Malaysiakini Letter

Policies turning turtle in Terengganu

Fahri Azzat  |  Published:  |  Modified:

The leatherback turtle is the largest of all turtles. In the 1960s, up to 10,000 leatherbacks would land on the Terengganu shores to lay their eggs each year. Fast forward 40 years with technological, intellectual and spiritual developments and now we're lucky if even a handful show up. Governmental, non-governmental associations and various conservation groups worldwide are unanimous: the leatherback is doing the dodo. In fact, the US has classified it as an endangered species since the 1970s.

Malaysia's regular hubbub to being a regional hub for everything from movie-making to bio-technology to technological advancement are strangely muted on the topic of environmental conservation. However, in its place we are hankering to be a hub of wanton malicious capitalism.

The Terengganu head of agricultural and regional department, Mohamad Jidin Shafie, was recently reported by the BBC to have claimed that the conservation efforts and policy of turtle eggs have failed. Apparently banning turtle egg collection merely raises prices and encourages poaching. He then turned turtle by announcing that the state government is considering licencing turtle egg collection in key breeding areas.

Mohamad Jidin disappointingly did not proffer any sensible reasons for the failure of the conservation efforts. However, I am willing to hazard a guess that it has to do with a lack of enforcement stemming from corruption.

Let me explain why. I am certain that the Terengganu government would have first identified all the active and dense nesting areas. This would not be terribly difficult. After all, turtles like human beings are creatures of habit so they return to their earlier nesting area. Naturally the government would understand that it is just these areas that would attract thieves and poachers, and should therefore be diligently and sufficiently monitored by the agricultural and regional department enforcement officers.

These officers would be properly equipped with the proper surveillance and prevention equipment for deterrence. For argument's sake, I am willing to assume that the Terengganu government and the agricultural and regional department enforcement officers are terribly efficient, diligent, dedicated and really care about the welfare of the leatherbacks. In sum, they are competent to deal with the situation.

Now if we accept this explanation and my assumption is then that the only way those turtle eggs could move from underneath the sand to the market stands in such great numbers is if these enforcement officers were bribed by the thieves and poachers. This is the only conclusion I can draw if I want to avoid concluding that the Terengganu government is incompetent in dealing with the extinction of the leatherbacks.

Let's now assume for one moment that the regional department enforcement officers are both competent and incorruptible. This assumption cannot hold because if it were true, then the amount of turtle eggs hitting the market would not be so great until it become a good for trade. The number actually stolen would be very small and the market for it smaller. So clearly, the illegal sale of these eggs can only happen if the regional department enforcement officers are corrupt or incompetent, but not the converse of both.

But happily, there is no doubt that the Terengganu agricultural and regional department itself is incompetent. Their licencing proposal to replace the conservation policy is proof of this. Firstly, if the agricultural and regional departments cannot even curb theft of the eggs, how would licencing collectors make it any easier?

A total ban on collection makes it easier because anybody caught with the eggs can be prosecuted. If the licencing proposal is realised, not only would these enforcement officers have to deal with whether that person has a licence, (Malaysia being the hub for piracy of intellectual property) they also will in time have to deal with whether the licences are genuine.

What they also do not seem to understand is that licencing in a culture prone to corruption is propitious of its perpetuation. And how does licencing promote sustainability? Secondly, implicit in this proposal is that 'if you can't eradicate it, regulate it'. It may be able to do this with certain moral offences like prostitution and drugs as has been done in countries like the Netherlands, Switzerland and Great Britain. However, one cannot apply this to a species that cannot be reared and facing extinction. The sheer illogic of this proposal should warrant Mohamad Jidin's resignation.

It is, however, heartening to note that the Terengganu government really does care for its citizens. When it comes down to a few of its citizens selling these eggs for a few ringgit a piece and a turtle species that has survived for more than a hundred million years, it has decisively come down in the former's favour. This is understandable, turtles cannot vote and don't avoid taxes.

I am also glad that the Terengganu government has not wallowed in depression at the leatherback turtle's impending extinction and taken steps earlier this year to jettison it as its symbol and sports mascot. They have replaced it with the clown fish because it was 'more agile and dynamic'. That may be true of the fish, but not of the government or the clowns in there.

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