Page last updated at 16:34 GMT, Monday, 11 August 2008 17:34 UK

Malaysia's fight to save rare turtle

The BBC's Robin Brant looks at Malaysia's efforts to save one of the world's most endangered marine animals, the hawksbill turtle, from the humans who eat its eggs.

Hawksbill turtle
The eggs and shell of the endangered hawksbill turtle are in great demand

She is only a few centimetres long and she is covered in specks of sand. Her eyes are barely open.

Born in captivity, the next few hours are going to be hectic for this baby hawksbill turtle.

Hatched from ping-pong ball-sized eggs, the turtles break through the sand that covers their nest.

As they scurry around a man from the hatchery plucks them out, counts them, then gently drops them into a white polystyrene box for the short trip to the beach.

He finds a spot, a few metres from where the waves are lapping up on to the sand. Slowly, he turns the box on its side.

Then, with a torch, he uses the light to lure the turtles out towards the waters of the Straits of Melaka off the western Malaysian coast.

The straits and the Indian Ocean beyond await them. But most will die young. The survival rate is atrocious - only 1 in 1,000 will make it from egg to adulthood.

The baby hawksbill turtles are released on the beach

"The outlook...particularly with Malaysia, with regard to the lack of conservation efforts, is not good at all," says Mark Aluyia from the illegal trade monitoring group Traffic. "There is a distinct decline to be observed."

Prized shell

The hawksbill turtle is critically endangered. For decades it has been hunted for its prized shell.

Golden or dark brown, it is used for jewellery and other decoration in what is known as the Beko trade.

But there is a more serious threat to this animal long before it reaches the ocean - human beings who eat its eggs.

Turtle eggs for sale in market (photo: Traffic/WWF)
Despite the illegality, hawksbill eggs are on sale in local markets

For centuries locals have consumed the eggs as a delicacy, or simply as a source of protein.

The Fisheries Department said it still happened in this part of Malaysia, but that it was rare.

"Of course there are maybe one or two...but it is getting less now," said Robert Leong of the department.

But that is not what those working on the conservation effort say.

An expert at an organisation working in Malaysia said that it estimated one in three eggs were stolen from nests for consumption. It used to be as high as one in two.

"I think it's a big problem because traditions are protected in these countries in South East Asia. It's very difficult to find alternatives... which have the same value as a turtle egg," said Traffic's Mark Aluyia.

At the beach a long trail left by a hawksbill turtle which had ploughed upwards to make its nest close to a tree was clearly visible.

The indentations made by the flippers stretched back about 50 metres to the water's edge.

A nest patrol was also present - a team of men who scoured the beach armed with torches and radios looking for poachers.

But critics say these are rare. At some landing sites, it is claimed, they visit only once a month.

Open market

Enforcement of laws which protect the hawksbill turtle is non-existent.

Notice boards by the beach detail the law and what punishment will be dealt out to those who steal eggs or kills turtles; a RM500 fine (equivalent to US$150) or three months in jail.

But Mr Leong said he had never heard of anyone in the state being locked up for breaking the law.

Boys gathers turtle eggs (photo: Traffic/WWF)
The turtles' survival rate is already low without human poaching

"We have to have the soft approach because we cannot offend the local elders here," he explained, stressing their focus is on raising awareness of the problem.

While it is illegal to possess the eggs, let alone trade them, they are available on the open market.

It is thought most are consumed by locals living near the beaches.

The hawksbill turtle is regarded as one of the most beautiful turtles to grace the ocean.

Adults can grow to almost a metre in length. They are a majestic sight.

Malaysia hopes to increase the number of baby hawksbills hatched in captivity but overall the species is in distinct decline.

They have been coming to this corner of Malaysia to lay their eggs for centuries.

A notice board a few paces back from the edge of the beach in Melaka says: "Welcome Home Hawksbill Turtles".

But home is where they are most in danger, from human development and human consumption.

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