February 23, 2007

Hope we're not a lost cause too

I think I was about six when I first saw a live penyu. Actually, that was about the only time I ever saw a leatherback turtle, and probably my last. Little did I know then that our adorable penyu would eventually be described as the "living dead".

There was little cause for celebration when our leatherback friends made the news recently. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) declared the leatherback of Terengganu was "effectively extinct", its population having dwindled to the point where it is incapable of regeneration. And so it is essentially living out its final years, hence the morbid term.

Our penyu's sad ending is a fine example of how too little was done before it was too late. Its population has been dwindling since the 80s. Despite warnings from turtle scientists and conservationists, there was little effort made to save it. Or at best, there were ill-thought-out action plans against poachers and the mortality it suffered at sea because of illegal fishing operations using trawl and gill nets.

However, it is reported that our national agency that is responsible for saving the turtles (Tumec) is not giving up. It is pinning its hopes on the discovery of five nests with 336 eggs. Another report gives the figure at 375 eggs. Whichever is correct, it is inconsequential and dismal given that scientists predict that for every 1,000 hatchlings produced, only one will reach adulthood to sustain the population. In view of this, it will be a waste of public funds now to launch grand plans to revive what is known to be a lost cause. Prior to this, their efforts to incubate turtle eggs in centres which are 100% exposed to sunlight resulted in eggs hatching as females, as temperature is a key factor in determining the gender of hatchlings.

At first glance, injecting optimism makes for a good story, but I'm not sure the hope and bravado of Tumec at this stage was appropriate or does any good. Perhaps the headlines should read instead: "Great effort, wrong timing." Maybe then we will be more inclined to learn from past mistakes.

Apathy, carelessness, and denial are often essential ingredients in a deadly mix when it comes to concocting a recipe for disaster. The Highland Towers tragedy is a case in point. Thirteen years after the tragedy, the Ampang Jaya Municipal Council was found not liable for the collapse of the buildings which killed 48 people. One wonders why the local authority is given the mandate to approve building projects when it is not held accountable.

Published in The Sun Tue, 22 Aug 2006

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