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A Graduate’s Story – Up Close and Personal with Mrs Terrapin nee Batagur Baska

© by Pipit Tai

......The “Greenpeace” approach would possibly consist of scaring off the terrapins on the other beaches so that they have no choice but to lay their eggs on the protected beaches ....

Whether it was a hot humid sultry night or a dark, freezing, mist enveloped dawn, insane, all consuming passion could not be denied; the appointment had to be kept. Silently trudging along the wet clinging sand, heart pounding and on the alert against any intruders with only the fickle moon for company, mind groggy from lack of sleep and body screaming with exhaustion, it was worth the price for a furtive meeting with Mrs. Terrapin with all her fertile feminine wiles and charms. I only hope she benefits as much from our strenuous efforts and the pain and anxiety we put her through.

I have always had my doubts about “scientific research” in the interests of conservation and this 5 day stint as a volunteer was in part to see and experience for myself (if only in small part) what science brought to the cause of conservation. Over the years I have slowly come to the conclusion that conservation among many other important issues is a social problem not a scientific one and the heavy reliance on science to save threatened species may be a red herring promoted by politicians without the political will and integrity to solve what must be a social problem.

If one has a passion for conservation, there are 2 main approaches one can take – the scientific one and the “Greenpeace” one. If one opts for the scientific approach, one applies for a grant and one does one’s research and hopefully, one’s findings are significant enough to save a species or a least significant numbers of said species – provided the politicians are ready to back up any plans with money, laws and muscle. The “Greenpeace” approach unfortunately has no scientific value whatsoever and consists mainly in disrupting the activities of the exploiters. For example, there are many beaches suitable for terrapin nests, but only 2 along the Dungun River are gazetted and protected by law (if not the manpower necessary to uphold the law). The “Greenpeace” approach would possibly consist of scaring off the terrapins on the other beaches so that they have no choice but to lay their eggs on the protected beaches (note that this is not a proposal, but an example for discussion only). Obviously both approaches have their problems, but I am personally jaded by numerous stories of science research projects that run out of money and follow-up and had to be abandoned. The 3rd Way which seems to be the fashionable name dropped these days would be to have politicians with guts and some brains. Unfortunately these are also a threatened species themselves if not totally extinct since the time of the great prophets.

Anyway, I am not fanatical about my opinions and like to contribute where I can and where I am accepted. On a personal note, the terrapins are not slow and unfathomable creatures despite their clumsiness on land. One particular terrapin we observed started to dig a couple of “dummy” nests nearby. It reminded me of the behaviour of some birds which fake broken wings to distract predators in their attempts to save their young. We had obviously not been as discreet as might have been more disciplined researchers and our “peeping” had been discovered by the terrapin in the middle of her egg-laying. The terrapin dug extra nests without any eggs or with just one or two to make it difficult for predators to find the motherlode. So much for ill-disciplined volunteers. Smart terrapin won this round and made noisy volunteers pay with more hours of lost sleep. Hurrah for terrapins!

Unfortunately these 5 days did not allay my doubts about scientific research. It only reinforced my conviction that we have to soldier on, hopefully with more clarity of mind and more wisdom with time which again hopefully never runs out whether for terrapins or for humans or for volunteers for that matter.

On another personal note, I recently read a quotation from the great comedian Bill Cosby. It runs something like this (paraphrased) – I don’t know what the secret for success is, but I do know what the secret for failure is – it is trying to please everyone. I hope some of our politicians find it in themselves to take on the mantle of real leadership and not just rely on the crass bureaucrat’s method of pleasing the richest, the most powerful and the most influential in managing this beautiful country.

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