By James Alin
The poaching of sea turtle near Banggi-Balambangan channel is an open secret.
Contrary to what reported by Berita Harian (March 9, 2015) and Chinese Newspaper Asia Times (March 10, 2015), the Sabah wildlife department (SWD), Sabah parks, maritime agency (MMEA) and marine police was not the first one to discover the carcasses.
Many fishermen saw it months before the 19 carcasses of Green turtle were retrieved from Pulau Tiga. These fishermen were eyewitnesses of poaching activities who agreed to talk on record with a condition of anonymity. The following is the summary their accounts.
Eyewitnesses accounts of poaching on Pulau Tiga
On November 7, 2014, fishermen from Laya-Laya, Pitas went fishing and collecting turtle eggs, they spent overnight at Simanguak – an abandoned village on PulauTiga. They saw unidentified individuals camping out on island as a well as casting a turtle net.
I meet the same fishermen again on November 28 Pagasaon Bay, Pitas. They have asked middlemen who buys fish from them to lodge report to SWD and MMEA as I advised them to do. They do not want to do it themselves to avoid “trouble” and they don’t trust the enforcement agencies, especially SWD. In the morning, they saw many carcasses rotting away at a site in PulauTiga.
On December 4, some fishermen from Banggi and Balambangan told me that during their recent fishing expedition to PulauTiga, they saw turtle being downloaded from boats and carried to a site behind a bush. On December 26-27, some Bonggi people saw many turtle carcasses at a site about 50m away from graveyards in PulauTiga.
The Bonggi have a tradition of going fishing and staying few nights on Pulau Tiga, especially during the unusual extended low tide which coincidence with Christmas time, to collect Kalasiu, Kahanga, Balat and Ramis. Collecting these species is much easier when sandy sea grasses is exposed during low tide.
Rampant even during low nesting months
Sea turtle nesting occurs all year round on Pulau Tiga but poaching is rampant even during low nesting months between November and December and during monsoon period between January and February. Why? Poaching requires a team working and locating prey, especially during the rainy days which is difficult but not impossible.
How do they know where to cast a net? It is common knowledge that the mature female Green turtle have a high fidelity to natal sites. In the water, turtle are either mating or foraging or resting at the benthic feeding ground in shallow waters with sea grasses or reef tops. The poachers “gut out” or cut out the meat from carcasses, so they learned that Green turtle diet consists of “rumput -rumpailaut”.
Processing of dead turtles
When possible, poachers prefer to sell turtle alive. After casting the net, they wait patiently, once caught, turtle will be removed to prevent drowning. It would be put into a sea water tank equipped with a compressor, and then transported to pens elsewhere.
However, to avoid being seen by fishermen or detected by authorities, they will cast nets early morning and return to it in the afternoon or evening. Or if the net is cast after sunset, poachers return to it every few hours.
When the weather is rough, they will check in the morning the next day. Processing a dead turtle must be done quickly before dawn, and behind the bush. Poachers will turn the turtle on their back, cut open the head and hind side of plastron to take out meat, lungs, liver and heart.
The rest will be left to rot or eaten by thriving population of monitor lizards, sea snakes, ants, termites and crab.
Monsoon months and transactions at the disputed territories
Poaching during monsoon reduces the probability of being seen by local fishermen. Moreover, according to my informants, poaching occurs in November to February, to cater for Chinese New Year demand for live turtle soup, fresh or dried meat or eggs.
Transactions between Chinese fishermen and poachers take place in Kalayaan islands group – near the disputed territories of Maya-Maya shoal, Tamban, Hasa-Hasa shoal and Oyao Island. While in Kudat, poachers will be hiding from authorities by plying between PulauTiga and in Palawan areas of Coy-Coy reef, South Mangsee, North Mangsee and Isla Salingsingan.
Most stay with relatives in Dogoton, SiBogo in Banggi or MengkubauLaut, Pitas in order to conduct surveillance on Malaysian security forces especially the when the latter patrols at the turtle nesting areas. Poachers and smugglers alike called this tactic “TagonaTago” (Tagalog literally translated as hide, hit and run?). More....