Tuesday 16 June 2015

Turtle Heroes

We are looking at a small patch of beach where the sand has slightly collapsed in the middle. No matter how hard we stare, we can see no movement. Under the collapsed sand is a hawksbill turtle nest, and the caved sand signals the hatching process has begun. During our weekend at Pulau Tengah in Malaysia we come back to check several times a day, but the little turtles won’t hatch until just after we caught our boat back to the mainland.

Because of these elusive little fellows we decide to make ourselves useful during our lazy trip to the island: with our friends we volunteer for a beach clean-up. Numbers of sea turtles are dwindling fast all over the world, and one of the reasons is the tons and tons of plastic polluting the oceans, as well as the beaches these turtles lay their eggs on.

Turtle Beach cleanup Pulau Tengah
A small boat takes us to the aptly named Turtle Beach, just ten minutes away on the other side of the tiny island. Once ashore we get kitted out with gloves and large garbage bags and get to work. We find tons of plastic bags, cups, bottles, straws, slippers, rope, toys, and much, much more.

The Turtle Heroes!
Tijm and Linde need some convincing to stop collecting shells and pretty pieces of coloured glass, but my turtle stories do convince them, and it is not long before our bags are full. On the way back, sitting on the pile of rubbish in the boat, we feel good.

Proud on the boat
Our guide Carmen, from Turtle Watch Camp, tells us more about the turtles in this area, and how their numbers are swiftly reclining. It brings me back to my childhood, and our camping trips to visit the turtles at Ras al Hadd in Oman. We would camp on the beach under the stars and were woken late at night to witness the giant turtles come ashore to dig nests and lay their ping-pong ball eggs. 

My sister looking at a turtle at Ras al Hadd

In the afternoon we had seen their round heads bob in the surf, impatiently waiting for the safety of the dark. There were so many of them. The morning after the tracks the nesting females had left made the beach look like hundreds of trucks had crossed in the night.

Ras al Hadd beach in the early 1980s

When I revisited Ras al Hadd in 2008 many of these turtles had gone. A resort on the beach, ironically named Turtle Resort, had scared them away. Seeing the destruction of one of my favourite childhood memories was painful.

The connection between tourism and nature is a tricky one. Well-meaning tourists may do more harm than good. Large resorts have taken over the beaches where turtles used to lay. Yet tourism can also help fight another threat that faces turtles: poachers. Tourism might provide new ways of generating income for local people, and conservation projects like Turtle Watch Camp can help educate them on the value of nature surrounding them. 

Back at home we watch the video of the hatching we missed. We hope our hot and hard work has helped just the tiniest bit, and that one of these little fellows will make it back to Turtle Beach and produce yet another generation.

Do you want to be a Turtle Hero too?

Thursday 11 June 2015

Trouble in Paradise

The kids are settled at the breakfast table, fiddling with their cereals. I walk over to the chicken run, to give the impatient, clucking hens their breakfast too. I stretch my arm to open the door and freeze in my tracks. I am looking right into the eyes of a giant snake.

The snake is curled around the fence just next to the door, eye level, neck and tail sticking out, and the fatter, middle part of his body leaning on the wood inside. I shrink back, screaming, almost falling over my retreating steps. The kids come running from their breakfast. ‘Stay back,’ I shout.

It takes a few seconds before it hits me. Quickly my eyes dart over the hovering chicken. One. Two. Three. Four. My heart sinks. My eyes go back to the fat part of the snake, stuck inside the run, the part that he can’t squeeze through the wire mesh. A snake is stretchy, and can fit through a very small hole. But not a chicken. Nor a snake with a chicken inside him.

The kids come out and stare at the python with big eyes, excited by the turmoil. They have not realised yet what it means when there is a python stuck in the chicken run. I am pondering how I can explain this, when we hear yelling from the front patio. Monkeys have snatched our abandoned breakfast and run up the roof, munching cheese and bread. It truly is a jungle out here!

Back inside I gather my wits. I call the wildlife rescue hotline. I cuddle Jasmijn, who has now realised her favourite chicken is not in the run. I try to explain that nature is cruel, that snakes need to eat too, and isn’t chicken rice her favourite dish? I rush them to the bathroom to brush their teeth before the school bus arrives. In the meanwhile the python has given up trying to get his fat stomach through the mesh, and has coiled up for a nap just behind the door. The chicken run around the coop, unperturbed, annoyed at the delayed breakfast. After the school bus has left the wildlife rescuers arrive. Armed with sticks and long tongs they open the door, and bravely grip the python. Moments later it is safely in a carrier cage and I can breathe again.


My relief does not last long as I find the stiff body of Keetje inside the hen house. I blame myself, for the last month I have neglected to lock the hens in at night, allowing the nocturnal predator to get inside. A quick headcount shows that the lump in the python’s long body has to be Wilhemina. I blink away tears. The snake got our two most beautiful hens.

‘A medium size python’ the rescuers say. Reticulated pythons can reach up to seven meters, but this one, that must be well over three metres, is more than enough for me. We chat some more, and I learn about these majestic, yet frightful snakes. I am happy to hear they are not really dangerous to humans, that they won’t bite unless provoked. That does not help my chicken.

Then, I learn that snakes can vomit. There are no words to describe the grossness of a snake vomiting up a chicken, especially if that is your own, beloved hen. Luckily the bathing of the snake to get rid of the nasty smell before it goes in the van, is so hilarious that it, mostly, manages to replace that image in my mind. The snake is popped in a bag and will be taken to the zoo. There, it will be chipped, and in a few months released again in the wild. I hope, far, far from our chicken run.

The remaining hens seem unaffected, they eat, they lay eggs, and cluck away happily. The kids are sad. And me? I see snakes in each tree root, check under every bed, and jump if anything brushes past my leg. I shudder to enter the chicken run. I console myself with my newly gained wisdom that usually only one large python roams in every square five kilometres. I hope it will be a while before a new one moves in. 

With a big thank you to the good people of Acres, I wouldn’t have known what to do without their amazing volunteers. Please consider making a donation via their website, I sure did, you never know when I’ll need them again.