Houses in Kemaman were flooded in early January 2021.

Locals Make Terrapin Conservation Successful

When floods hit Kemaman, terrapin conservationist Chen Pelf Nyok raised funds to help her local partners who had supported conservation.

In early January, floods hit Kemaman, Terengganu, the district where Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia (TCS), the organization I lead, is based.

Many villages were flooded. My husband asked if we should begin raising funds to help the villagers who were our project partners.

I said no.

(Photo: Flood devastated Kemaman, Terengganu, in early January 2021. Pic from Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia.)

I didn’t want our employees or associates to expect us to send them funds whenever a problem arises. I want our partners to be independent, self-sufficient, and resourceful.

Saving homes

However, the next morning, I saw how severe the flood was. I remember one wooden house, all but its damaged roof submerged. Clothes were still pinned on the lines outside the house. The water continued to rise.

I have been working with the local communities to protect and conserve river terrapins in Kemaman for 11 years. The people of Kg. Pasir Gajah have made my work possible and gave the terrapins a safer place to call home.

But this time, it was the people’s homes we must save. Immediately, I launched a fundraising campaign to help the affected families get back on their feet.

It started here

In 2010, I came to Kemaman to look for river terrapins. Student volunteers and I spoke to about 150 villagers across 35 villages.

One of those villages was Kg. Pasir Gajah. The then village chief, Hj. Noor Jusoh, was an elderly man who had always greeted us with a smile. He introduced me to some of the men who fished in the Kemaman river.

We chatted with the men over teh o’ kosong by the road. Surprisingly, they admitted right off that they had collected and ate river terrapin eggs.

Geng Tuntung

I invited them to work with TCS, then a new NGO, to help save the river terrapins from extinction. I was elated when, one by one, they started nodding their heads. The men gathered a few more friends and called themselves the “Geng Tuntung” (Terrapin Guardians).

Every year during the terrapin nesting season, we would camp at one riverbank and wait for female terrapins to nest. Each nesting river terrapin lays only 25-35 eggs, so every egg is precious.

We collect the eggs and incubate them in a hatchery, safe from predators and poachers. We also measure the females and tag them with a microchip for future identification.

Our efforts eventually expanded to 14 villagers and four riverbanks.

Local members of the Terrapin Guardians group in Kg. Gajah Pasir collect river terrapin eggs, rear the hatchlings and release them months later. Pic from Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia.
Locals-driven success

In my 17 years of conservation work, I have learned that the success of any wildlife conservation project requires local community support.

Local villagers must have the will to protect river terrapins. Conservation organisations can only do so much.

Only with the locals’ help could TCS have saved more than 6,000 terrapin eggs from human consumption and released about 4,000 hatchlings into the Kemaman river.

Enterprising women

We also collaborated with the women of Kg. Pasir Gajah to make and sell lotion bars and soap. Soon however, they asked for sewing classes.

They might have been inspired by Mok Ti, a seamstress and mother of one of our Terrapin Guardians, who was already sewing and improving bandanas and turtle-motif pouches for our stainless-steel straws.

In July 2020, we launched our “Group Menjahit” (Sewing Group) and capitalised on the demand for fabric masks during the pandemic. By December 2020, we have paid more than RM30,000 in work order to these ladies.

I remember when we paid the ladies for the first time. One of the older women in the group, Kak Nor, held the bank notes in her hands and kissed them. “Alhamdulillah, rezeki pertama Kak Nor,” she said. It was her first income.

Appeal for help

On Jan 7, I posted the first appeal for flood-relief funds. The water continued to rise. A few hours later, my family and I were evacuated from our home. Floods are common in Kemaman, but even the higher grounds were submerged this time.

By Jan 8, aerial photos showed that about 80% of Chukai, the town where I live in Kemaman, was underwater. Roads were lost in teh tarik-like water and houses stood in a sea of mud like small Lego blocks.

I shared these images on social media. Donations started to come in.

Damage check

On Jan 10, most of us could go home. I asked our assistants and associates in the village to list their losses. The donation could help them replace damaged necessities like mattresses, gas stoves and small electrical appliances.

We wanted to help them get back on their feet as quickly as possible, and giving them cash to buy what they needed seemed the most sensible thing to do at the time.

When the roads to Kg. Pasir Gajah reopened, I went in with the fund we have raised for the affected families. We met at the river terrapin conservation centre—the same place we used to meet to collect new merchandise from them.

Stories were shared, including how they couldn’t pack their clothes in time before the flood hit.

Touched by public generosity

Then I told them about the donation drive, and the public’s generous response. As I passed them the cash, two of the ladies broke down in tears.

“Terima kasih banyak, Mek. Mek dah banyak bantu kami. Tak pernah ada orang tolong kami dalam bentuk ni,” they said. (Thank you very much. You have helped us much. Never has anybody helped us in this way.)

My eyes welled up too.

More work ahead

But let’s not declare victory yet. Wildlife conservation can only be sustainable when the local communities have a good working relationship with the respective conservation organisations.

Only when conservation efforts are aligned with local interest would it be possible for the locals to shoulder the responsibilities to continue championing the cause, even after conservation organisations have moved on.

Conservation is a life-long commitment. It outlives relationships, marriages and even lifetimes. I don’t know the exact formula to save a critically endangered species from extinction.

Women in Kg. Gajah Pasir, Kemaman, were eager to learn sewing and produce fabric masks and pouches for extra-income; their effort supports terrapin conservation. Pic from Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia.
Conservation needs locals

But I know for certain that people, particularly the locals, are an essential part of this formula. I’ve spent the last 17 years building and maintaining relationships with the people who matter in this formula.

In Kg. Pasir Gajah, I’ve not only started a conservation project and a community empowerment initiative—I’ve also found a family in the villagers.

There is so much more that needs to be done, and we need all the help that we can get. We need to conduct more research projects, because “Tak kenal, maka tak cinta.” (You can’t love what you don’t know.)

Act now

We need to intensify our conservation efforts because we have little time left. The river terrapin takes 20 years to attain sexual maturity, so if all their eggs were consumed in one generation, there would be nothing to see after 20 years.

We must continue educating our youths and providing them resources to make good decisions. We must continue empowering the local women because they are the backbones of our local economy.

But most importantly, we need your support and participation. Nobody can do this alone.

[Edited by Law Yao Hua]


Dr Chen Pelf Nyok is the co-founder and President of Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia.

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