We’ve all heard of the term “Mother Nature” and “Father Time”. How about “Turtle Father” (Bapa Penyu)? Yup, this isn’t a belated April Fools’ joke, peeps, because Malaysia’s every day superhero and conversationalist warrior, Gavin Jolis is here with us to share about the things he does as a senior marine conservation officer for WWF-Malaysia. We hope that this piece inspires you as much as it has inspired us to do more for the environment. Enjoy!
1. Hi Gavin! Please tell us more about yourself
I am a senior marine conservation officer for WWF-Malaysia and am based in Kota Kinabalu, specialising on the conservation of marine turtles and impacts of climate change. After working on marine turtles for 8 years, I am sometimes referred to as ‘Bapa Penyu’ (Turtle Father) when I was based in Semporna (a small district on the southeast of Sabah).
Physically active and seeing the outdoors as my playground, I am an ultra-road and trail marathon runner, a weight-lifter in a fitness box and a dance group exercise instructor in gyms.
I believe that one should not limit their experiences in life. Travelling and exploring places, either if it is abroad or just an old street around the corner, are what I love to do. I also love to capture moments with my iPhone or Fujifilm X T-20 camera. In addition, enjoying what life brings, I like to immerse myself in music concerts and festivals. You will likely see me grooving into indie contemporary, jazz, to mainstream pop artists.
2. Can you let us know what spark your interests in bio marine in the first place?
Since I was a child, I was intrigued with my surrounding environment. It all started with interests for prehistoric animals (Hint: Jurassic Park!); then, I gradually moved on to wildlife. Subsequently, spending hours of watching National Geographic and Discovery Channel documentaries at night may have also sparked my interest in the marine environment even further – and the rest is history.
3. Why did you pursue this line of work?
Building from my interest towards the marine environment, I have always wanted to be part of any conservation efforts or projects. Hence, I enrolled myself and received a Bachelor’s degree in Marine Science from Universiti Malaysia Sabah in 2009. I then had the opportunity to be an intern for WWF-Malaysia, which has led me to my 8th year with the organisation.
4. What is a typical work day like as a Senior Marine Conservation Officer in WWF Malaysia?
I get this question all the time. It varies! I work on specific objectives to achieve desired results for our conservation targets, which in my case would be marine turtles. In a day, I could go from being in the office, working on reports and preparing concept papers, to being out in the field (either the islands or coast) more than 100km away from Kota Kinabalu to conduct research or interviews. Also, there are days where I may need to attend meetings or workshops with various stakeholders to advocate on marine turtle issues.
5. Could you tell us a little bit about the projects you’ve currently worked on?
World Wild Fund for Nature – Malaysia (WWF-Malaysia) is a national conservation trust in Malaysia, and it is part of a larger WWF network. Established in 1972, the Malaysian organisation runs projects covering a diverse range of environmental protection and nature conservation efforts. WWF-Malaysia (also known as Tabung Alam Malaysia) work on various thematic landscapes via a number of ongoing programmes.
I am currently attached with the Marine Programme. The Marine Programme consists of three strategies i.e. sustainable fisheries and seafood, protection of marine ecosystem and marine turtle conservation. We have identified and prioritised conservation targets that are significant and valuable, including addressing various human threats that impact them. Being careless with these targets threatens the livelihood and economic security, health and other ecosystem services to the population of more than 30 million Malaysians.
A total of 38 staff members currently work on this programme and we strive to address the threats that are impacting the targets. My focus is on marine turtles; looking into addressing the threat of poaching (also known as direct-take) of turtles, trade and consumption of turtle eggs in Sabah. In addition to that, I also look into addressing the impacts of climate change on marine turtles as well as the coastal communities.
6. What are the few initiatives that are carried out by WWF to protect the sea turtles?
Malaysia is blessed with a rich biodiversity and is home to four out of the seven species of marine turtles in the world. They are the green (Chelonia mydas), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) and leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) turtles. These species nest, forage and migrate throughout the nation’s waters. However, all four turtle species in Malaysia face various identified threats to their survival; which are trade and consumption of turtle eggs, incidental capture of turtle in fishing gears, direct-take, conversion and reclamation of coastal ecosystem as well as from the impacts of climate change.
Recognising that these threats are impacting these turtle populations, WWF-Malaysia works on various levels:
■ Nationally, WWF raises and highlight issues in many international platforms. Turtles and its associated issues are transboundary and involve other neighbouring countries. Turtles are migratory animals that travel hundreds of kilometres between its feeding grounds and nesting beaches. These transboundary linkages impact turtles at the ground level.
