The river terrapin is a species of freshwater turtle found in Cambodia, Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia. Unlike its sea turtle cousin, which can lay 100 eggs every 12 days, (with only 1 in 3500 making it to adulthood) the terrapin nests just once a year, producing a maximum of 40 eggs annually.
As if these low numbers weren’t enough, people living near nesting sites have traditionally considered the terrapin’s eggs a regular food source. Community members have historically given little thought to conservation or sustainability. This has led to the river terrapin being listed as critically endangered by the International Union For Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The Turtle Conservation Society (TCS), located in the Malaysian state of Terengganu, on peninsular Malaysia’s East Coast, is an NGO committed to saving the river terrapin through research, conservation, and public outreach.
TCS was founded in October 2011 after receiving a $30,000 grant from U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
“We had one big aim, to restore the depleted wild population of freshwater turtles in the country,” said TCS co-founder Chen Pelf Nyok. Nyok runs TCS with the help of volunteers and seasonal staff, but is the organization’s only full-time staff member.
Seven years ago, data on the river terrapin was incomplete. The turtle was only known to exist in two major rivers, so TCS conducted a survey to determine the terrapin’s presence elsewhere. They also studied the nesting habits of the terrapin, much of which was unknown at the time.
As well, the organization started an egg protection and turtle awareness programs, both of which continue to this day.
Volunteers involved in the egg protection programme collect terrapin eggs each nesting season, which runs from February to March. TCS then incubates and hatches the eggs, caring for the hatchlings for up to five months, then releasing the young terrapins back into the river in September. So far, more than 2400 young terrapins have been hatched and released. Were it not for this programme the turtles may have never made it to adulthood, since the eggs might very well have been eaten by local villagers.
To educate the public and raise awareness of the turtles’ declining population, the second TCS programme visits local schools, where the children are informed about the plight of the river terrapins. The adult villagers certainly see proof of the dwindling terrapin turtle population, since the number of eggs the locals have been able to collect for food has continued to decline over the last two decades. But old habits die-hard, so instead TCS focuses on reaching out to the school children through the turtle awareness programme.
“If you cannot change the mindset of the adults who have been eating terrapin eggs for decades, we thought maybe another approach could be to talk to the kids,” says Chen. “Ask the kids to go back and talk to the fathers and say ‘Do you know what father? We don’t want to eat terrapin eggs anymore.’”
New York City based photographer Vera Niewenhuis recently visited Terengganu to document TCS’s research and conservation efforts. Once there, she found herself not just photographing turtles, but a whole community coming together for a cause.
Niewenhuis’s visit coincided with Terrapin Independence Day, the day in September when TCS releases the turtle hatchlings into the Kemaman River. The day is truly a community event, often resembling an elementary school sports day, with face painting, races and a water balloon toss.
“It’s a whole day of activities that leads up to the release of the river terrapins,” says Niewenhuis. “It engages the community, gives them a chance to celebrate, to come together to party and have a good time.”
Community members are then able to gather on the beach to hold the young terrapins, before releasing them into the river with a head start on life, courtesy of TCS.
Each turtle released gets a special marking on their shell for research purposes, so that the TCS knows who they are if staff encounter them later in life. Though accurate data regarding success rates won’t be known for some time, progress is evident. Local subsistence fisherman who previously had only encountered adult terrapins have reported seeing young terrapins in the river for the first time.
Niewenhuis says that through the education efforts and by involving local people in the turtles’ release, TCS has been able to bring the local people on board with the conservation efforts.
“I really hand it to Pelf, because she’s got an amazing way of engaging this small town,” says Niewenhuis. “She’s done a lot to make them come together for this cause and make a difference”.
Click here to learn more about the Turtle Conservation Society and how you can show your support.