In late December, the Northeast Monsoon Winds swept over the South China Sea bringing with them pounding rain to Peninsular Malaysia. By the first week of January, many eastern Malaysian states were experiencing flooding, especially Terengganu. The flooding was considered the worst in half a century. After more than a week of incessant rain, villages were underwater and uprooted citizens were fleeing their homes for rescue evacuation centers.
In the early morning hours of January 8, 2021, floodwaters and silt engulfed the village of Pasir Gajah along the Kemaman River, home to the Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia (TCS). TCS, operated co-founded and managed by Pelf-Nyok Chen, is the greatest hope the critically endangered Southern River Terrapin (Batagur affinis edwardmolli) has for survival in eastern Peninsular Malaysia. It also provides a source of income for men and women of the village: the men are paid to collect eggs for incubation at the TCS’s River Terrapin Conservation Centre and a collective of women sew merchandise from turtle-themed batiks, including 3-ply fabric masks, at the village co-op. For village women, this cooperative not only provides an essential lifeline for earning an income, but also provides a rare source of empowerment. All of this was put at risk in a matter of hours.
Within hours of receiving news of the devastation to the TCS facilities and Kampung Pasir Gajah, the Turtle Survival Alliance launched an emergency fundraising appeal to complement the disaster relief campaign the TCS had already begun. The “Terrapin Guardians” of Kampung Pasir Gajah needed a lifeline for recovery as soon as the floodwaters receded. The TSA community answered the call. Tens of thousands of dollars poured in from sympathetic turtle-lovers all over the world. This support gave the citizens of Kampung Pasir Gajah the safety net they needed to recover.
As quickly as the floodwaters came, so too did they recede, leaving behind silt-laden floors and water-logged facilities. Community members and TCS staff began cleaning the floodwater and mud from their homes and the TCS office immediately. Thanks to emergency funds, they were able to replace damaged items like mattresses, pillows and sheets, wardrobes, small electrical appliances, gas stoves, and personal items, all of which were destroyed in the flooding. Flood relief operations typically assist flood victims by providing edible foodstuff, but not funds to help those affected get back on their feet. Electricity and access to clean water has been restored. Thankfully, the sewing machines that the women’s co-op relied upon were spared water damage by quick-thinking villagers who moved them above the water’s reach.
Less than a week after the floodwaters receded, turtle conservation was already back on the minds of the TCS. Using heavy machinery, they cleared paths from the village to the river where the River Terrapin nests on its sandy banks. Three weeks later, the first female terrapins emerged from the Kemaman River to lay their eggs. One month after the devastating floods submerged most of Kampung Pasir Gajah, the TCS had 223 eggs under incubation.
In the coming weeks, the “Terrapin Guardians” will continue to collect eggs, furthering the chances of survival for the critically endangered terrapin that calls Peninsular Malaysia home. Within months, those eggs will hatch and be headstarted at the River Terrapin Conservation Centre. Once the young turtles are large enough, they will be released into the Kemaman River. All the while, the TCS and the men and women whose lives have been positively affected by it will continue putting their lives back together. Turtle-themed batik merchandise will be sewn, livelihoods restored, and an empowered community enabled to continue their conservation efforts of the River Terrapin. Our ability to engage swiftly and provide support reinforces their commitment that protecting turtles has many benefits.
From all of us at the Turtle Survival Alliance and the Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia, thank you to all those who contributed for your generous and heartwarming support.