a female first sighted foraging in Perhentian island in 2013 and sighted 26 times at Perhentian since then. 

Sharks, fish and corals

A 2017 shark survey gained a better understanding of the blacktip reef shark’s population on Lang Tengah Island. Underwater video surveys helped gather biometric data of sharks encountered. Black dorsal fin markings aided the identification of individual sharks. So far 17 individual sharks have been identified.

Volunteers and staff have carried out a fish study too, resulting in 120 species of fish identified around the island.

A coral survey recorded coral diversity and coverage around the island. The survey’s objective is to determine the diversity and coverage before and after the monsoon season and to evaluate the extent to which the reef is affected by rough seas during monsoon.

The egg shell thins indicating a hatchling will soon emerge

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