Every year since 2011, a carnival has been taking place along Kemaman River in Kampung Pasir Gajah, Terengganu, at which local villagers and visitors come together for a heartwarming cause. Rolling up their sleeves and pants, the participants kneel down on the banks for the highlight of the event — the release of freshwater turtle hatchlings into the river. “You can say a prayer or wish them well as you let them go, and tell them to come back here to lay eggs some day,” Dr Chen Pelf Nyok, the brains and brawn behind the initiative, often tells the participants.
Fondly known as Mek Tuntung (“turtle lady” in the Terengganu dialect) in the local community, Chen, who co-founded the Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia, has always had an affiliation with these gentle river creatures. As a young girl, she found herself drawn to the turtles she saw in the ponds of temples while family members often gifted her hair clips and other items with turtle motifs on them. Little did she know then that freshwater turtle (also called river turtle) conservation would become her life’s work.
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