One of Asia’s largest rivers Flows through parts of India and Pakistan into the Arabian Sea Also polluted by untreated municipal and industrial wastewater
The lanky 35-year-old is right. As soon as they are lowered into the water, the baby reptiles quickly scrabble out of her hands.
Chen’s cheerfulness belies the challenges she faces as the co-founder and executive director of the Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia. Established in 2011, the society protects and studies freshwater turtles in Malaysia, including the critically endangered southern river terrapin. In addition to maintaining a turtle hatchery and nursery, it also organises outreach programmes for schools and the public.
The southern river terrapin ( Batagur affinis) was once found throughout mainland Southeast Asia and Sumatera by the thousands. Heavy exploitation for its flesh and eggs, as well as habitat destruction and sand mining, have severely undermined the survival of this freshwater species. It is estimated that as few as 500 adult terrapins remain in the wild.
When Chen’s research uncovered some 200 terrapins in the Kemaman River, she collaborated with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, as well as people in the neighbouring villages, to begin a research and conservation project.
Chen first began her work in Pasir Gajah in 2011. Calling themselves “Geng Tuntung” (river terrapin guardians), five local men volunteered to help, and they stopped eating terrapin eggs. Together with Chen, the men camped at the riverbank at night to observe terrapin nesting, and incubated the eggs beside a volunteer’s house. Aware of her outsider status, Chen also took pains to mingle with the locals to gain their trust and support. In 2017, the village committee offered to build a gallery and nursery for the society.
“I want to show the villagers that as long as we have live terrapins, people will come, people will pay, and this can be selfsustaining,” says Chen. “My motivation comes from people who buy pellets to feed the terrapins, who adopt the terrapins. When people see our work with school children and want to sponsor a camp, they keep me going.”
So far, Chen and her partners have saved more than 4,500 river terrapin eggs from human consumption and released more than 2,700 hatchlings into the river. She was recently given the prestigious Commonwealth Points of Light award for outstanding individual volunteer work. ag
“I want to show the villagers that as long as we have live terrapins, people will come, people will pay, and this can be self-sustaining”