Alexander Yee: Overcoming Turtle Conservation Challenges

It took vision, persistence and wisdom for conservationist Alexander Yee to be able to release his 30,000th turtle hatchling into the Sulu Sea this March. He spoke to Mallika Naguran about how this highly effective turtle conservation programme came about five years ago but more importantly, how a few obstructive village practices were overcome to boost this aspect of marine life and ecotourism in Sabah.

KOTA KINABALU, 3 April 2018. Alexander Yee, a resort operator in Sabah, Malaysia became a conservationist and a trained Honorary Wildlife Warden because of his love for nature and his passion to conserve certain fragile marine animals.

 A turtle saved is nature's victory against all odds for Alexander Yee

A turtle saved is nature's victory against all odds for Alexander Yee

From 1 January 2013 to 31 January 2018, the turtle hatchery on Libaran Island, east of Sabah had reportedly collected 22,786 Green Turtle eggs and 10,090 Hawksbill Turtle eggs (totaling 32,876).  A baby turtle usually requires 45-65 days to hatch from an egg. However, not all will survive the incubation period. Still a whopping 30,000 turtles were given a new lease of life through this wildlife conservation programme in Sabah!

Gaia Discovery posed some questions to dig deeper into the thoughts of Yee and his approaches in ecotourism and marine life conservation.

What organisation are you involved with to help conserve turtles?

Friends of Sea Turtles Education & Research (FOSTER) is a Malaysian registered conservation based association aiming to help conserve and protect sea turtles. I currently sit as its President.

How are turtles important to the ecosystem? What problems hinder their survival?

Sea turtles are like the cows in the ocean - they eat up the sea grass on the sea beds and keep the eco system there neat and conducive.  Small marine organism can then thrive there, which is the start of the marine food chain.

A successful conservation programme consists of the 3 Ps...
— Alexander Yee

Sea turtles face two kinds of challenges, namely man-made and natural. Man-made challenges such as coastal development, noise around the nesting area, human poachers, crowded boat routes and rubbish. Natural challenges will include shoreline erosion and predators such as dogs and monitor lizards. 

 Alexander Yee of FOSTER releases the 30th thousand turtle hatchling on Libaran Island with the support of school children of the island.

Alexander Yee of FOSTER releases the 30th thousand turtle hatchling on Libaran Island with the support of school children of the island.

What kind of protection status do turtles have in Malaysia? What more can be done to nurture the right kind of environment for threatened species?

IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has accorded the Olive Ridley & Green Turtles as endangered, while Hawksbill & Leatherback turtles are listed as Critically endangered.

Many States within Malaysia have regulations against poaching of sea turtle and turtle eggs under the Fisheries rules. In Sabah and Sarawak, we have a more comprehensive regulation in the form of Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997 (for Sabah) and Wildlife Protection Ordinance (for Sarawak).

A lot can be done and need to be carried out simultaneously. First, there needs to be greater awareness and education for the public of the importance of sea turtles to our eco system. Second, there is a need to create alternative livelihood for the population of people who depend on the selling of sea turtle meat and eggs for income. Third, we need tighter enforcement to ensure that the rules and regulations laid down are followed.

What kind of activity and results have you seen since the first tagging of the turtles on 21 February 2014 by FOSTER?

After the first tagging, as far as sea turtles are concerned, they have continued to come ashore to lay their eggs. As the public does not know the objectives of tagging a sea turtle, nothing much has changed - their perception of protecting or not protecting sea turtles is unaltered.

Since 1 January 2013, we have harvested over 33,000 sea turtle eggs and on 1 March 2018, we released the 30,000th baby turtle into the Sulu Sea! We use 2013 as the starting point because that was when we had signed the MOU with Sabah Wildlife Department to set up the turtle hatchery on Libaran Island.

During the early years of setting up the hatchery on Libaran Island, you reported some community resistance to partake in the conservation activity. Can you describe how this was managed and what is the situation today?

Yes, we are dealing with locals who have been harvesting the turtle eggs for either self-consumption to sell or self- consume. To ask them to stop doing it, we have to offer them supplementary income or food.

We conducted three village wide dialogue sessions with them and when we started the turtle hatchery and opened basis accommodation facilities on Libaran Island (for visitors to see and learn about turtle conservation), we employed 15 villagers. Their tasks varied as beach cleaners, cook, housekeeping, hatchery warden and boatmen. Part of the villagers was sold of the idea of turtle conservation and protection.

 Alexander Yee tags a turtle as part of a marine research by FOSTER with the support of Sabah Wildlife Dept

Alexander Yee tags a turtle as part of a marine research by FOSTER with the support of Sabah Wildlife Dept

What lessons have you learnt about working with difficult communities?

I have been involved with community projects for over 15 years now. So when I started the work on Libaran, I knew where and how to start.

But I didn’t suspect corruption!

My challenge then and even now is with the village head who wanted me to pay him a monthly allowance to have access to the village. I refused to be part of such free giving.  He therefore blocked many of our programmes. Currently we are active with the primary school children of the island. The school headmaster does not come under the jurisdiction of the village head.

One lesson I have learnt, which didn’t cross my mind, that for conservation to work, corruption at the grass root level needs consideration.

What triggered your interest in conservation?

I operate a lodge along Kampung Bilit, Kinabatangan River. When I started it 15 years ago, I noticed the disparity in the living conditions of the people and the lack of enforcement in protecting the wildlife there. Rules have been laid down but there has been little enforcement.

I gathered that for the villagers to prosper, they have to be able to draw investment. The fastest form of investment is to draw tourists to their area. The injection of extra income would be able to lift the villagers out of poverty. And to be able to continue drawing tourists there, you need to have a concerted effort to protect and conserve the flora and fauna of that area.

 Turtle tagging reveals the movement of turtles and their migratory routes. Courtesy FOSTER.

Turtle tagging reveals the movement of turtles and their migratory routes. Courtesy FOSTER.

Thus my first thought of getting into conservation. To me, a successful conservation programme consists of the 3 Ps: it should benefit the Planet, the People and makes Profit for the company/people involving in it so that they can keep going.  

How can tourists contribute to your turtle hatchery programme?

By being there, they contribute to the upkeep of the place via their payment of the tour packages. Part of their payment is also being set aside as conservation fees, which is especially for FOSTER’s use to run its sea turtle related programmes.

The tourist can also play a part by adopting the beach front land. We are into our 4th year of Community Beach Cleaning on Libaran Island now. For every 100 metres, a tourist pays us RM100 monthly. We then pay a villager RM100 monthly to clean the 100 metres stretch on a daily basis. A clean beach will result in better hygiene for the villagers and give the turtle easy access to come ashore and lay their eggs. For those who wish to contribute towards our work through this manner of beach adoption or to make a donation, they can write to us.

What plans do you have for 2018 and beyond?

Our MOU with Sabah Wildlife Department will be expiring in July this year. You see, in Sabah, you need a signed MOU with a duration of five years with the wildlife department to operate a turtle hatchery. Thus we will need to review the new objectives with them if they want us to continue with the conservation programme.

Photos courtesy of Alexander Yee and FOSTER. Connect to Alex and his team on the Walai Penyu Conservation Park page on FB.

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