by GRACE WONG
The sun was high when a small crowd gathered on the beach near the Gaya Island Resort Marine Centre to say goodbye to Ninja the turtle at the end of June.
As her carers put her on the sand, Ninja quickly scuttled towards the crystal-clear waters and did not even look back.
In a few minutes, she was gone with the waves, back to her natural habitat.
Ninja had come under the marine conservation centre’s care in April. It was a tip-off to the resort’s Turtle Rescue Hotline. Sabah Wildlife Department’s assistant director Dr Nathan Sen had made the call after his team caught a local farmer attempting to stuff her into his car.
After the rescue, the turtle was placed under the care of Gaya Island Resort’s marine biologist Scott Mayback and his team at the centre along the resort’s private beach of Tavajun Bay.
Ninja was only released after Dr Nick Pilcher of the Marine Research Foundation found her to be fit and healthy. It was tagged for future identification.
At the release, Mayback explains how Ninja was found emaciated, covered in barnacles and suffering from lesions and bacterial infections.
He and his team kept her under constant surveillance and put her through a course of 20 days of strong antibiotics and topical medication, accompanied by a high-protein diet to help her gain some weight.
In three months, her appetite returned and her weight rose from 7.7kg to 8.6kg.
Mayback attributes the success of the rescue and rehabilitation of Ninja to the cooperation between several parties, including Pilcher and the Wildlife Department’s Dr Diana Ramirez.
“What I can’t emphasise enough is that it was a major team effort,” he says. “I want to extend a special thank you to Dr Sen, without whom Ninja would have ended up in a pot or a jewellery shop for sure.”
Ninja’s release marks a 50% success rate for the turtle rescue operations – two out of four rescued turtles have survived and have been released back to the sea. Green sea turtles have a lifespan of about 80 years, and Ninja was estimated to be 7 to 10 years old.
The centre is now overseeing eight other turtles – seven month-old hatchlings brought to them by Sabah Parks, and an adult turtle, named Number 12, rescued and brought there a day before Ninja’s release.
According to Mayback, Sen wants to attach a GPS tracking device to Number 12 when it is released, a move that will cost RM10,000.
As for the hatchlings, they are being kept for studies and to serve as an educational tool Mayback explains that juvenile turtles have a survival rate of only 1% to 3% in the wild.
“I hope that we can continue to not only help turtles and other marine life in need of care but also inspire the public to support and value our rich marine ecosystem,” he says.
Apart from hotel guests from various parts of the world, several wildlife organisations and supporting members, including Sabah Wildlife Rescue Unit, World Wide Fund for Nature Malaysia and Reef Check, witnessed Ninja’s release.
More than 30 primary schoolchildren from Pulau Gaya also attended as part of a conservation education initiative by the resort and Reef Check.
The initiative aims to educate and raise awareness of marine conservation and ecology among children whose lives revolve around the island. Under this programme, they will take part in workshops in school, snorkelling trips and visits to the marine centre.
Gaya Island Resort’s turtle rehabilitation centre is the first of its kind in Malaysia. Its hotline, +6013 899 9509, allows people to alert it when they come across sick, injured or illegally kept turtles in Sabah.
Turtle rescue is one of the centre’s conservation initiatives. Led by Mayback, it is also looking to work on other projects. Mayback suspects that fish bombing had been carried out on the reefs surrounding the island in the past and plans to have rehabilitation programmes there.
The centre hopes to work with more wildlife bodies, including the Fisheries Department and WWF Malaysia, in addition to its current partners Sabah Parks, Sabah Wildlife Rescue Unit and Reef Check.
Gaya Island Resort is located in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park on Pulau Gaya in Sabah. The hillside sanctuary nestles in an ancient rainforest with views of Mount Kinabalu. It was added to YTL Hotels’ stable in July 2012.