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Asian Geographic

Michael Aw


Tears for Sea Turtle  


A long, long time ago, green turtles used to swim freely up to the shores of Bali, nest and return to sea.  Then man came to these waters hunted the turtles, and thereafter there were no more turtles in Bali.  But these days, the turtles are coming back. They arrive on Bali's southern shore, in fact they arrive by the boatload, sometime up to 700 a day and, like refugees, they are unloaded into bamboo prisons by the sea.  When the tide comes in, they may shuffle in the shifting film of sewage and gasoline.  By low tide, they smother in the sand, gasping as they await an impending painful death.

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In one of the holding pens, only a couple of kilometers form Nusa Dua, Bali's premier tourist belt, over a hundred plus battered turtles are tied up in a praying position. Their fore flippers are ruthlessly punctured to allow a cord to be strung through them.  Dehydrated and un-fed for weeks, these ancient mariners who have outlived the dinosaurs, lie in indignity, spilling their last teardrops, sometimes lifting their heads off the floor, with a foamy mouth in question for an answer to their nemesis.


Death comes but slowly.  Scratching their fat bellies, the butchers stride into the room and place a turtle upside down on a stone board next to the dirty stove with a wok of boiling water.  Without killing them first, the men cut at the margin of the yellow underside.  The turtle's head retracts as if to accept her fate.  A sepulchral gasp, she weeps.  The men raised the hard belly cover, to reveal the internal organs; mustard shaded muscles and a vivid red beating heart, still beating.  A ladle is then forced into the body to scoop out blood, which is then packed into tiny plastic bags. Albeit the Balinese Hindu beliefs of karma, reincarnation and kindness notwithstanding, I find nothing religious in a their faith that could justify such diabolic slaughter.  In Hindu philosophy, the body is just a temporary shell. The spirit returns in the cycle of rebirth, becoming man or higher.  I hope they return as turtles.


While I am 'touring' in the biggest known turtle slaughterhouse in Tanjung Benoa, (Bali), two doors away divemasters of BMR Diving Centre were selling PADI dive courses and trips to a turtle sanctuary.  Other times, they work as butchers in the slaughterhouse celebrating their libido, bolstering their manhood with ill-fated turtles.  I was told that an average of 50 turtles is slaughtered in one day, but 700 per day are not uncommon.


Traditionally, turtles are used by the Balinese as a sacrifice in several cultural rituals and ceremonies. Occasions such as when a child reaches the age of three months; the teeth filing ceremony which marks the coming- of-age; marriage; and when the ashes of cremation are scattered ,all call for the slaughter of turtles. Apart from the cruelty of slaughtering the animal alive, while their hearts beat visibly, men remove important organs for the ceremony, the turtles also suffers several weeks of dehydration in an overcrowded filthy pen at Tanjung Benoa. Sometimes, up to three boats arrive to Tanjung Benoa in a day, with turtles stacked like cargo of bombs  - up to eight are in a stack.  Inevitably some arrived dead but are still usable to served to the gullible consumer. Those who survived showed evidence of injures including open head wounds, torn flippers, results of appalling treatment in the capture and transportation. They are subjected to unimaginable pain and torture that lasts for up to weeks before they are finally slaughtered, for ceremonial purposes or more simply for consumption by the rich locals and ignorant Far Eastern tourists visiting Bali.


Although the local government set the quotas of 4,000 turtles per year for cultural sacrifice, research reveals that only one thousand (1,000) are actually required for ceremonial purposes per calendar year, primarily on southern Bali. Thus the officially accepted quota set are therefore four times in excess of the actual traditional needs, and the quota seems generously excessive.  But what occurs in reality, the greed of unscrupulous traders and market demand, slaughters over 15000 turtles per year, does not correspond to traditional needs nor adhere to legal conformity.  Long-standing cultural tradition is but a poor excuse for allowing such massacre to continue.  In ancient ceremonies, turtles were actually set free as part of the ritual.  It is only within the past hundred years that turtle meat became a culinary delight among the Asians, making consumption during rituals a custom.  An elderly Pedanda, a Hindu priest, revealed that domestic animals such as pigs and poultry could be use to fulfill the role of turtle's now play in such ceremonies.  



Disgustingly, and appalling perhaps, but before one gets carried away in criticizing the cultures and behavior of a developing country lets take a look at another picture.  The shrimps on the barbecue, the prawns on your sushi platters and the prawns in a seafood platter, gourmet delicacies that we indulge in our civilised world, are also at the expense of hundreds thousands of sea turtle lives per year. This is only a total extravagant in our concept; there’s nothing cultural in behavior, or even pretence to be remotely religious.


One of the major inconveniences of life for an air-breathing animal inhabiting the sea the sea, such as sea turtles, is that it is necessary for them to surface once in a while to breathe.  Prawn trawlers indiscriminately savaging the sea bottom; are deadly to sea turtles.  Once trapped in the net, turtles inevitably drown.  Experts estimate that over 150,000 turtles are lost in prawn trawling nets annually.  The turtles are not even consumed, but instead the carcasses are wastefully thrown overboard to make more room for the lucrative cargo of prawns.


