Guardians of the River Terrapin

13 December 2017

Dr. Chen Pelf Nyok, co-founder of the Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia, saves river terrapins by getting locals to see the value in behaving sustainably.

Shortly after Maghrib, Dr. Chen Pelf Nyok and her friends from nearby Kampung Pasir Gajah make their way to the banks of Kemaman River in Terengganu, and wait at a makeshift tent in total darkness. Before long, the unmistakable shape of a female river terrapin ascends the sandy bank and digs a nest to lay eggs.

Chen and her team attaching a transmitter to a river terrapin before releasing it back into the wild.

When she is done, one of them retrieves the eggs to be transferred to a hatchery, while Dr. Chen checks the mother terrapin for abnormalities or injuries before releasing it. This goes on until 6am, and the same ritual is repeated daily for the rest of February and March, the prime nesting season for river terrapins.

A critically endangered species
A breed of fresh water turtles unique to Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia, the river terrapin, scientifically known as Batagur affinis, once thrived in rivers and estuaries. But human activities such as egg consumption, sand mining, dam building, riverside development, aquaculture as well as river siltation and pollution, have caused the species to be on the brink of extinction; the Turtle Conservation Coalition lists the river terrapin as one of the world’s top 25 most critically endangered turtles.

River terrapins born at the Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia's hatchery.

Since 2011, Dr. Chen, co-founder of the Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia (TCS), together with a group of villagers whom she calls “the Terrapin Gang” have been collecting eggs and incubating them as part of an effort to conserve this endangered species.

Explains Dr. Chen, “River terrapins lay far fewer eggs than sea turtles – a maximum of 40 eggs in one nesting season, compared to 600 eggs by sea turtles. On top of that, river terrapins take 22 years to achieve sexual maturity.”

Dr. Chen is the co-founder of the Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia.

“What we can do is to secure a maximum number of eggs during nesting season and raise them in a hatchery under ideal conditions before releasing them back into the wild. We can't see the results straight away but we hope they will grow up to be adults in about 20 years.”

To date, they have saved 4,523 terrapin eggs from human consumption, produced 2,898 terrapin hatchlings and released 2,701 terrapins into the Kemaman River. But what’s more extraordinary than these numbers is the level of awareness they’ve achieved among the locals.

Changing local mindsets
Kampung Pasir Gajah, a village where the culture of consuming turtle eggs was once common practice, has now become a model hub for running conservation-based educational, research and outreach programmes.

It’s a prime example of what can happen when conservationists work together with locals. “Local communities have greater knowledge on the local settings and generally have a better sense of ownership of an area,” remarks Dr. G. Balamurugan, Managing Director of ERE Consulting Group, a leading Malaysian environmental consultancy.

“There are many examples in Malaysia where collaborative work with local communities have led to great success in conservation.”

Project assistant Pak Wazel and a team member each hold terrapins of different ages. These terrapins will be released after micro-chipping.

The current scenario is quite a turnaround from the day Dr. Chen stepped into Kampung Pasir Gajah in 2010. Inspired to pursue marine biology thanks to a childhood affinity for turtles, Dr. Chen did a Masters in Biodiversity and Conservation from Universiti Malaysia Terengganu. After graduating, she joined well-known turtle conservationist Professor Dr. Chan Eng Heng on her river terrapin research and conservation project.

While working with Dr. Chan, Dr. Chen conducted a questionnaire-based survey of ten major rivers in Terengganu, to determine the presence of river terrapins and the factors that threatened their survival.

In the hatchery, eggs are separated and labeled according to its mother.

Dr. Chen recalls, “Here I was, a young woman, approaching people who had been egg collectors for the most part of their adult lives, and I was expecting them to work with me for free to conserve the terrapins?”

Fortunately, there were locals who shared her perspective. The then village headman, who had always wanted to do something positive for the dwindling terrapin population, helped Dr. Chen to round up the villagers in a warung. Over teh tarik and kuih, she found other potential allies who saw the value of sustainability.

