The recent discovery of three dead hawksbill turtles minus their shells and with their eyes gouged out at Mantanani Islands, off Kota Belud, has caused concern among tourists, conservationists and tourism authorities.
Although they agreed that the incident was an isolated one, all are in favour of more efforts to be taken to prevent a recurrence.
Marine conservation officer Lionel Aaron Lingam, who was among the first to spot one of the turtles, then barely alive at Mantanani Kecil on April 20, called the incident “shocking”.
Lionel was with 20 local and foreign divers and staff of Mari Mari Mantanani Dive Lodge where he works, preparing diving gear at the jetty when he spotted the turtle.
“I asked one of the staff to check on it.
“He told me that the shell was white.
“I then sensed something was wrong.
“The guests were angry and saddened.
“They asked me why such things happen.
“I was lost for words,” he said, adding that the turtle died 20 minutes later.
Another hawksbill turtle was spotted by a boatman later in the evening between Mantanani Kecil and Mantanani Besar.
The third turtle was found on Saturday morning.
“I’ve never come across such incidents.
“It was cruel and I believe it was done by the islanders.
“But there is no proof.”
Mantanani Islands comprises of Mantanani Besar which is populated and Mantanani Kecil and Lungisan, which are famed for their dive spots.
Mantanani Kecil is also gazetted as a bird sanctuary.
An avid diver and traveller, Jack Otter, also expressed his anger over the incident after reading about it on the New Straits Times’ website.
The 46-year-old Australian believed the practice of killing marine turtles for their shells was isolated, but added that awareness must be instilled among islanders.
He said the authorities should take the matter seriously because marine awareness, especially among the islanders, was still low.
“I understand that it is somehow normal for them, who view it (killing turtles for their meat and shells) as a source of income, because they haven’t been educated of their importance.
“For islanders who work with the resort, there is no problem because they are exposed to marine conservation efforts and programmes.
“However, for those who are not directly involved with tourism or the resort, there is a crucial need to change that practice and their perception.
“It’s difficult, but it can be done slowly.”
Otter also called on the state government to gazette Mantanani Islands as a marine park.
Sabah Tourism Board member Clement Lee had also raised concerns over the cruel treatment, describing the turtles’ fate as similar to sharks.
Lee, who is also Borneo Divers Mabul Resort managing director, said he had never encountered such an incident in his 30 years of diving, adding that education was important to begin with.
“I’ve never seen it in Mabul, or other parts of Sabah.
“What happened is a warning for the authorities to do something about it.”
Since 1973, the trade of hawksbill turtles’ shells worldwide has been banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
In 1996, Malaysia and the Philippines set up an area to protect turtles in the Sulu Sea.
The Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area covers three islands in the country and six in the Philippines.