Malaysia: Poachers preying on Sabah sea turtles
Buyers allegedly pay up to RM2,000 for a live adult sea turtle while their meat can fetch up to RM300 a kilogramme.
By James Alin, 19th March 2014;
In January this year, I received a tip off from a fishing taukeh in Kudat about the movement of hunters in and out of the Balambangan–Banggi channel, which lies in the northeast of Sabah’s Pulau Tiga.
According to his Bugis fishing crew, during certain seasons, these poachers were hunting turtles day and night.
He said the last time they saw the hunters was in December 2013. Five to six of them were spotted camping out at different locations in Pulau Tiga.
These poachers catch live sea turtles and take them to Balambangan where they were kept inside a pen or in fish cages until such time the numbers are enough for the ‘shipment’ to be moved to the next destination.
The hunters were said to come from Mangsee (in the Philippines), Mantabuan and Dogotan islands. The latter two along with Tigabu island are within Sabah’s purview.
The taukeh told me that one of his friends had already made a report to Maritime Enforcement Agency.
Last month I went back to the fishing community in Kudat, Pitas and Bengkoka Peninsular to gather more information about the senseless killing of sea turtles in Pulau Tiga.
Some fishermen in Bengkoka told me that they heard there were buyers for live sea turtle.
The buyers were a local from Kudat and his partners a Chinese- Malaysian and Filipino men (with Mykads).
The buyers allegedly collect live sea turtles from islanders and took them across the border to Mangse or Balabac Island in Palawan.
Once in a while they would slaughter sea turtle and hide the meat inside fish iceboxes. They then bring it across the Balabac Straits where they sell the meat to fishing vessels from mainland China and Vietnam.
This explained the horrying sight of 60 carcasses – some with a carapace, plastron, head and four limbs intact but no rotting flesh, others with the scutes removed – that greeted me three weeks earlier when I visited Pulau Tiga.
Turtle meat, a delicacy
Wholesale price for fresh turtle meat is RM300 per kg. Its RM100 a kg for dried turtle meat.
China and Vietnam fishing vessels prefer to buy live sea turtle. Live adult sea turtle can be sold at RM2,000 and whereas juveniles fetch only RM1, 300 each.
My informer in Pitas introduced me to his business counterpart, two Ubian guys who sell to him fresh and dried fish and sea cucumber sourced from Dogoton, Mantabuan, Mandidarah and Malawali islands in the Philippines.
During the interview, the two Ubian guys were bragging that they used to have dealings with a smuggling network which had clients who bought sea turtles.
But their dealings turned sour last year after they were cheated and backstabbed.
Last week I visited Tigabu (off Sabah), another small island populated with 500 Ubians, to study sea cucumber ranching, an economic activity that did not exist here six years ago.
The head of village said he was worried about the the illegal immigrants from the neighbouring islands of Dogotan.
He told me that Tigabu beach was once the nesting sites for sea turtles. He said villagers would collect and allow them to hatch in safe environment. They protected the eggs from seabirds, monitor lizards and ‘other’ prey. The villagers, he said, don’t consume the eggs because it is prohibited by Islam.
He said he had seen from time to time people wearing mask (he called them Munduk or pirates) on speed boats passing by Tigabu Island on the way to hunt turtles at the reefs near Jambongan and Kinabungan.
He also noticed that there was a drastic reduction in number of sea turtles coming to Tigabu since five years ago about the same time when more illegal immigrants came to occupy the nearby islands.
Bad news for sea turtles
Further away from Tigabu is another tiny white sandy beach island of Mantabuan.
In 2007 when I first visited Mantabuan, it was not occupied by human and there was no sea turtle nesting either because Mantabuan is submerged during high tide.
During my visit last week, I estimated there were at least 240 sea gypsies, some Cagayan and Balabac people living on Mantabuan.
Their fishing method is explosive. They use cyanide fishing and hook and line.
When my team arrived, one of the Ubian guys I interviewed in Kudat in February was there as well.
He introduced me to a sea gypsy who caught sea turtles and sold it to the highest bidders in Balambangan and Mangse.
Poaching in Pulau Tiga, Kudat is just a trail from a long supply chain begining from the islanders to middlemen and consumers in China, Vietnam and Japan.
We just have to look at what happened across border in Mangsee and Balabac Island.
In November 2013, two Malaysians – Ku Vui Hjung and Rahman Abd Rahman both from Kudat – were arrested and charged for violating Section 27 (f) of the Republic Act 9147 (Wildlife Act) by the Philippine National Police (PNP) Marine Group.
They were arrested at the island of Mangsee allegedly in possession of roughly 10,000 sea turtle eggs, two sacks of dried sea turtle meat and three sacks of dried giant clams.
In October 2013, PNP Marine Group arrested 13 Vietnamese for illegally entering Philippine waters and poaching protected marine species.
On board the Vietnamese fishing vessels were the dead remains of 300 sea turtles.
In November 2012 the PNP found and rescued 123 live sea turtles of various species hidden in three submerged cages inside a mangrove swamp in Balabac Island. No arrests were made.
Six of the 123 rescued turtles died and the surviving 117 were later released at Roughton island, which the Philippine’s had designated as a marine species sanctuary in Palawan.
On December 2011, six Chinese poachers were arrested on the South China Sea, where both nations have overlapping territorial claims.
The confiscated speedboat was loaded with 11 sea turtles and fishing equipments.
The arrest of poachers in Balabac is a clear indication that the underground market is not only well functioning but also moving the supply frontier towards the south following migration routes of the sea turtles.
This is bad news for sea turtles.