More crucially, she uncovered key insights that only locals would know, such as the fact that the Kemaman river had a sizeable but dwindling population of river terrapins.

A group of volunteers measure a wild female terrapin.

The following year, Dr. Chen co-founded TCS with Dr. Chan in hopes of restoring the wild population of freshwater turtles in Malaysia, starting with river terrapins.

One of her first tasks was to set up a hatchery for head-starting, the process of incubating freshly collected eggs until they hatch, and raising them under ideal conditions until they are ready to be released into the wild.


In 2017, JKKK Kampung Pasir Gajah gave TCS a piece of land for their conservation work, which also includes a mini museum.

Pak Wazel, one of the villagers she interviewed at the warung, kindly offered his house. “We built a makeshift hatchery right beside Wazel's house and used it until 2017, when the Village Development and Security Committee [JKKK Kampung Pasir Gajah] gave us a piece of land next to the community hall to accommodate a proper hatchery, head-starting area, a mini museum and an office,” says Dr. Chen.

A big part of Dr. Chen’s work focuses on education, or more accurately, re-education. There is no scientific basis in the widely held belief that turtle eggs have nutritional benefits, for one. Also, not many people are aware of the ecological value of river terrapins, such as their role in planting mangroves.

“As they [river terrapins] feed on mangrove shoots’ leaves and fruits, they disperse their seeds when they defecate. Mangroves are critical to our environment because they provide wood for charcoal, serve as a nursery for small fishes, and act as wave barriers to protect against monsoons.”

Part of the TCS museum’s exhibit.

But converting adults proved difficult for Dr. Chen. Instead, she focused on educating children by developing a three-hour programme for students of schools near rivers, whose parents would collect river terrapin eggs.

“We asked the children to tell their parents that these cute animals will become extinct if you keep eating them,” says Dr. Chen.

“When we go to schools, we tell them, it is not just the researcher's responsibility to save these river terrapins. You as an 11-year-old can also help save river terrapins.”

Seeing significant improvement
After years of dwindling numbers, this year a total of 760 eggs were collected for incubation, compared to 348 eggs in 2016. In another encouraging sign, results show that head-started terrapins were able to survive in the wild and achieved body weight gains of up to 7kg, as well as an increase in carapace length of 22cm over a period of five years.

Pak Wazel cleaning the terrapin tanks.

TCS’s conservation efforts have also improved the lives of the locals they work with. Dr. Chen shares how Pak Wazel, once considered an outsider for hailing from Kuala Berang, has become a respected figure among the villagers, and often conducts talks about the terrapins. Meanwhile, frequent media coverage of the village’s conservation activities is something that the villagers take much civic pride in.

A volunteer catching terrapins in a river. Credit: Vera Nieuwenhuis.

As for Dr. Chen, previously seen as an eccentric young woman with strange ideas, she’s now an honorary member of the village, who frequently gets invited to kenduris.

Sustaining the cause
These days, Dr. Chen splits her time between running programmes in Terengganu and travelling around the country for outreach and fund-raising activities. TCS relies entirely on public funding and grants.

“I have to be like a businesswoman now, constantly thinking about opportunities to raise funds through sale of merchandise, offering services such as turtle discovery trips, giving talks in schools,” says Dr. Chen.

The organisation needs RM100,000 a year to run their research project, conservation programme, Turtle Camps with kids and outreach programmes, on top of covering operational expenses.

Her work can be exhausting, Dr. Chen admits, but she draws energy from hearing what people are doing to make a difference to their environment.

“The best part is converting some turtle egg collectors into turtle ambassadors,” she says. “Local fishermen come to tell me that they are sighting juvenile terrapins in the rivers where once only the matured terrapins were spotted.”

“I regularly meet kids in town who run up to tell me proudly, ‘Kakak, we don't eat turtle eggs anymore.’ These things remind me that however small they may seem, our actions matter.”

Learn more about the Turtle Conservation Society and their projects at www.turtleconservationsociety.org.my, or find out how you can take part in the group’s Turtle Discovery Trip

By Alexandra Wong
Photos by Stacy Liu and the Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia. 

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