Stalls that sell turtle eggs greet customers at every entrance to the Pasar Payang market, Kuala Terengganu. (Bryan Yong)

An End To the Culture of Eating Turtle Eggs

Eating turtle eggs in Terengganu is often attributed to culture. But fears it could jeopardise the trade ban on June 1 might be unfounded.

MANN THE turtle sanctuary ranger suddenly raises his finger and points at the ocean blue. “There are turtles mating,” he says. I follow his line of sight to two turtles in a tight embrace and bobbing on the surface of the water.

My heart leaps and I hope for the best. Maybe the female will survive to lay her eggs here at the sanctuary. Maybe those eggs will hatch, like many have before. After all, this is the Chagar Hutang Turtle Sanctuary on Redang Island, Terengganu’s most productive sea turtle nesting grounds.

(The ban on the sale of turtle eggs in Terengganu targets traders. | Photo: Bryan Yong)

Just the night before, Mann and volunteers at the sanctuary oversaw six green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) landing on the soft white beach to lay their eggs. Everyone waited until the turtles finished laying before either marking the nests or relocating the eggs to a safer place.

However, the volunteers’ efforts to increase turtle numbers may be futile if the selling and eating of turtle eggs continue to ravage turtle populations. Come 1 June this year though, selling turtle eggs will be illegal in Terengganu.

Will the new ruling end turtle egg trade for good?

Turtle egg trade ban

Starting 1 June 2022, Terengganu bans all species of turtle eggs from being traded. The new Terengganu Turtle Enactment 1951 (amendment 2021) provides enforcers with the legal means to prosecute and punish turtle egg trade with fines of up to RM250,000.

Marine conservationist Dr Jarina Mohd Jani is optimistic. The ban is about shutting down the market and supply chain for turtle eggs. “So imagine if you (a trader) get interrogated every day of your life [about selling eggs] just because they suspect you; eventually traders will give up [selling],” she says.

But the trade ban does not outlaw consumption and that is actually a good thing, says the senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Terengganu who researches human-ecology interactions and marine conservation.

Source of protein

In her office, which is full of traditional art pieces, Jarina emphasises the importance of recognising the cultural aspects of natural resource use.

“The consumption of natural resources is part of survival for human species,” says Jarina, explaining that turtle eggs are a common source of protein for coastal villages.

Her research shows that while trading turtle eggs has been practised and regulated for more than 50 years, eating turtle eggs has been around for much longer.

The practice of collecting and eating turtle eggs had become part of a local culture ingrained in family heritage and land ownership:

In terms of conservation, Jarina stresses that local community consumption is not the problem. Commercial harvesting is. When eggs started being traded beyond the immediate community, demand rose, fuelling the trade of ever more eggs.

And a substantial source of that trade is an illegal and unintended consequence of a state policy.

Tendering system

To control the turtle egg collection, the Terengganu Turtle Enactment enables the state government to put up nesting beaches with high turtle egg productivity for tender.

The highest bidders will win permission to collect turtle eggs under the condition that they voluntarily sell the eggs for conservation.

Since 2003, all eggs collected from licensed beaches must be sold to the Department of Fisheries for incubation. In essence, the government pays the licensed collector to help conserve turtles.

The tendered system has largely worked but experiences problems such as the government lacking funds to buy back every single egg. Jarina’s research suggests that the system had made turtle eggs a commodity.

On turtle landing haven Redang, several beaches are tendered for egg-collecting. Mann, the turtle sanctuary ranger, was a licensed egg-collector like his father. Born and raised on the island, he used to follow his father around, beach patrolling and egg collecting.

Then he became a Sea Turtle Research Unit (SEATRU) ranger under Universiti Malaysia Terengganu. He has since spent over two decades working at the isolated Chagar Hutang Turtle Sanctuary.

Growing awareness

When the trade ban was announced, Mann noted initial resistance among the egg collectors. “But they soon understood that it was for conservation,” he says. 

Research shows that as livelihoods on the island shift towards tourism, islanders increasingly appreciate the value of turtle conservation.

Still there are at least 20—30% of the collectors on the island who disagree with the ban, says Mann.

Collecting and incubating eggs at the Chagar Hutang Turtle Sanctuary has led to an increase in turtle numbers. (Bryan Yong)

Jarina adds that for the ban to work, the government buyback schemes must run efficiently, at least until egg collectors secure other sources of income.

As a turtle conservationist, Jarina also argues that colleagues have the “moral obligation” to make sure communities affected by laws and actions in the name of conservation understand what they are for and can find alternative livelihoods.

And since consuming turtle eggs is embedded in local society and culture, could Islam play a role in turtle conservation in Muslim-majority Terengganu?

Ustaz Haji Riswadi bin Azmi thinks so. He is Director of the Sultan Mahmud Islamic Centre in Universiti Malaysia Terangganu and is writing a book on ‘Ecosystem Sustainability in Islamic Perspective’.

Riswadi explains that almost 90% of the Terengganu population is Muslim. Islam influences many traditional cultures practiced there.

What does it impact?

He points out that turtle consumption is not haram. But “we must remember: if it affects the ecosystem and the animal, then it will be haram to consume.”

The respected Islamic scholar adds that “Muslims must bear the religious obligation (fardhu ain) to ensure that future generations can still see turtles.”

He quotes the Surah Al-An’am verse 38 in the Quran as proof (dalil) that Allah (s.w.t.) regards all animals as humankind’s equal.

Equal beings

“That is the main concept in conservation (for Islam), where we see animals as our equal. If humans need to eat, animals need to eat; if humans need welfare, animals need welfare; if humans need rights, animals too.”

Riswadi believes that preachers have a role to play in spreading conservation awareness through Islam.

However, it can be a challenge as preachers themselves need to first appreciate the environment and conservation values:

With the turtle egg trade ban kicking in on 1 June, the culture of eating turtle eggs may not change in time.

Nonetheless, research shows that turtle egg consumption has been decreasing due to wildlife protection measures, high market prices, increasing educations levels, and a growing number of livelihoods that rather keep turtles alive.

With these trends, addressing the commercial consumption of turtle eggs through a trade ban may augur well for future turtle populations at Chagar Hutang and all of Terengganu.

[Edited by SL Wong]

On a busy weekend, hundreds of turtle eggs are sold at the Pasar Payang market, Kuala Terengganu. Pic by Bryan Yong.

RELATED REPORT: Our earlier report showed that traders need persuading to support the ban: Reconsider ban on turtle egg sale, say Terengganu traders.

Text, photos and video by Macaranga Sprouts journalist Bryan Yong (@Bryan_Yong_).

We thank the supporters of the Sprouts initiative who made this story possible.


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