A new journey…Bintan, Indonesia

After my six month stint in the Maldives, it was time for me to return to an area closer to home. I was fortunate to have the incredible opportunity to work as a Conservation Specialist in the Banyan Tree Bintan Conservation Lab. In the Maldives, there’s an incredible amount of research and monitoring done on a regular basis. In Indonesia, they have been accomplishing so much in terms of community outreach and raising environmental awareness, but more needed to be done in terms of research. My task was to establish an avian and forest habitat monitoring program aligned to the lab’s citizen science birdwatching program. In addition to this piece of research, I will also be helping out with guest activities such as nature walks, conservation talks, etc.

1. About Us

Where I’ll be spending a lot of time over the next three months (Bintan Conservation Lab)

The team here is small but incredibly effective, led by Mr Henry Singer, our environment naturalist, who has been running the lab here for more than a decade. Renald Yude, who supervises marine conservation activities and runs the Seedlings Youth Mentorship Program and Adlan Bakti, who runs terrestrial conservation in the lab. I also worked with one of their interns from the Bogor Agricultural University, Revani Utami, who helped out with the operations and conducted her research on characteristics of sea turtle egg-laying sites.

One of the most remarkable success stories and testaments to the resort’s success in community engagement is the turtle conservation program. I learned that the resort is adjacent to a village called Kampong Baru, a small conglomeration of around a hundred artisanal fishermen and their families. In the past, turtle eggs were often collected and consumed by locals. A study in 2004 observed estimated that approximately >90% of sea turtle nests were collected for consumption. Hawksbills have been observed nesting most frequently on the shores of Bintan between March and September. Today, however, the fishermen use their indigenous knowledge of the sea to aid conservation efforts. They’ve been trained to collect the eggs without damage and then to help with relocation efforts to a safer area where the eggs are free from both natural predators and poaching from humans.

The vast majority of nests are laid on the Northern coast of Bintan, on a long stretch of sandy beach known as Pasir Panjang (the same name as Singapore, except this beach is actually long). One morning, Renald had some incredible news to share. He’d received a call that a large female green had come ashore on Pasir Panjang to lay a clutch of eggs. I remember beating myself up for not being there and seeing the videos of this large female, but knowing we were on the same island for a couple of hours or so still felt pretty magical.

33782009_10209983768104322_8620191567153463296_n33864189_10209983767784314_5322899720375369728_n    Usually, turtles lay their eggs at night, but this female was found in the early morning (Photos from Renald Yude)

As mentioned earlier, Banyan Tree Bintan’s outreach and education work with the community enables an extensive network of people on the lookout for nesting sea turtles. Once these turtles are sighted laying eggs, we receive a call and we’ll be down to collect these eggs in a bucket hours later. The whole process is quite speedy. Then, the turtles are transferred to our hatchery, where they’re protected and accounted for.

24. Sea Turtle Conservation Program

Relocating my first nest of turtle eggs, green sea turtles!

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IMG_8875 2Sea turtle eggs are spherical, and look like a bunch of ping-pong balls buried in the sand!

This is basically how the relocation of the nest happens here in the program after they’ve been collected:

  1. Dig a circular hole at the hatchery that is approximately 1m deep and 30cm wide
  2. Scatter some sand from the bucket to line the bottom of the nest
  3. Slowly transfer eggs one at a time into the new nest, being careful to place it in the same position it was found in, avoid rotating the eggs.
  4. Count the number of eggs as they are placed into the nest, record information about the nest.
  5. Scatter the sand loosely from the bucket on top of the eggs.
  6. Loosely scatter and cover the nest with the surrounding sand, forming a small hill on the top of the nest.
  7. Wait patiently for several weeks!

There are a few things we need to be careful with as the whole process is delicate. When relocating the eggs, I learnt from Renald that it’s important to handle them very carefully, without tilting the egg and to place them in the same orientation they were found in. This apparently increases their hatching success. We also use gloves whenever they are handled to minimize contamination. As one person carefully transfers the eggs into a new hole, the other counts and records information about the eggs.

