STW Sundays #5: Chen Pelf Nyok, on Conserving Turtles

Save-The-World Sundays is a series of interviews conducted with remarkable individuals who are engaged in environmental initiatives and movements. This Sunday, we feature Chen Pelf Nyok, turtle enthusiast, marine biologist, and co-founder of Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia (TCS).

Tell us about yourself.

I was born in Kuantan, but grew up and went to schools in Ipoh, Melaka and Kuala Terengganu. I have relatives living in Ipoh and Sg. Lembing, a small town about 40km from Kuantan, so that explains my constant traveling between these places.

I grew up in a single-parent family, and I had always been the big sister in my nucleus as well as extended family. My younger sister and I were latchkey kids throughout most of our primary and secondary school days, and our Mum worked long hours at a garment factory to make ends meet. Growing up in a “somewhat difficult” environment had taught me a lot about being a reliable and responsible person.

My Mum is my biggest fan

My Mum is my biggest fan

What is your Save-The-World project?

My Save-The-World project isn’t a single project with a single set of methodology, results and conclusion.

My Save-The-World project is about researching and learning more about a species of critically endangered freshwater turtles found nowhere else in the world except in Peninsular Malaysia and perhaps Cambodia.

It is about disseminating this information to decision makers in order to formulate a sound conservation plan for this species.

It is about changing the mindset of local villagers from that of “consuming terrapin eggs” to that of “conserving river terrapins”.

It is about educating the younger generations of today, the importance of conserving our natural heritage, and what they – however young they are – can do to help save this species that lives naturally in the river behind their houses.

It is about creating and spreading awareness on the plight of terrapins to the general public, because I believe that educated people make informed decisions, i.e. to not eat turtle eggs, to support local turtle conservation activities, etc.

To do all the above, and more, I co-founded a non-governmental organization called Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia (TCS). Our society aims to bring about the recovery of depleted wild populations of turtles through partnerships with like-minded organizations, individuals, and local communities, as well as through our own programmes.

What inspired you to start the project?

When I was young, I had this special affinity towards anything turtle. My Mum would buy me turtle shirts, turtle brooches and pins. By taking up Marine Biology in university, I had the opportunity to be involved in turtle research and conservation.

The more I was “involved” in the turtle projects, the more I realized that there is so much that needed to be done. For example, the river terrapin (Batagur affinis) is listed as one of the top 25 most critically endangered freshwater turtles and tortoises in the world by the Turtle Conservation Coalition. In order to conserve this species, the collection and consumption of river terrapin eggs has to stop. Conservation efforts have to be intensified and expanded. Local villagers and the general public have to be educated.

The one expression that inspires me very much is this: “If you have the privilege to know, you have the responsibility to take action.”

Having earned my Bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology and Master’s degree in Biodiversity and Conservation, and having been involved in various river terrapin research and conservation projects since 2004, I am now in a position to “take action.” And that is what I am doing.

Can you describe some of the work that you do?

Let’s take a look at the Kemaman river terrapin research and conservation project that I am currently leading.

A few years ago, a colleague and I conducted a statewide questionnaire-based survey in 10 major rivers in Terengganu to determine the presence of river terrapins in those rivers, as well as the factors that threaten their survival. As a result of that survey, we discovered a sizeable population of river terrapins in the Kemaman River, but at that time, no other agencies or departments were doing anything about it. My colleague and I felt that we should initiate a project to conserve the terrapins in the Kemaman River.

For two years now, I have been working closely with the local villagers who call themselves the “Terrapin Gang”. Every night at about 8:00 pm during the terrapin nesting season from February to March, we would spend the night at the major terrapin nesting bank. The journey to the nesting bank involves a 10-minute car ride, a 5-minute motorbike ride and another 5-minute boat ride across the river, in the dark.

A female river terrapin

A female river terrapin

At the riverbank, we sit (also in the dark) in a humble make-shift tent while we wait for the female terrapins to ascend the nesting bank. Whenever the female terrapin is done laying her eggs, one of the villagers carries her back to our tent, and another villager retrieves and brings back her eggs. Then, I record the co-ordinates of the nest and measure its depth.

At the tent, I measure, weigh and microchip the female terrapin (the villagers help to restrain her). I also record any abnormalities or injuries on the terrapin. When I’m done, we release the female terrapin, and then I measure and weigh all the eggs. This cycle repeats itself until approximately 6:00 am in the morning.

Back at the villager’s house, we incubate these terrapin eggs in an incubation plot that measures approximately 8ft x 8ft. Each nest is marked by a stick, and is protected with a wire-mesh. Some nests are incubated in styrofoam boxes to ensure a mix of female and males terrapins are hatched.

About 75 days later, the terrapin hatchlings begin to emerge. Again, I visit the villager everyday, to check the nests as well as mark, weigh and measure all newly emerged hatchlings.

