New Straits Times

The River Terrapin faces extinction

Nisha Sabanayagam

The rivers of Kedah, Perak and Terengganu may be the only home to the River Terrapin, an endangered species.

The River Terrapin (Batagur Baska) used to be found in abundance in South Asia and Southeast Asia but today, it can only be found in Malaysia.

It is on the top of the list of the world?s most endangered turtles compiled by the Turtle Conservation Fund, made up of three prominent global conservation organisations.

Head of Marine Turtle Project at Kolej University Sains dan Teknologi Malaysia Professor Chan Eng Heng said Malaysia is the last stronghold of the terrapins.

"The number of the River Terrapin is declining too dramatically and Malaysia?s population may soon be extinct as well, if we do not do something about it urgently."

ENDANGERED: The River Terrapin is currently found only in Malaysia

Although the Wildlife Department has established a turtle sanctuary in Bota Kanan, Perak since the 1970s, the project has not managed to reverse the decline of the species.

In the mid-1990s, a few hundred nesting sites could be found in the Setiu River. Last year, only 30 were found and this year it was reduced to 20.

The Perak River had more than a thousand nesting sites in the mid 1990s and last year, there were only 34 sites.

Human activities is a main cause of the decline.

Dams built in the Perak and Terengganu rivers, as well as sandmining has led to habitat loss.

Terrapins also sometimes get entangled in the nets of fishermen. Chronic egg collection and poaching are other common causes for the reduction.

"When I was in Hong Kong recently for a turtle workshop, I was told that there were adult river terrapins for sale at the wet markets," Chan said.

"Since there are no more or extremely few of the species in other countries, one can safely assume that the animals came from Malaysia."

Although the River Terrapin is on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), which means trade of this species is strictly prohibited, anyone caught in Malaysia in possession of river terrapins for commercial purposes cannot be prosecuted.

"This is because there is a loophole in our local legislation."

The Wildlife Act 1972 does not list turtles and tortoises in its schedule of protected animals.

Chan, who has been studying marine turtles for 24 years, initiated the River Terrapin project last year at the Setiu River.

Under the Marine Turtle project, eggs are bought from collectors at market price and incubated. When they are hatched, the babies are released into the Setiu River where they are monitored to track their survival rate.

"Although it may seem like we are encouraging the business, we have no choice but to buy the eggs from the collectors. Otherwise, the eggs will be consumed," he said.

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