IMCC5: Sarawak, sea turtles and some slightly obsessed scientists

By Kristen Louise McNamara (Perhentian Turtle Project)

Sea turtles, with their ancient lineages and countless unique traits as marine reptiles, attract many of us towards understanding their populations and conservation. Their populations, particularly in Malaysia, are under threat because of poaching, fisheries by-catch, marine debris, destruction of habitat, boat strikes and many other factors. As you can imagine, when a group of sea turtle researchers hailing from all over the world come together in the same room, there’s never a dull moment amongst old and new friends.

The 5th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC5) was held in Kuching, Sarawak from 24-29 June 2018. Here the Malaysian Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology came together to discuss the plight of sea turtles in the region for the first time. Being the first conference I attended, I had travelled from my project on the Perhentian Islands off the coast of Terengganu in Peninsular Malaysia, not really knowing what to expect. Throughout the week I started to recognise familiar faces attending turtle-related talks who seemed eager throughout the presentations. Once Wednesday 27th June came around, everybody was keen to share their findings and discuss the current landscape (or should I say seascape) for sea turtles in Southeast Asia.

The day started with Dr. Juanita Joseph from Universiti Malaysia Sabah giving a plenary talk about sea turtles to the whole of IMCC5. She spoke about the sad demise of the Leatherback Turtles in Malaysia and how she did not wish to see other sea turtle species have the same fate. From poaching to habitat loss and exploitation, the turtles in Malaysia, and for that matter around the world, have the odds stacked against them. After discussing such poignant literature, she called for more enforcement of legislation and further research to close current gaps and combat challenges in the field.

In the afternoon a symposium entirely dedicated to turtles in Southeast Asia took place, with all of the research and conservation efforts of those attending from turtle backgrounds combined. It might sound cliche but it was inspiring after all these years working in turtle conservation, to sit in a room filled with professionals in this field. Firstly, Gavin Jolis’ fascinating and also heartbreaking investigation into the illegal sea turtle trade in Sabah also captured everybody’s interest. As part of the WWF-Malaysia, his team in Semporna, Sabah had come across dozens of turtle skeletons in an area akin to a graveyard where adult turtles had been slaughtered and left at a stockpiling point. It was thought that foreign fishermen, likely from China would be called to collect them to be sold onto the market, fulfilling the demand for turtle meat and shells. Furthermore, it was estimated that between 1999 and 2016, more than 200,000 eggs have been poached and sent to the Philippines, Indonesia and throughout Malaysia. Gavin’s team, with the help of local community members have uncovered that these are well-planned operations. To combat this new mode of operation in poaching, enforcement, task force and advocacy throughout the region is the ultimate goal.

Dr. Jarina Mohd Jani from Universiti Malaysia Terengganu discussed the local challenges of sea turtle conservation in Terengganu, where the consumption and trade of turtle eggs have been commonplace since the arrival of modern infrastructure in the 1920s. She outlined that despite conservation efforts involving an egg tender system and hatchery, the Leatherback Turtle population in Terengganu was depleted by 2001 when no eggs hatched successfully. With the selling of turtle eggs still permitted in Peninsular Malaysia and poaching for meat continuing in northern Sabah, it is a critical time to reflect on the tragedy of losing Malaysia’s Leatherback Turtles. There is now much being done to conserve sea turtles throughout Malaysia, however with an increased market price for eggs being documented, poaching activities are also on the rise. Conservation efforts are being challenged because policies and initiatives for their protection have failed to take into account human interactions with the species. Her research thus implemented a livelihood approach framework in an attempt to better understand what sea turtles mean in the lives of whom they share marine resources with. She concluded by saying that alongside a wider research scope of the sea turtle’s life cycle, more information beyond their biological aspects is needed to mitigate the anthropogenic threats that sea turtles face.

Noor Azariyah Mohtar (Naja), also from WWF-Malaysia then spoke about her preliminary study of the geomorphology of Terengganu’s turtle nesting beaches and their vulnerability to climate change. With an intense northeast monsoon, the coastline of mainland Terengganu is very susceptible to erosion. Her research aimed to monitor how nesting beaches were affected due to erosion and anthropogenic activities such as oil and gas exploration and coastal development. With the shoreline shifting, nesting turtles are having to travel further to lay their eggs and are exposed to more risks in this process. Suggested mitigation methods for this included implementing erosion buffers, sustaining the integrity of the coast and organising a coastal watch with prescribed guidelines and protocols.

Tanya Leibrick from the Turtle Watch Camp at Pulau Tengah then discussed her findings and recommendations for the first sea turtle conservation project in Johor, Malaysia. Here the turtle population faces problems due to lack of enforcement where both unlicensed and licensed egg collectors sell turtle eggs for consumption. The project aims to protect the population by distributing eggs laid there and on the neighbouring islands into a hatchery along with the implementation of regular patrolling efforts, an outreach/awareness program and liaison of information to the marine protected areas (MPA) authorities. In this way, Tanya and her team hope to better understand the population and eventually improve the legislation and enforcement to protect sea turtles in the area.

Sue Audrey Ong from LAMAVE (Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute) outlined her work on Apo Island in the Philippines. The island is a popular tourist destination for turtle snorkelling activities, having recorded 71,000 visitors to the island in 2015. The aim of the project is to understand the size, aggregation and seasonality of the turtle population, their habitat use and the impact of tourism in the area. This is done by performing photo identification of foraging turtles, surveys of turtle and tourist interactions both in and out of the water, and ascertaining the local perception of turtles through various levels of engagement.

K.L. Chew then shared her collaborative research from the Lang Tengah Turtle Watch (LTTW) and Perhentian Turtle Project (PTP). Like LAMAVE, these two projects are also using photo identification to understand the movement patterns of green turtles throughout their foraging and nesting habitats in the East coast of Peninsular Malaysia. After collating the known populations between the two projects, it was discovered that a turtle who is known to nest at Lang Tengah Island has also been seen feeding in the waters around Perhentian Islands. This offers some insight into the movement of green turtles between the two sites. The sharing of databases amongst projects that use photo identification will no doubt reap benefits in the coming years by using a non-invasive effort to understand the movement of turtles throughout the area.

Last, but not least, Dr. Nicolas Pilcher, founder of Marine Research Foundation (MRF), spoke about the implementation of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) throughout Malaysia. With a significant number of turtles lost to fisheries each year, the long-term engagement of the Malaysian Department of Fisheries (DoF) to make TEDs a legal requirement has been a decade-long journey. This has been no small task. Dr. Pilcher spoke about his efforts to combine science-based evidence of by-catch with the engagement of fishers and finding solutions to socioeconomic challenges. He spoke about the challenges and triumphs throughout the process, but with TEDs ultimately offering a win-win situation for fishers and turtles, their gradual implementation will surely help to reduce by-catch rates over the coming decades.

Symposium group photo (left to right): Seh Ling, Sue, Dr. Jarina, Tanya, K.L., Naja, Dr. Nick and Gavin.

Following the symposium, the Turtle Working Group of SCB Malaysia Chapter ran their first meeting to further discuss the work that everybody was involved with. It was recognised that despite the growing body of data pertaining to turtle populations and mortalities, it is still biased by the reporting agencies’ location. To gain a whole understanding of sea turtle mortality throughout Malaysia, more data is vital. As active conservation efforts and awareness increases around the country however, people are becoming more compelled to report mortalities. This will allow understanding the scope of threats in a more wholesome sense. Alongside this, it was mentioned that growing interest in turtle conservation and their life cycle will require some guidelines in protocol and best practice in the field. Everyone in attendance discussed their specific concerns and how best to combat them. It was clear this would require more collaboration towards influencing conservation efforts throughout the region, but this meeting served as the perfect starting point for the group. I tingled with excitement while everyone talked eagerly around me. This was a completely new experience and incredibly inspiring.

After the meeting I attended the poster session where Nur Izzati Roslan and Alberto Garcia Baciero from the Juara Turtle Project (JTP) presented their research about using multi-disciplinary conservation strategies to recover sea turtles on Tioman Island, Pahang. These strategies involved collecting eggs for a hatchery and calculating hatching success rates, and how the involvement of the local community can serve as a cornerstone for successful conservation efforts in the region.

Enjoying the poster presentation by Izzati and Beto from JTP

The day wrapped up well after dark and I arrived back to my accommodation almost overflowing with new knowledge and ideas. No aspect of the IMCC5 had been left untouched by the turtle working group and couldn’t wait to share my experience with my colleagues back on Perhentian.