In 1989, a law was passed in the United States requiring all shrimp fishermen to use special attachments on their nets to keep turtles from drowning.  These turtle excluder devices, or TEDs, enable sea turtles to escape the nets safely.  All trawlers in the U.S. must now be fitted with TEDs.  In a controversial effort to protect sea turtles worldwide, the law indicated that any shrimp brought into the U.S. must also be caught in nets fitted with TEDS. Countries such as Australia, Taiwan, Malaysia had no time for TEDs and the merchants cried blue murder, out rightly, refusing to abide by such a ruling. They made a claim to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that the sanction was unjust, and that it was not fair for the U.S. to restrict the import of shrimp from their countries. Unfortunately, the WTO are not fans of sea turtles and Clinton was caught up in more pressuring matters. Late last year, the World Trade Organization (WTO) successfully struck down that the U.S. law that encourages  other nations in protecting endangered sea turtles from death in shrimp trawling nets. Until the trade laws are more animals friendly, turtles will continue to perish.


Michael Kennedy, the Director of the AUSTRALIAN Humane Society, (is quoted that 10,000 turtles die a year as a result of the Australian prawn fishing industry.  The Australian Seafood Industry Council however, responded that such figures were a gross exaggeration, stating that mortality rates are probably less than 800, which is 10 times less than the number taken by the natives of Torress Strait and other northern areas.  Seemingly, to them the loss of 800 or so endangered turtles is acceptable, as long as it is less than the number taken by the natives.  Although in Australia all turtles are protected under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975, aborigines are still allowed to capture turtles for consumption.  In this instance, controversies among the fisheries, double standards of cultural policies and political trade off become a hindrance to saving the remaining population of sea turtles. The average consumers are totally oblivious of the carnage of sea turtles in the high sea, a story seldom told, and a story that never made the 6 o'clock news. I congratulate the magazine that publishes you this story.


Humankind has been, and continues to be, the single most destructive species on this planet. We hold absolute power to save a species or drive them into extinction as we have accomplished and excelled in on far too many occasions.  With a brief survey of the Red List published by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, our record is impressive; the Sumatran and Siberian tigers, hunted to enhance the libido of the pea-minded, it is predicted that by the year 2000, all tigers in the wild will be extinct.  We hunted the American bison to near extinction, leaving fleshy carcasses to rot in the sun.  Before that, we destroyed the family of  Dodo bird.. Flightless birds, the three different species, inhabited the Mascarene Islands east of Madagascar. By 1681, one of the species was extinct, annihilated by Portuguese sailors.  By 1800, all three species were gone.  All species of sea turtles are now critically endangered. Ancient animals that have been here for over 200 million years, an animal that saw the dinosaur come and go. But it took us just the last 100 years to bring them to the brink of extinction.  Evidently we proclaimed to be the champions of all life on earth, the keeper of this planet, but seemingly, we have no regard for the wildlife around us.


Extinction is forever, but it is not too late to save the existing life on the planet. The only chance of survival of  sea turtles undoubtedly relies on our conscience.  It requires the examination of our attitudes, our religions, ceremonies, and our philosophical beliefs, our politicians, values and traditions.  Living with an ethic of care requires consideration for the rest of the earth's living beings.  Cultural values must be scrutinized, and there must be change in behaviors that prove detrimental to the environment. 


Regardless of our individual sentiments about issues such as human rights and efforts to preserve the ocean, and the rain forests, we cannot deny the definite link between the survival of the planet and our survival as a species.  If we choose to sit idly by, we are, in effect, contributing to the destruction of the only known habitat suited for human life.


Meanwhile, each evening at sunset on remote beaches of a few remaining turtle rookeries in Asia, hundreds of two-inch hatchlings of Green and Hawksbill hatchlings emerge from the sand and made a mad dash to sea – against dismal odds. Attacked by birds, crabs, and lizards or caught at sea by groupers, fishnets, less than one percent will reach maturity. At the Derawan Island Turtle Nest hatchery, I was fortunate to follow one making his frantic dash to beyond the reef. It is hard to think of any ecological ambassador more likely to deserve our imagination and stir our sympathy that it is necessary to ensure that they survive in the scheme of evolution. After all, after 200 million years, they are in no doubt more resilient than we are to ride out the revelation of time.


Turtle scientists are serious of saving sea turtles from extinction and exaggeratedly passionate of their research. Doctorate students focus their thesis on the ecology of turtles, such as how fast are their swimming ability relative to the time that they takes to reach the sea. At Costa Rica, satellite transmitters with  value of a typical Rolex watches are fitted on female turtles as tracking device to discover their migratory route. In the scheme of things, they may have missed the big picture. Whilst Vagiara has yet reach the shelves of the corner stores in Asia and definitely priced beyond the reach of the average person anyway, turtle eggs are still the preferred energizing proteins and aphrodisiac among Latin American and Asian. You don't have to be an Einstein to figure out that if we consumed all of the eggs, sacrifice about 150,000 turtles for the privilege of eating succulent prawns and 15000 more in slaughtered house of Bali, the future is indeed bleak for survival of turtles. You may shed a tears, or two when conjuring the images of the dying turtles in Bali, but its time that we assumed some real and proactive responsibility for the well being of our ocean world.




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