Turtle Sanctuary and Glamping at Libaran Island
What a tourist couple did really touched me. I was buying cake in a bakery in Kota Kinabalu City. At the cashier counter, an Australian couple declined to use plastic bag to store their purchase. They explained to their children, “We shouldn’t use plastic bag because if it’s dumped into the sea, turtle would think it’s food and eat it, and that can kill it.” I’m so grateful that foreigners care about our turtles. On the other hand, I feel ashamed that Malaysians generate about 4,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste every day, and these contribute to plastic found on one-third of the coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific region.
Therefore, I see hope when Libaran Island, which used to be a turtle grave, has become a turtle sanctuary and a new tourism attraction now. Before a turtle hatchery was established there in 2012, every turtle egg laid on Libaran would end up in the stomach of villagers and stray dogs on the island. After 5 years, this hatchery has saved more than 27,486 turtle eggs!
And Top 4 Reasons to visit Libaran Island? #Turtle #Glamping #Stargazing #Sunset
About Libaran Island
With a population of 450 people, Libaran (GPS: 6.120437, 118.030001, see Location Map) is a 450-acre (about 2 sq KM) island located 45 minutes away by boat from Sandakan, the second largest city of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Though Libaran is only 5 minutes away from the famous Turtle Islands Park (a.k.a. Selingan) of Sabah, unfortunately it is not inside the boundary of this protected park.
If turtle landed on the wrong island, that’s the end of their cycle of life when villagers collected their eggs. Luckily this is changed by Alex Yee, a business-minded conservationist, who creates Walai Penyu Conservation Park with a win-win model for the locals and turtles.
Trip to Libaran Island
Turtle sighting in scuba diving is always a delightful experience. This gentle reptile swims gracefully and look really chill underwater. We can’t call a diving destination a top dive site if it has no turtle. Turtle is also the Guardian of Coral Triangle because it maintains the health of marine ecosystems. If turtles are safe, our tourism and environment will do well.
What’s better than looking at the turtle up-close? Malaysia is home to four species of turtles, namely, Leatherback, Green, Hawksbill, and Olive Ridley turtles, all are endangered due to pollution and poaching. When Alex invited me to his Walai Penyu Resort on Libaran Island last month, I said YES x 100 without thinking.
In a sunny afternoon, our boat to Libaran departed from the Sabah Parks jetty located at Sandakan Yacht Club. If you book a tour with Walai Penyu Resort, they will provide boat and land transfer (Walai = Stay Together and Penyu = Turtle in local language).
On the way to Libaran, you would pass by Berhala Island, a very beautiful island with distinctive red cliffs. Sadly, its beach is covered by so many junk that it never becomes a tourist attraction. If the locals love their environment more, they would have a nice island for weekend outing now. Rubbish is like karma, we will pay for our wrongdoing.
The ocean was calm and we reached Libaran Island after 45 minutes of smooth ride. It’s a fairly densely vegetated flat island, without any high ground and tall building. Turtles love such pristine beach with little development. Too much noise and artificial light will drive mother turtle away.
Though we were about 100 Metres away from shore, the water was only knee depth, and I could see the lush corals clearly. Our boat cruised slowly to avoid crushing the corals.
Finally we landed on the golden beach of Libaran, the cradle of turtles. Their staff already waited for us with wheelbarrow and transferred our bags to Walai Penyu Resort.
Apparently we are not the only visitors here. Tracks and traces of turtle landing are everywhere. We found nesting sites under the shrubs, on the beach and near the camp.
Glamping at Walai Penyu Resort
We check-in to our room. Actually it’s a glamping tent, which is larger than standard camp and spacious enough to fit in two beds and a desk. The camp is very clean and located on the beach.
Glamping is becoming a trend for travellers who love to be close to nature but stay comfortable with adequate setup. In short, Glamping is a luxury version of Camping. I have done camping many times, glamping is new to me, and it definitely offers a more family-friendly and enjoyable stay than camping.
To minimise the impact to the environment, there are only 8 dome-shaped tents in Walai Penyu Resort to host up to 16 guests each day. Lighting is kept to minimum to avoid disturbing nesting turtles.
The tents have side windows covered with mosquito net. You can unzip them for sea breeze or view. As our tents are very near to the beach, it’s quite windy and we could hear sea waves clearly.