I was greeted by many familiar faces for the remainder of the week, and shared some insight into what I had learned from the talks I had attended and vice versa (it was impossible to attend everything we were interested in!). I took in all I could of Kuching, strolling along the riverfront with the majestic State Legislative Assembly Building in the frame of almost every photo I took. Being currently based in Terengganu, it was interesting to see the difference in culture between Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia. Kuching has strong roots tied to more than 40 indigenous groups with their own dialect, traditional dress and lifestyle. The diverse range of cultures resonated throughout the streets as I grew comfortable with the city over the week. All too soon however, my time at the IMCC5 had come to a close. The turtle working group said their goodbyes at the closing gala which was held at the Sarawak Cultural Village, each of us inviting the other to visit our bases dotted throughout Malaysia and nearby. As a working group in the SCB-Malaysia chapter, we’d been brought together by our common interest in turtles, and by the end of the week I could feel that here is where I had made some life-long friendships. Finally I had found a space to share my passion.


Sea turtle symposium at IMCC 2018

Photo credit - Perhentian Turtle Project 2015

Photo courtesy of Perhentian Turtle Project

The 5th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) will be held in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia from 24th to 29th June 2018. The IMCC is the flagship biennial meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) Marine Section, previously held in Washington D.C, USA (2009), Victoria, Canada (2011), Glasgow, UK (2014) and St. John’s, Canada (2016). For the first time, the meeting will be held in Malaysia, a “low or middle income” country as defined by the World Bank, also one of the world’s most biologically diverse countries.

The IMCC brings together a large number of marine conservation biologists, social scientists, practitioners, policy makers, teachers and journalists to help “Make Marine Science Matter”, which presents a good opportunity for sea turtle conservationists to meet and share knowledge. Dr. Chen Pelf Nyok (from Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia) and I (from Universiti Malaysia Terengganu) will be organizing a sea turtle symposium titled Sea turtle conservation in Southeast Asia: where we are and how do we move forward”?

Sea turtles are ancient creatures that have been around since the time of the dinosaurs. Nearly all seven species of sea turtles that spend majority of the lifetime in the ocean are endangered due to fisheries bycatch, marine debris, harvesting for meat and eggs, destruction of habitat as well as boat strikes. In some countries, conservation efforts have begun more than half a century ago. Much has been studied about their life history, population trends, ecology, conservation genetics, conservation efforts, human-sea turtle interactions, policy and etc.


Photos courtesy of Perhentian Turtle Project

The symposium will provide an avenue for sea turtle researchers, conservationists, non-academicians to promote their research, share their findings, identify common threats and legislation loopholes.It also provides a platform to discuss how these findings can be translated into advances in conservation policies and legislation, and communicated to the public.

Speakers will share on the various aspects of sea turtle research and conservation in the Southeast Asia region at this symposium, including Dr. Nicholas Pilcher from Marine Research Foundation who is also a member of IUCN SSC Marine Turtle Specialist Group, Gavin Jolis and Noor Azariyah Mohtar from WWF-Malaysia, Dr. Jarina Mohd Jani who is a human ecologist from Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, Sue A. Ong from Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines, The Cuong Chu from Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, K. L. Chew from Lang Tengah Turtle Watch as well as Tanya Leibrick from Turtle Watch Camp.

In addition to this symposium, there are numerous presentations on sea turtle research and conservation during the IMCC by Dr. Andrea Phillott (from FLAME University), Madhuri Ramesh (from Dakshin Foundation), Azalea Anota (from University of Papua New Guinea), Dr. Abdulmaula Hamza (from Universiti Malaysi Terengganu) and many more. Dr. Juanita Joseph from Universiti Malaysia Sabah will also be giving a plenary talk on the current status and challenges in saving sea turtles in Malaysia. Click here to check out all the amazing turtle talks at IMCC.

We look forward to meeting you at IMCC! Feel free to get in touch with Pelf ( or me ( for more information on the sea turtle symposium.

Seh Ling.PTP

Photo courtesy of Perhentian Turtle Project

Asian elephant symposia at ATBC 2018


Using GPS collars to study wild elephants’ movement (photo credit: Wong Ee Phin/MEME)

The 55th Annual Meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) will be held in Kuching, Sarawak from the 1st to 5th July 2019. This is one of several international conferences taking place in Malaysia, attracting researchers from all over the world, that we (biodiversity and conservation researchers in Malaysia) should take the chance to participate.

