SANDAKAN, Sabah: Cars idle in endless queues along Sandakan’s busiest street, Jalan Pryer, as locals horde the dozens of rustic shophouses for bargains.
Right in the heart of the neighbourhood’s labyrinth of alleys, a group of men stood on a prominent street corner with wads of cash bulging in their pockets.
They seemed relaxed, leaning against the walls while smoking, observing passersby. The eyes of one of them lit up when he saw this reporter walking by.
“You want turtle eggs, brother? I give you a good price,” he asked in Bahasa Malaysia. “How much?” I asked.
He gestured for me to wait, dashed across the busy road and disappeared into a shophouse. Just 30 seconds later, he emerged, carrying a black plastic bag filled with about ten turtle eggs that looked like table tennis balls, covered slightly in beach sand.
“Just RM2 (US$0.50) per egg. RM20 for the whole bag,” he said. I snapped a photo of the contents of the bag before declining his offer.
Meanwhile, three uniformed police officers stood 50 metres away, guarding the entrance of the Sandakan Public Wet Market, seemingly oblivious to the criminal activity going on in front of them.
Also near the entrance was a huge poster put up by the authorities to persuade the public not to consume turtle eggs.
Neither the poster nor the presence of police officers deterred the operation, and business was booming.
Families and individuals drove by the corner in cars or simply walked up straight to the men to complete the transaction in broad daylight.
The sale and consumption of eggs for all species of turtles are banned in Sabah and Sarawak, as the populations of green and hawksbill turtles in the region are classified as endangered and critically endangered respectively by the World Wildlife Federation.
However, the expansive waters surrounding Sandakan and the porous maritime border with the Philippines means the area has become a popular trading point for the eggs.
MORE TOURISTS, MORE DEMAND?
For Sabah authorities, it is worrying that the demand for turtle eggs has been fuelled by tourists visiting Sandakan.
A licensed tour guide in Sabah, Mr Afiq Samsudin, told CNA that he has received requests from tour groups to head to restaurants in Sandakan where guests can sample turtle eggs.
Turtle egg is a considered an aphrodisiac in Malaysia. Visitors, especially those from countries like China, Indonesia and Vietnam, believe they are beneficial to health and can help improve sexual potency.
“I explain to them that consuming turtle eggs is illegal in Sabah, and if they continue to insist, I would report them to the Sabah Wildlife Department,” Mr Afiq said.
“But I know of other tour companies in Sandakan who do accede to these requests. The guides would purchase the eggs from areas like Jalan Pryer, and ask restaurants to serve them to the guests during meals,” he added.
A senior official from Sabah’s Wildlife Department in Sandakan, Mr Hussien Muin, said that demand for the eggs from people who are not from Sabah is the “main problem” allowing the business to thrive.
“The buyers are locals, but some of them work for tour operators. They buy in bulk for their clients,” he said
“We have stepped up enforcement at the Sandakan airport to ensure that tourists don’t bring out these eggs from Sabah,” he added.
Tourism was a hot button issue during the recent by-election in Sandakan, which saw Democratic Action Party’s Vivian Wong win the parliamentary seat by a landslide margin.
During the course of her campaign, DAP’s secretary-general Lim Guan Eng wooed Sandakan residents by promising that the Sandakan airport would be expanded and more runways would be built if Ms Wong got elected.
While a tourism boom will benefit the local economy, those in the illegal wildlife trade will benefit as well, noted Mr Afiq, the guide.
“Tourism is good for Sabah, but it also has its negatives. The turtles are endangered and we as Sabahans must do our duty to educate these visitors on what might happen if we continue to consume the eggs,” he added.
SAVING TURTLES, EGG BY EGG
Just as some tourist activities in Sandakan contribute to the illegal trade of turtle eggs, the state is offering programmes that aim to educate visitors on preserving the turtle population.
The programme brings tourists to Pulau Selingan, a remote beach resort that is a one-hour boat ride from Sandakan’s coast.
With clear blue waters surrounding its beaches of fine white sand, the island straddles the Malaysian and Philippine boundaries lying within the Sulu Sea.
By day, tourists snorkel, swim and suntan. By night, when the beach is dark and nearly deserted, they observe around 40 female turtles nesting their eggs from a discreet distance.
The turtles heave their heavy bodies up the shore and lay their eggs into individual nests. Park rangers then immediately dig up the eggs and transport them in a bucket to the island’s hatchery, where they are buried for incubation.
These rangers patrol the beach in shifts until the crack of dawn to prevent the eggs from being dug up by predators such as monitor lizards or, more importantly, poachers in fishing boats.
Sabah’s Pulau Selingan and its neighbouring islands of Pulau Bakkungan Kechil and Pulau Gulisan are part of the Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area (TIHPA), a bilateral programme between Malaysia and the Philippines to conserve sea turtles and their habitats in the Sulu Sea.
Besides the three Malaysian islands, TIHPA also includes six islands from the Philippines: Boan, Langaan, Lihiman, Great Bakkungan, Taganak and Baguan.
According to the Sabah Parks official website, Baguan is the only Philippine island that is “fully protected” and has been declared a “marine sanctuary”.
Mr Hussein of the Sabah Wildlife Department told CNA that most of the turtle egg sellers caught in Sandakan have been fishermen who have entered Sabah illegally from the Philippines.
He added that the syndicates also smuggle in other illegal goods, such as contraband cigarettes and drugs, and sell them together with the eggs.
In October 2018, Sabah authorities thwarted an attempt to smuggle in 2,000 turtle eggs via Sandakan’s Sungai Batu Putih. The pump boat carrying the eggs had a Philippine registration number. The boat skipper, the only person on board, eluded capture by jumping into the river and swimming away before the boat was seized.
Mr Hussien said that the Sabah Wildlife Department, as well as police, immigration, and marine army patrol officers were facing difficulties on the enforcement front, because of the trans-boundary nature of the illegal operations.
“We need the residents of Sabah as well as tourists to reject any offers to buy turtle eggs. And they should report such activities immediately,” he said.
“The integrity of consumers is key for Sabah to end this trade,” he added.