The common toilet and bathroom have lot of open spaces that allow good ventilation, so the place is dry, clean and doesn’t smell.
Turtle usually comes after dusk. It’s still early, so I strolled around the island. With me were three lady editors (Alison, Carmen and San) for China social media. If you want to walk one around of this island, the walking distance is 6.5 KM, which takes about 1.5 hours.
Near our glamping site is a few patches of lush mangrove trees. Alex told us that at night we could find fireflies there. The entangled roots of these old mangrove trees are so fascinating, some looks like bonsai.
I asked Carmen to be my model. Being professional, she didn’t hesitate to climb up and down the tree for some perfect shots (the mangrove root is quite slippery). Of course the outcome is brilliant. Instagram is full of cliche photos on sandy beach, so we are happy to bag many special shots.
Due to low tide, the water was very shallow and tempting, so we walked in the sea water to feel the soft sand and warm water running through our toes.
Less than 2 KM away is Racket Island, where you can find the “tomb” of turtles. You can walk to that island during low tide. But do return before high tide or you have to swim back to Libaran.
The beach is long and litter-free. The cleanliness is not by accident. Alex divides the beach into dozens of 100-Metres lot, and pays villagers MYR100/month to keep their allocated slot clean.
Clean beach is not only for tourists, but good for the turtles too. By regularly removing driftwood, plastics and other washed-up trash from the beach, turtles don’t need to crawl over piles of debris to lay their eggs on the beach.
Alex has been buying plastic bottles from these cleaners for 3.5 years. He showed us his masterpiece he created with these plastic.
It’s a 300 sq-ft plastic house which took 5 weeks to build from 3,500 one-litre plastic bottles. This house reminds me that Malaysia is the 8th largest producer of mismanaged plastic wastes. Guess that’s the message Alex tries to tell (and show) the world.
Then Alex went back to the camp to prepare other activities for us. We continued to explore other side of the island. There is a garrison on the island. I saw police and dogs patrolled on the beach, so I feel safe.
The sea view was ravishing. We forgot the time until dusk was approaching, and the cloud was like in fire. It’s the famous flaming sunset of Sabah. We chased for the sunset view and reached a peaceful fishing village on other end of the island. The friendly villagers smiled at us while busy preparing for the nightfall. This is just an ordinary fishing village, but looks so surreal under the sunset.
Inspiring Success Story
By the time we were back to our resort, yummy dinner was already served under a canopy. During meal time, Alex shared some stories about his conservation project on Libaran. It wasn’t a smooth sail. If I were him, I would had given up.
Turtles have existed for over 200 million years, but if nothing is done, human can wipe them out in 10 years. Unlike Ninja Turtle, the shell of turtles can’t protect them from human greed. Turtles are fully protected by wildlife act in Sabah and Sarawak only. In some states of Peninsular Malaysia, turtle eggs are sold openly and it’s legal to consume them.
However, without any enforcement on a remote island such as Libaran, the locals were eating the turtle eggs. I’m not saying that the villagers there are bad. Turtle eggs have been the main source of protein for islanders for many generations. Now for conservation, we have to take this away from these poor villagers, so it isn’t hard to understand why they are unhappy.
Besides stop eating turtle eggs, we must not harass turtles too. Let me tell you a real case. Rantau Abang in Terengganu used to the most popular nesting location of leatherback turtle. In 1950s, there were more than 10,000 nesting spots. Then tourists came and ride on their back and flipped them over for fun. The consequence is – almost 0 sighting of leatherback there for last 5 years.
Libaran is blessed because they act soon enough to prevent the repeat of Rantau Abang tragedy there. In 2011, Sabah Wildlife Department sought collaboration with Alex to protect the turtles on Libaran, because the villagers collecting turtle eggs. However, it’s a hot potato, not cash cow, being handed over to Alex. The former village head didn’t support his conservation work and even tried to stop his team from collecting turtle eggs.
Deeply dismayed by many challenges and people issues, Alex thought about quitting in Nov 2015. His visit to Libaran in Feb 2016 was supposed to be a goodbye trip. Then a turtle laid 70 eggs in front of his tent. Alex saw this as a sign and decided to continue. Due to his perseverance, Alex has successfully established a new turtle stronghold on Libaran. It’s a victory in Sabah conservation.
