To conserve turtles, the Terengganu state legislative assembly passed an amendment to ban sales of all turtle eggs by June 2022. But in the face of strong traditional demand for the eggs, will the ban work?
THE SLEEPY market of Pasar Payang in Terengganu springs to life on Saturday mornings. Customers weave through the tight maze of stalls, some looking for a delicacy rarely found elsewhere – turtle eggs.
One vendor, who only gives her name as Mak Kiah, picks up 10 eggs from a bag of 100 and drops them into a transparent plastic bag. The eggs are covered in sand and cold to the touch.
“Sembilan puluh ringgit”, she says to a customer. Ninety ringgit.
(Photo: On a busy weekend, hundreds of turtle eggs are sold at the Pasar Payang market, Kuala Terengganu | Pic by Bryan Yong)
An imminent ban
Collectors in Terengganu pick up 750,000 turtle eggs a year, or 85% of the sum found in Peninsular Malaysia. About 90,000 of these, or 1 in 8 eggs, are sold in markets, according to the Fisheries Research Institute at Rantau Abang.
It is legal to trade turtle eggs in Terengganu, but not for long. The Terengganu Turtle Enactment 1951 (Amendment 2021) which was passed on 18 November will ban the sale of eggs of all turtle species starting 1 June 2022.
While the sales ban aims to save turtles from extinction, will it work in the face of the people’s deeply-rooted traditional appetite for turtle eggs?
In Pasar Payang, villagers from nearby islands would sell turtle eggs in bags of 100 each to the vendors. About 5–6 stalls in the market are known to sell turtle eggs, vendors told Macaranga. On a good day, customers can buy all the turtle eggs off vendors.
Mak Kiah, who smooth-talks her customers with ease, describes one who buys up to RM200 worth of eggs per week because the customer believes in the eggs’ medicinal capabilities.
A man walks up to Mak Kiah’s stall. A retired lecturer, he came from Ipoh to get some eggs for his sister. He jokes about whether he will be prosecuted if he answers my questions.
Turtle eggs are a must-have traditional medicine for pregnancies, he says. He used to love turtle eggs when he was young but now finds the taste disgusting.
“Some customers don’t like it because of its fishy and stinky taste, some people know [they] cannot eat but still like it,” he says.
But Terengganu didn’t used to be a destination for turtle egg trade.
Before 1951, turtle eggs were only consumed in the coastal villages where they are found. Turtle egg trade flourished only after new roads were built connecting villages to new markets and therefore increasing demand.
The Terengganu Turtle Enactment 1951 was then conceived to control the trade and prevent the overexploitation of this then-plentiful commodity. Terengganu soon became known for its peculiar appetite for turtle eggs.
Will travel for turtle eggs
One restaurant that serves turtle eggs is Restoran Mat Binjai in the heart of Kuala Terengganu. Owner Haji Mamat bin Haji Abd Wahab proudly displays turtle eggs on a banner as his star menu item. His customers are mostly tourists, some from as far as Kuala Lumpur, he says.
They believe that turtle eggs are five times more nutritious than chicken eggs and can treat gout. During the holidays, customers slurp down up to 100 boiled turtle eggs a day at Mamat’s restaurant. He stocks up at Pasar Payang.
It is not just the people’s love for turtle eggs that led to their popularity among market vendors.
The Turtle Enactment 1951 has legal loopholes and enforcement is poor.
Half of the 90,000 eggs sold in markets during 2020 are sourced from so-called tendered beaches – places where collected eggs should have been delivered only to the Department of Fisheries (DoF).
The DoF outsources the responsibility to manage, patrol, and collect eggs at certain beaches to the highest bidders. Operators collect turtle eggs at these tendered beaches and they are required to sell them all to the DoF.
Slipped through the net
Nazuki bin Sulong, a research officer at the Fisheries Research Institute at Rantau Abang, explains how turtle eggs from tendered beaches could end up in markets.
First, tendered beach operators, conservation workers, and even DoF staff might have stolen the eggs. The threat of cancelling one’s tendered beach operating license has not been a successful deterrent.
Not enough funds
Second, the DoF cannot buy as many eggs as it should. Too often, government funding is insufficient to buy every egg found – which itself is an impossible number to predict. Furthermore, the DoF might not buy eggs that are too old to hatch.
If the DoF cannot honour its commitment to buy back the eggs from tendered beach operators, the operators will likely sell them elsewhere.
Third, tendered beach operators could easily sell the eggs for at least 33% more in the market than to the DoF. One vendor at Pasar Payang said that the buyback price by the DoF is low and less lucrative than the market price.
Still, despite these challenges, the DoF has been able to collect and incubate 70–80% of all the eggs found annually, says Nazuki. Green turtle numbers continue to drop however, and conservationists say more legal power is needed to save the species.
Only a ban will do, say conservationists
Dr Mohd Uzair Rusli, lead researcher at the Sea Turtle Research Unit (SEATRU) of Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, explains that the longstanding compromise between conservation and consumption might look like a sustainable solution.
But that is not true, says Uzair. Mathematical models show that only a complete end to turtle egg trade could ensure the turtles’ long-term survival. Hence the sales ban in the new amendment.
But while the gazette of the Terengganu Turtle Enactment is printed in black and white, the conflict over sea turtles is very complex. Supporters of conservation face off against supporters of turtle egg consumption.
Uzair argues that the tradition of eating turtle eggs is fading with the older generation. The Terengganu people, especially the younger generation, support conservation more than ever before in the three decades since SEATRU began campaigning for turtle protection.
A ban will not do, say traders
Mamat however completely disagrees with the new amendment. He says a sales ban is unfair to the public. He sees turtle eggs as an edible commodity that the public should be allowed to eat, even if just a little.
To him, the ban will also reduce tourism in Terengganu. Traders like him will be disappointed. He hopes that the government will allow the eating of green turtle eggs, and limit incubation and conservation to leatherback turtle eggs only.
Other sellers at Pasar Payang also question the need for the ban and its efficacy.
Give us time
At the Shila Shukri stall, owners say that they will obey the ban but called for a moratorium to give them time to wean off the trade. The ban might push up egg prices but the eggs can still be acquired elsewhere, they say.
Mak Kiah cannot imagine a day when nobody wants to eat turtle eggs. She does not believe that eating turtle eggs will drive the turtles extinct.
The government should take care of the people’s interest, especially for those in the turtle egg trade with few other income options, says Mak Kiah. The lecturer who bought the eggs from her added that after the ban, he would continue to buy but discretely, perhaps by phone.
When asked whether turtle egg sales are important to his restaurant, Mamat hesitates and murmurs that business will continue as usual without turtle eggs, though he expects a drop in revenue.
And he would consider buying turtle eggs to serve his customers, albeit illegally.
“Jadi, secara haramlah kata orang…” says Mamat. (So, illegally, as people would say.)
[Edited by YH Law]
Bryan Yong (@Bryan_Yong_) is a Macaranga Sprouts journalist.
We thank the supporters of the Sprouts initiative who made this story possible.
Mohd Jani. et al. (2020). To Ban or Not to Ban? Reviewing an Ongoing Dilemma on Sea Turtle Egg Trade in Terengganu, Malaysia. Frontiers in Marine Science 6: 762.
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