Conservation Tourism: A restricted savour

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Tourism is one of the world’s biggest industries. Tourism equates to 10% of global GDP and is set to continue expanding (World Travel & Tourism Council). It is also a huge employer, with many developing countries increasingly dependant on employment associated with tourism. 

Ecotourism, nature based tourism and conservation tourism is still a relatively new field of study and practice. In Malaysia, I was part of a project to create a bridge between tourism and conservation, in a relationship designed to benefit both.

Turtle Nesting Beaches

On the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia, lies one of the most stunning, high quality hotels in the region. Tanjong Jara (meaning rest bay) is a five star YTL resort, and is a favourite of professionals from Kuala Lumpur, eager to enjoy the sandy beaches, stunning diving and good weather of the East Coast of Malaysia.

Also in this region, was one of the most important nesting beaches for turtles on the planet. Rantau Abang, was once a key nesting site for leatherback turtles. However beach development and egg poaching has wiped out the huge breeding population of leatherbacks from these beaches. Green turtles still nest on these beaches, but for many years 100% of their eggs were taken, for local consumption. The sea turtles, of which are also facing huge threats out at sea, are struggling to maintain population numbers.

Turtle Egg Fate

The local fisheries department have control over the fate of the beaches and the eggs. At the start of each year, they locally auction off the egg collection rights for beaches, with local men putting in a secret bid. The highest bidder wins egg collection rights for that year, with tender holders of each beach choosing to do with the eggs, of a endangered species, whatever they like. There is a distinct lack of transparency in this process. Many have held tenders for that beach for many years, and although Fisheries do ask for data relating to number of Turtle nests each year, by fault or not, a true amount is unlikely to be published.

The communities here have depended upon turtle eggs for consumption and income for hundreds of years. Many of the egg collectors have long family histories of tender-ship and are experts at approaching extremely timid mother turtles. They also know the tricky process of finding a nest, if the egg laying has be missed and the mother has camouflaged her nest already. Sadly, sustainable take levels have long since passed, with the invention of refrigeration, population increases and technological advances making harvesting of all eggs possible. 

However, it is still legal for these men to collect the nests of eggs and sell them on. Some tender holders incubate eggs and have cleverly created tourism based hatcheries. This alone does not necessarily spell savour for the hatchlings, as temperature determines their sex, there is a chance with poor management all will be female or male, spelling disaster in 20-25 years time.

Most tender holders eat some eggs and sell the rest at market. Here they reach around 3 ringgit each (around $0.70 USD) with price dependant on time of year and availability. A nest of eggs will contain between 100-150 eggs. The money from three nests is equivalent to their whole monthly wage. Many tender holders use this money to put their children through school, and are far removed from the “poacher” stereotype. Mainly men will buy turtle eggs, as it is believed they have aphrodisiac properties.

Lang Tengah Turtle Watch

I visited Tanjong Jara, along with the co-founder of Lang Tengah Turtle Watch (LTTW), Raphe van Zevenbergen in 2015. The resort offered dive excursions to see Turtles, and had a very heavy nature focus. However, security lighting on the beaches meant that turtles no longer nested at the front of the beach. There was a demand from guests, wanting to watch the magical event of a turtle nesting. There were some activities, with local workers offering to take guests to see turtles up to 30km away in the depth of night, but it was extremely poorly managed. 

We saw an opportunity to create an alliance between a demand from the guests, a desperate need for better conservation, and management for the sea turtles, before anymore further local extinctions. Fast forward, and the resort is now home to three seasonal hatcheries. Through community engagement and relationship building, Lang Tengah Turtle Watch has strong relationships with these local tender holders.

Conservation & Tourism working together

Guests can sponsor a nest, effectively buying the nests from local egg collectors, at the market rate, using LTTW as a not for profit middle man. The nest is directly diverted from market, incubated securely within the resort beaches and guests receive updates for their sponsored nest. A whole nest of turtles is conserved, local egg collectors still receive their pay and guests are happy to have contributed to conservation, and to receive the LTTW experience. Nest checks also occur regularly, after roughly a 40 day incubation time, and all guests are invited down for a turtle talk and to view a nest being checked for fungus, predation and eventually to check development of hatchlings. These talks are incredibly popular within the resort, and are offered completely free for guests. LTTW staff also manage an information hut 7 days a week, and guests can come and receive informal lectures anytime during the day.

So far this project has turned the damaging and still legal process of egg collecting, into a sustainable conservation tourism project. But this process, although beneficial for all parties, does require a solidly regimented and ethical management from Lang Tengah Turtle Watch. 

The relationship between conservation and tourism here is symbiotic. To benefit each other, there is a delicate balance that has to be maintained. If the hatcheries become too heavily tourism based, including bowing to all guests requests (including touching or handling hatchlings) it will damage the process of development for the turtles. Hatchlings can easily be effected by temperature during development and at risk of over excursion, meaning there are strict procedures and hatchery management protocols. Without proper management and poor success rate of hatchling survival, the integrity and conservation potential is lost. 

Similarly, it is extremely important that LTTW manages a hatchery that is exciting, interactive and informative for guests. This maintains the business viability of the hatcheries that are kept within the resort. It also serves as a brilliant education tool for resort guests, and their children. Additionally, in the rare scenario that a turtle does nest in front of the resort, LTTW are on call to monitor the situation, talk to guests and ensure she successfully nests. Guests can watch the whole experience, safe in the knowledge they will not scare her away. Guests can also attend, free of charge the extremely exciting and inspiring hatchling releases in the evenings.

Conservation and tourism can very effectively work together symbiotically and this project is an extremely good example of tourism and conservation working hand in hand.. However, it takes strong management to ensure a balance is kept and that what is best for all parties is maintained. This is a very exciting project, that is luckily managed by the wonderful Lang Tengah Turtle Watch and within a beautiful resort.

For more information head to Lang Tengah Turtle Watch’s Website, or for up to date news, head to their Facebook and Instagram.

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