Green turtle eggs hatch between 45 to 75 days after they’re laid (of which between 50-75% will naturally hatch successfully), and hawksbill eggs hatch around 60 days after they’re laid, so it’s hard to predict exactly when these little hatchlings will first poke their heads out of the sand. A week before they’re due to hatch, we place mesh net around the nest and monitor the nest daily. Most of the nest hatches within the same day, but there always seem to be a few latecomers to the party, so we give them a couple more days or so before excavating the whole nest. It’s important to account for each egg when they are transferred in, so we know we haven’t left a single turtle hatchling behind.

The first mad rush of hatched sea turtles scrambling out of their nests in a race towards the sea. Turtles know their way by instinct and naturally orientate themselves towards the sea! (Check out the Bintan Conservation Lab Instagram for regular updates!).

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Once the hatchlings have emerged out of their nests, they’re transferred into a bucket and measured at our nursery. However, not all of them emerge from the nest at the same time. Some still have their yolk sac attached to the base of their shell or the plastron, so we leave them inside the nest a while longer. Occasionally, some eggs haven’t even hatched too…so we wait another day if needed.

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This little hawksbill was among one of the last of its nest to hatch, and we found him still in his shell as we were checking the nest. Once the whole nest is checked and excavated, these turtles are split according to their species and placed in the nursery.

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One little hawksbill takes its first dive into seawater at our nursery!

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Two more hawksbills who are completely worn out from all that flapping around and are just resting along the surface.

This is their temporary new home. Here, we feed and keep them for around one to three months before releasing them into the sea. It’s a chance for them to gain a little bit more weight and size, and hopefully even harden their shells a bit before facing the oceans on their own. We measure and check on the welfare of these turtles regularly so we can keep track of their growth!

A baby green turtle (Chelonia mydas) on the left and a baby hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) from our nursery after getting measured!

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While they stay in the nursery, we take turns feeding them and cleaning their tank regularly. If we’re lucky, we get a bit of help from our guests (like this aspiring veterinarian, 10-year-old Mia) too!

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A bunch of baby green turtles transferred out momentarily while we’re cleaning the tank!

Before long, it’s time for us to say goodbye. The turtles are released from our beach instead of the sea so that they can imprint on their surroundings and hopefully return here to nest some day. Scientists have evidence that turtles rely on the magnetic field of the earth to navigate their way back to the beaches they nested at. This ability to return back to where an animal is born after years and kilometres of migration is called natal homing. Another new piece of research published a couple of months ago shows that loggerhead turtles sometimes mistakenly nest on the wrong beaches with similar magnetic fields, even if the beach is not within close proximity to the location they hatched from. Even so, it’s remarkable to me that any animal can, whether instinctually or otherwise, be able to ‘remember’ where they came from. I can barely remember any aspect of my life until the age of 4, perhaps, let alone where the hospital I was born in was located.

As these turtles scramble off into the surf, I feel wistful. I’m overjoyed to see them wild and free, but it’s simultaneously sad that turtles have naturally low survival rates. For sea turtles, it’s a tough world out there, and some estimates are as low as 1 out of a thousand eggs that will survive to adulthood. It’s strange to think that if they’re lucky, these little guys we released can outlive me. The maximum lifespan of a green turtle is estimated to be 75 years (although some anecdotal evidence suggests they can live beyond a century).  A part of me hopes they will all outlive me someday, but I know the odds are just not in their favour. 

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These are some of the unfortunate yet important anecdotes that must still be shared. Before the turtles are released, we invite resort guests to come and participate in wishing the turtles all the best as they embark on their next adventure in the open sea. This is also a great chance to share with guests about the urgent need for turtle conservation, the threats to their survival, as well as how they can play a part to help make the oceans a better place for turtles to live in. Many are often surprised that survival rates are so low, but I sincerely hope that this only encourages them to keep the oceans free from litter and to also be more actively involved in an environmentally friendly lifestyle.

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My first time giving the briefing for the turtle release

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The mad scramble towards the sea…all the best little ones!

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