The villager will raise the hatchlings for about 5-6 months before we release them into the Kemaman River in September/October. In the past, we have always organized a Terrapin Release event by the riverbank, and invited friends and supporters of TCS to attend the event. As part of our fund-raising efforts, members of the public are also encouraged to symbolically adopt and release a terrapin.

Here is a short video of us releasing terrapins into Setiu River in 2012.

[jwplayer mediaid=”13812″]

At what stage of your project are you right now?

I have been leading the Kemaman project for two years now, and I would like to be there for another year. The Terrapin Gang members are good at picking up the necessary skills, and I am confident that they can be left on their own to continue the river terrapin conservation project.

Ultimately, for any conservation project to succeed, it has to come from within the local community. Outsiders like TCS and myself can only provide the needed knowledge, technical skills and support whenever needed.

What difficulties did you face while working on the project?

One of the first challenges that I encountered was the fact that I was a woman working alongside six men. I needed a non-villager volunteer for at least a month in February-March. I would prefer a female volunteer so that I could share my hostel room with her.

Working with a team of six local villagers itself was a challenge too. They had been egg collectors for the most part of their adult lives, and here I was, a young researcher, coming to their village and working with them to conserve the terrapins. There were times when their idea of what was appropriate clashed with what researchers elsewhere have found and published.

Being a newly established NGO, we rely on research/seed grants to carry out our turtle projects. Thankfully, we had been quite successful in the past, securing grants from foreign grant-making agencies in the United States and Abu Dhabi. We have also recently been awarded a grant from Malaysian Nature Society and Berjaya Cares Foundation. We are constantly raising funds from members of the public through our symbolic Terrapin and Nest Adoption Programmes, Turtle Discovery Trips, The People’s Mosaic, etc. We hope to attract new members and supporters through our activities.

Here is a video on Turtle Discovery Trips organized by TCS:

[jwplayer mediaid=”13807″]

At the moment, we are using to raise funds for an iPad app called Little Turtle Messenger, that we are hoping to develop to raise awareness about turtle conservation issues.

What is rewarding about your project?

It warms my heart to learn, first-hand, that the villagers are now protecting river terrapin eggs instead of consuming them. In the past 2 years, I have been working very closely with the local communities in Kemaman, so much so that I feel that I am now one of the family members!

The responses from the teachers and students during our Turtle Awareness Programmes motivate me to do more. When I give a talk on turtles and the students listen attentively, I want to come back to the school the following week! When the students thank and “salam” me and tell me “Datang lagi ya?” at the end of the camp, I feel like I have done something right!

With students during Turtle Camp

With students during Turtle Camp

Also, my turtle projects have taken me to places that I had only dreamed of going. In 2008, I was awarded a 4-month scholarship to visit turtle research and conservation projects in the United States and Canada. In 2011, I was awarded a full bursary to attend a Student Conference on Conservation Science in Cambridge, UK. In the same year, I was also invited to share my turtle story at TEDxKL. Last year, I was awarded financial assistance to present my research at the 7th World Congress of Herpetology in Vancouver, Canada. And in August this year, I will be attending the biggest conference on freshwater turtles in St. Louis, US and will be presenting a talk and a poster. If you don’t realize it yet, these traveling and speaking opportunities have certainly motivated me!

What are the lessons that you have learnt from your project?

Besides picking up the necessary research and communication skills, one of the lessons that I have learned is that persistence pays. There were times when it seemed like nothing was worth the sacrifices that I had made, especially when it came to a tough uphill battle, but God has a way of rewarding me.

I have learned that when I persist in doing something good, help will come naturally. People walk into my life and we become friends. Turtle enthusiasts support my cause by making donations, participating in our outreach activities and offer me words of encouragement and support.

Rina Omar joined our Turtle Discovery Trip

Rina Omar joined our Turtle Discovery Trip

Would you be willing to talk to (and share resources possibly with) people who are interested to start a project similar to yours?

Of course! I would be more than happy to talk about turtles to anybody who would entertain me! In fact, if you would like to spearhead a turtle project–be it a research, conservation, education or public outreach project–please email me. I would love to talk to you!

Any advice that you would like to give to someone else who wants to make a difference?

If you would like to make a difference, be a volunteer. There are plenty of volunteering opportunities in Malaysia. One good place to start looking for a volunteering opportunity is right here at the portal.

Only by being a volunteer you are able to learn more about a certain organization and its causes/objectives. Participate in activities that you care about and learn about the challenges/issues at hand. Get down to the ground, communicate with people, and put all your problem-solving skills to work.

When you do something out of your genuine intention to help another person/ community/ organization, you are making a difference. 🙂

For more information, check out TCS’s website. Please also support the Little Turtle Messenger crowd-funded iPad app here.

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