Rare ‘princess’ turtle returns to Malaysia

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A leatherback turtle has made a surprise return to a Malaysian beach after 32 years, a report said Friday, hailed as a “miracle” by conservationists and renewing hopes for the endangered species.

The leatherbacks — the largest of all sea turtles — were once a star attraction at Rantau Abang beach in Malaysia’s northern state of Terengganu but overfishing, poaching and pollution caused the population to plummet.

The turtle, dubbed the “Puteri Rantau Abang” or Rantau Abang Princess and identified by special markings, returned last month to end a long dry spell of turtle landings which have been rare in Terengganu since the 1980s.

“It is a miracle that leatherback turtles are making a comeback to this area,” Malaysian Fisheries Department director-general Ahamad Sabki Mahmood said according to The Star newspaper.

Ahamad said the turtle’s return showed that Rantau Abang was being made a turtle nesting ground once again, and he hoped for more during the next possible nesting period between August 15 and 20.

The Puteri Rantau Abang, which was hatched in the area in 1978 and marked on its shell and left flipper, returned at a weight of 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds), measuring 1.5 metres (five feet) in length and 1.16 metres wide.

It was released back into the sea on Thursday, carrying a satellite transmitter which will help conservationists track turtle migration patterns.

“We expect Puteri Rantau Abang to head for Vietnam and Japan before heading to the Pacific,” Ahamad said, adding that the turtle was also expected to travel to Indonesian waters and as far as New Zealand before returning to Malaysia.

Leatherback turtles have been around for the past 75 million years, surviving cycles of near extinction. Terengganu was the only place in Malaysia where leatherbacks nested.

In the 1950s, up to 10,000 female turtles struggled up the beach to lay their eggs each year, but by 1984 the number had fallen to 800 and in 2006 only five nests were found from two turtles, without any hatchlings emerging.

Apart from the leatherbacks, green turtles have also made a return to Malaysian beaches in recent weeks, but experts warned that the species is still headed for oblivion if habitat loss is not stopped.