Realising that ATBC 2018 presents a good opportunity for us to gather elephant researchers in the region to share knowledge, Dr. Nurzhafarina Othman (from Project Seratu Atai) and I (from Management & Ecology of Malaysian Elephants, MEME) decided to take up the challenge to organise a symposium for Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). Happy to say that our proposal has been accepted and the theme of the symposium is:  “Moving towards coexistence-reconciling elephant conservation and humans’ social dimension”.

Asian elephants, the largest terrestrial animal in Asia, are being threatened by the lack of habitat and also human-elephant conflict throughout its range. Besides the lack of knowledge on elephant population and behaviour, there is also a big gap on understanding local communities and their sentiments, and how to engage with them successfully on elephant conservation. Often the need of the community and elephant conservation are placed at opposing ends, when there could be a middle path that allows coexistence.

The objective of this symposium is to examine the human-elephant relationship from both angles (i.e. human social dimension and elephant behaviour) to promote deeper insights into human-elephant conflict and mitigation impact. Our speakers will look at the intricate relationship between human and elephants, emphasising on what it takes to engage with local communities and live in coexistence with elephants, and share new findings on elephant-human relationships. Instead of managing elephants as pest and problem animals, we should collectively start looking into conservation psychology and see how we can manage people to reduce the conflict.

There will be a diversity of speakers at this symposium including key players in the field of Asian elephant conservation, Ph.D.s and early career researchers. Confirmed speakers include Dr. Alexandra Zimmerman (Chester Zoo) who is the head of IUCN Human Wildlife Conflict Task Force, and Ananda Kumar (Nature Conservation Foundation) who won the esteemed Whitley Awards for nature conservation with the elephant SMS project at Annamalai Hills, southern India.

If you are interested to attend the ATBC 2018, the deadline for early bird registration and abstract submission 31st of March 2018 (note that for symposium abstract, the deadline is 15th March). To find out more about ATBC 2018, visit their website at For information on the Asian elephant symposium, feel free to contact the organisers at and

wild elephants in Kenyir_guess how many

Wild elephants at Kenyir, Terengganu (Photo credit: Wong Ee Phin/ MEME)


Wild mango seedlings growing from seeds defecated by Asian elephants (Photo credit: Wong Ee Phin/MEME)


Southeast Asian Seabird Symposium at IMCC5

Three seabird researchers from Malaysia (Dr. Abdulmaula Hamza), Japan (Dr. Simba Chan) and Hong Kong (Mr. Yat-tung Yu) are organising a symposium titled “Seabirds in Southeast Asia: need for collaboration programme” ​within the 5th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC5), which will be held in June 24th-29th, 2018 at the City of Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.

This seabird symposium aims to present current initiatives in seabird conservation, needs in SE Asia and to discuss the possibility of a new collaborative project on seabird research and conservation via policies, training and management guidelines of seabird sites for South East Asia. It also aims to promote participatory research among seabird scientists with in the East Asian Australasian Flyway region. The symposium also will present current efforts of ringing and tracking schemes in the Flyway region and how we can establish a common ringing/tracking scheme database for the Southeast Asian region, to better understand movements of breeding seabirds in the region using scientific standards.


There will be 10-12 presenters, and each oral presentation will be 10-12 minutes with time reserved at the end for discussion. Please let us know​ ​if you are interested to share your research at the symposium, and provide us with a title of your presentation. We will then email you the symposium code, which you will provide when you submit the abstract on the IMCC5 website.

The call for Abstracts is now open, and will close on 16th March 2018. You will need to sign up for an account to submit your Abstract.


If you need more information please email Dr. Abdulmaula Hamza at or

Sea turtle symposium at the IMCC5

The Turtle Working Group is organising a symposium titled “Sea turtle conservation in Southeast Asia: where we are and how do we move​ ​forward?” ​at the 5th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC), which will be held as follows:

Date: 24-29th June 2018
Venue: Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia

This symposium​ ​provides a platform for sea turtle communities in Southeast Asia to identify common threats, to build network and foster future collaborative efforts and research to protect sea turtle​ ​populations.

The symposium will last 2 hours in total. There will be 8-10 presenters, and each oral presentation will be 10-12 minutes with time reserved at the end for discussion. Please let us know​ ​if you are interested to speak at the symposium​, and provide us with a title of your presentation. We will then email you the symposium code, which you will provide when you submit the abstract on the IMCC5 website.

The call for Abstracts is now open, and will close on 16th March 2018. You will need to sign up for an account to submit your Abstract.