■ On the ground level, WWF along with various partners, patrol key nesting beaches to save turtle eggs from poaching at prime nesting beaches. Aside from that, WWF also advocates improvement of protection such as recommendations to strengthen laws, usage of turtle-friendly fishing gears, advocates nesting beaches as turtle sanctuaries, and enhances enforcement on the ground. In addition, WWF conducts awareness drive to various target audiences on the importance of turtles.
■ Recognising that it’s not just human threats to the survival of marine turtles, WWF acknowledges that climate change must also be taken into account. WWF currently monitors the sand temperature of turtle hatcheries, where eggs are being safely incubated (Interesting note! The sex of turtle hatchlings is determined by temperature), the sea surface temperature at coral reefs where turtles forage for food (higher temperature kills corals), and profile changes of nesting beaches.
■ Both national and ground levels need to work hand-in-hand to complement each other in order to achieve the desired result, to maintain or increase turtle population, and increase resilience to cope with climate change impacts.
7. What is currently being done to stop the turtle eggs trade and turtle poaching?
While there are initiatives by WWF as per mentioned earlier, WWF strongly believes in working collectively for greater impacts. Therefore, WWF works with various partners such as the Department of Fisheries Malaysia, Sabah Parks, other Non-Governmental Organisations and private sectors such as resort operators, to protect turtle eggs in prime nesting beaches from being poached. In Sabah, adult turtles are being poached for consumption of meat and their shells for decorative purposes; which are usually linked to foreign fishermen.
Most eggs will end up being sold in markets if they are not saved, and most meat and turtle parts will end up being smuggled out to foreign countries. In order to address the issue of turtle eggs and direct-take of turtles (which is an issue in Sabah), wildlife enforcement agencies collaborate with each other to conduct investigations and patrols at hotspots around Sabah. The Sabah’s Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment (MTCE) and Wildlife Department established a state-level wildlife taskforce in 2018 that addresses illegal trade of marine and terrestrial wildlife.
8. What are your thoughts on the awareness of sea turtle protection and climate change among Malaysians?
This is a tough question. The awareness level among Malaysians vary. Nonetheless, the threats are still occurring and need to be reduced if we want our marine turtles to survive. We do not want another episode of our precious wildlife going extinct, such as the Tasmanian tigers in 1936. Thus, it is important for Malaysians to appreciate the value of our marine turtles. Turtles provide a healthy ecosystem, generate economic and cultural benefits to us – these in itself provide reasons for all of us to protect these reptiles.
9. Is there anything that you’d like to educate about conserving the marine life – especially among the younger generation?
Turtles are the nation’s heritage and we should be proud of it. Everyone holds a responsibility in the future of our marine life. Malaysians, as custodians of our rich and mega diverse environment, need to stand united in conserving, enhancing and protecting our biodiversity and heritage for the present and future generations. The continued integrity of our biodiversity and environment remains critical for the sustainable development and continued prosperity of the nation, and the younger generation has a role to achieve that.
10. What are the highlights and lowlights you’ve encountered so far in your line of work?
I remember an episode in 2010 where the boat that I was on for a survey at an island 20km away from Semporna town almost capsized due to a leakage at the side. This happened while we were at open sea! Fortunately, there was a nearby island that we managed to seek refuge. That episode could have cost my life!
Nonetheless, every lowlight must have its highlight. Being able to witness the results of your work reflected on the ground (even though it can be after a couple of years) is a huge highlight of mine. I have seen a community group that started out small but due to their great passion in saving wildlife and their perseverance, they are now a strong and independent group that still continues to do their great work even after a decade has almost passed. Conservation takes time for you to see the results.
11. So, we heard that you’re a dance fitness instructor, adventurous traveler and a music fanatic. How do you juggle all these on top of the responsibilities from WWF?
Oprah Winfrey once said, “I’ve learned that you can’t have everything and do everything at the same time.” Every soul needs a break. To me, saving wildlife is equally as important as enriching your soul with your own time. It is a priority of mine to always remind myself and to make sure I enrol in activities outside of conservation.
For me, my joy also comes from conducting weekly classes for gym members and seeing their smiling faces at the end of it; or when I have (barely) smashed an intense workout in a fitness box; or learning about other cultures and taking photos when you are thousands of kilometres away from home. I recently moved back to my hometown, Kota Kinabalu from Kuala Lumpur and currently focusing at fitness box. These, combined with my passion for conservation, allow me to lead a balanced and happy lifestyle. The biggest lesson I have learnt after years of working is to know when to stop working. It is super important to chill and to have your own downtime. It recharges me and allows me to maintain my focus for work the next day.