Just a trivia. During World War II, about 2 or 3 British prisoners of war escaped the infamous dead march, and one of them was hiding on Libaran until he was rescued by US Navy after the war. Many years later, his son visited Libaran and found that the father of Alex’s employee is the one who rescued his dad.
Libaran is also a great place for stargazing, since they keep the light to minimal. I saw many stars in the sky, but it was covered by dense cloud shortly.
Before we went to bed, Alex said, “Tonight it will be high tide. We have good chance to see turtle landing.” And he was right.
Because of the comfortable sea breeze and sound of sea waves, I had a deep sleep until I heard Alex was talking on walkie-talkie around 3:20am. I waked up and saw him standing outside his tent. From his serious expression, I knew a turtle has landed. I followed behind him with a torchlight.
There are a total of 401 turtle landing (75% Green Turtle, 25% Hawksbill Turtle) on Libaran between 2013 and 2017.
And yay!!! We saw a Hawksbill turtle about 200 Metres away from our campsite, and it laid eggs under a tree near to beach. We were so excited but we had to observe it quietly from a distance. If disturbed, mother turtle would abort the nesting and turn back to the sea. Sabah has the largest population of hawksbills in Malaysia.
Mother turtles only come to land for laying eggs. They will dig a hole with their legs, lay eggs, then cover them with sand. To me it’s bizarre. Imagine human who lives on land, but give birth a baby in the sea.
This Hawksbill turtle laid 149 eggs that morning, breaking the 3-year-old highest record of 146 eggs! According to Alex, Libaran got one turtle landing every 3 days in average. They prefer to come during high tide, so they don’t need to crawl a long way to the beach.
After the mother turtle left, the trained staff collected the eggs carefully and moved them to the hatchery near to our camp. This measure can increase the survival rate of hatching up to 90 per cent.
Turtle eggs look like ping-pong ball, and are delicious treat for crabs, monitor lizards and birds. Therefore, we have to place a circular wire mesh enclosure around the nest, so these predators can’t dig the nest.
The nest is also labelled with information such as date, number of eggs and turtle species. The eggs will hatch after 45 to 55 days. Do you know that temperature can set the sex of a hatching? Cooler temperatures lead to a male, while hotter sand leads to a female.
This 4-ha hatchery was setup in July 2012 by Alex Yee at the site chosen by Sabah Wildlife Department. It’s named as Taman Hadiah, which means Gift Garden. It hatches about 4,000 eggs every month in average (73% Green Turtle, 27% Hawksbill).
From 2013 until 2017, the hatchery had collected 20,022 Green turtle eggs and 7,464 Hawksbill turtle eggs. On 1 March 2018, they will celebrate the release of 30,000th turtle!
I’m happy to witness the release of a few dozens baby turtles that evening. They usually release them at night to avoid the predators. Once freed, the baby turtles will head to the moonlight and enter the sea.
Another amazing thing happens during the release, these baby turtles will register the magnetic signature of this beach as their “home point”. Even after 25 years, the female turtle can rely on Earth’s magnetic field to navigate back to her exact birthplace to lay eggs.
There is one cruel fact I hope I don’t have to tell you. Only one in a thousand baby turtles will survive. So every egg counts.
By the way, if you see any sneaky fellow in Sandakan City that shows you Ok sign in the street, bash him because he is selling turtle eggs illegally (but double check in case he is really a friendly Sandakian).
In Sabah, anyone caught in possession or consuming turtle eggs could be fined MYR50,000 or be jailed five years, or both, if convicted. That means you are as guilty as seller if you are buying turtle eggs.
However, due to weak enforcement, these sellers are still around and certainly enjoy good business. I hope the authority will also prosecute the buyers to the fullest extent by law. This will send a strong warning to buyers that buying turtle eggs is also a crime.
How to get there
A visit to this new turtle island is highly recommended to those who want to see the miracles of nature. Day trip and overnight tour are available. For more information or booking, please contact Walai Penyu Resort via the following channels:
Phone: +60 16-8310168 (cellphone), +60 88-260263 (office)
At the end, I would like to compliment Alex Yee for his dedication in conservation. What he does far exceeds the scope of Corporate Service Responsibility (CSR). It’s a long term commitment, not a one-time beach clean-up or symbolically planting a few trees. I hope more visitors will visit Libaran to support the turtle conservation there. Please learn from the story of Rantau Abang and don’t be the generation that bully turtles.
Photos taken in Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo