The community saving the river terrapin

The community saving the river terrapin

  
Pelf Nyok Chen Pelf Nyok Chen
Community Contributor

Dr. Chen Pelf Nyok is a freshwater turtle researcher and conservationist. Her research interests are the biology and ecology of the river terrapins — a critically endangered species of freshwater turtles. In 2011, Dr. Chen co-founded Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia (TCS), a non-profit and non-governmental organization dedicated to freshwater turtle conservation in Malaysia.

In October 2017, we shell-ebrated the sixth Terrapin Independence Day (TID) with the local villagers of Kg. Pasir Gajah, Malaysia, with aerobics, an exhibition, a blood donation drive and health checks.

It’s a long way from 2011, when I initiated the Kemaman River Terrapin Research and Conservation Project.

Then, we had much difficulty roping in villagers for the conservation project, without the promise of a salary (they were subsequently paid an allowance).

And because the local villagers are not highly educated, it took me a long time to train them in some basic data collection, including reading measurements on a pair of calipers, weighing the hatchlings and data recording.

I would have never thought that this project would be so well-received by the local community.

But as the success of these annual TIDs show, collaboration with local communities is the way to go to sustain any long-term conservation project.

What started as a small local project that involved only five villagers has expanded into one that involves almost the whole village. Six years ago, we squatted at the home of one of the villagers, but today we have our own terrapin hatchery, head-starting area and even a turtle gallery in the village!

Last year’s TID was co-organised with the village committee, and various non-governmental organisations and turtle conservation projects took part in the exhibition, including the Malaysian Nature Society, WWF-Malaysia, and Juara Turtle Project (Pulau Tioman).

This is good news for the River Terrapin (Batagur affinis), a critically-endangered freshwater turtle found only in Southern Thailand, Cambodia, and Peninsular Malaysia.

It is listed as one of the top 25 freshwater turtles and tortoises on ”death row”, and in Malaysia, it is a Totally Protected Species under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010.

River terrapins face numerous threats in the water and on land, including having their eggs eaten by people, indiscriminate use of fishing gear in the river, dam construction destroying their habitats, riverways being altered, and sand-mining activities.

Mr. Wazel Mahad, a local villager hired by the project confessed to me that he was once regarded as a ”nobody” because he was originally from a different village. But since becoming involved in our project, he is now a respected person in Kg. Pasir Gajah, and other local folks now refer to him as ”Wazel the Terrapin Guy.”

When I first stepped foot into Wazel’s house, Nurul Huda, his eldest daughter, seemed very interested in the conservation work we were doing.

In the first year of the project, I trained her to read the calipers, and help with data recording. When I paid her an allowance for the first time, she had tears in her eyes! Only later did I find out that that was the first time she was paid for something she had done.

As the first and only turtle NGO in Malaysia that focuses on the recovery of depleted freshwater turtle species, particularly the river terrapins, the Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia (TCS) has saved more than 4,500 river terrapin eggs from human consumption, and released around 3,000 river terrapin hatchlings into the river.

I’m extremely proud of the villagers who I now regard as my family. I’m grateful for their committment in the river terrapin conservation project, and I’m proud of the milestones that we’ve achieved together. I look forward to shell-ebrating more successes with them in the future!

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Pelf Nyok Chen Pelf Nyok Chen
Community Contributor
Dr. Chen Pelf Nyok is a freshwater turtle researcher and conservationist. Her research interests are the biology and ecology of the river terrapins — a critically endangered species of freshwater turtles. In 2011, Dr. Chen co-founded Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia (TCS), a non-profit and non-governmental organization dedicated to freshwater turtle conservation in Malaysia.