My husband, Paul, and I recently returned from a trip to visit a sea turtle sanctuary in Cherating, Malaysia. We were disturbed to see:
1. The nesting and release programs in Cherating have become a circus spectacle. There is no education by staff about the turtles or how to protect them. Instead, the crowd (sometimes over 100 people!) is led down to the beach with no explanation and are handed turtles. Noisy children argue over the turtles, run around, shine flashlights, drop hatchlings, and take flash pictures. The hatchlings are placed just inches from the wave, and we worry that this does not allow them enough time to imprint on the beach.
2. Nesting turtles are photographed, surrounded, and subjected to loud noise by the crowds. While public involvement is designed to raise awareness, it will only work if people are taught to respect the turtles, and not see them as playthings.
3. The hatchlings are released in batches, rather than all-at-once. In nature, the hatchlings emerge by the dozens in order to outnumber predators. The current method allows any predator who catches a hatchling to simply wait around for the next batch.
4. The hatchlings are kept swimming in a tub of water for nearly 24 hours prior to release. It seems to us that this wastes a lot of their valuable energy. Early-morning releases might be an answer.
5. Rumor has it that sanctuary donations are pocketed by local police, and that some hatchlings have made their way into home aquariums.
These concerns have also been expressed by local people we talked to, who are discouraged that the sanctuary does not do enough to protect turtles. So far this year, we are told that not a single Leatherback has nested in Malaysia. That is alarming.
I have written to government officials in Malaysia, the sanctuary directors, and environmental groups all over the world. The response is encouraging--many people are now aware that things need to change in order to truly be a sanctuary for the turtles.
I will keep this site posted with any information I receive as to progress on the issue.