From: Associated Press
Published February 22, 2005 12:00 AM

Tsunami-Hit Beach May Become Turtle Haven

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Conservationists want to turn a popular Malaysian beach hit by the tsunami into a protected nesting area for endangered sea turtles, which hatched there for the first time in over a decade -- probably because of a drop-off in tourists after the disaster.


More than 30 baby Olive Ridley turtles were found Feb. 16 crawling on Tanjung Bungah beach, a popular stretch of resorts and seaside condominiums on northwestern Penang island, said Mashhor Mansor, a professor of biological sciences in the Malaysian University of Science.


"Marine turtles are very sensitive to human disturbances, so we want this place to be a sanctuary to let nature take its course," Mashhor said by telephone Monday from Penang. "We might be able to learn so much, because it's very tough to study this rare species."


Fisheries officials have since released the hatchlings into the sea. Such turtles take about 45 days to hatch, and scientists estimate that a single mother turtle laid and buried the eggs on the beach several days after the Dec. 26 tsunami.


The mother turtle probably nested in Tanjung Bungah because fewer people visited the beachfront following the tsunami, which killed 68 Malaysians and wrecked coastal property in Penang and other nearby states, Mashhor said.


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Olive Ridleys, which have existed virtually unchanged for 100 million years with their broad heart-shaped shells, have not been sighted on land in Tanjung Bungah since the early 1990s. However, other turtle species sometimes breed on other less developed beaches in Penang.


Mashhor said officials should restrict visitors to Tanjung Bungah, reduce bright lights that discourage turtles from landing and patrol for poachers who steal turtle eggs. Egg-hunters can currently be fined up to 50,000 ringgit (US$13,200; euro10,100) and imprisoned for five years.


Scientists from Malaysia and neighboring Thailand plan to investigate whether the tsunami might also have caused changes in Southeast Asia's ocean structure that would upset the breeding and migratory habits of sea turtles, Mashhor said.


Malaysia's waters are visited by four turtle species -- the Olive Ridley, the giant leatherback, the green and the hawksbill. All are listed as endangered or threatened with extinction.


But human activity, including shoreline development, fishing, pollution and the stealing of eggs -- considered an aphrodisiac in parts of Asia -- has increasingly threatened the creatures.


Source: Associated Press


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