The Sea Turtle Research Unit (SEATRU) was established in 1984 by co-founders Prof. Dr. Chan Eng Heng and Assoc. Prof Liew Hock Chark, when their research interests in sea turtle biology, as then Faculty of Fisheries and Marine Science of Universiti Putra Malaysia, coincided with the Terengganu’s Department of Fisheries desire to conserve the threatened leatherback turtle population nesting at Rantau Abang. Their research shed light onto the inter-nesting periods and movements of leatherback turtles along the coast of Terengganu, which led to the establishment of the Rantau Abang Restricted Fishing Zone with the primary goal of protecting endangered Leatherback turtles. Their assessments of the conservation status and hatchery-related research on Leatherback turtles in Terengganu, emphasized the importance of in-situ egg incubation programs in Redang Island. Furthermore, their discoveries of long-range migratory pathways and feeding grounds of nesting turtles at Pulau Redang helped expedite the formulation of regional marine turtle agreements and memoranda of understanding between neighboring countries. The vital information resulting from these studies have formed the basis for many important recommendations made by SEATRU to relevant government agencies for the conservation of sea turtles, especially within the state of Terengganu.
SEATRU has since developed into a multi-disciplinary program aimed at studying all aspects of sea turtle biology and ecology, threats to their survival, and how conservation management initiatives can be established in order to restore threatened species back to stable population sizes. In addition to carrying out scientific research, SEATRU plays a direct role in regional sea turtle conservation, including the long-term sea turtle monitoring and conservation project based at the Chagar Hutang Turtle Sanctuary on Pulau Redang. In the early years, all nests incubated at Chagar Hutang were purchased from licensed egg collectors at RM120 per nest. A total of RM500,000 were spent (1993-2004) in the purchase alone until Chagar Hutang has been declared as turtle sanctuary in 2005 via the help from the Terengganu State Government through the Department of Fisheries. This grassroots project integrates in-situ egg incubation with tagging and nesting research, in addition to supporting community education outreach for school children, and the public at large. The volunteer program established by SEATRU at Chagar Hutang Turtle Sanctuary has helped bridge connections for Malaysians nationwide, to the importance of their national heritage and the necessity to conserve it for generations to come. SEATRU’s volunteer program has grown to international recognition and welcomes a variety of foreign nationals from multiple countries to share in the ‘once in a lifetime’ experience of assisting SEATRU staff in monitoring endangered sea turtles nesting along the remote tropical beach.
Since its inception in 1993, the sea turtle conservation project at Chagar Hutang has helped increased the level of egg protection and the subsequent release of hatchlings at Pulau Redang, and has become a crucial scientific study monitoring the status of endangered and threaten sea turtle species within Peninsular Malaysia. SEATRU has conducted studies which have tracked nesting hawksbill and green turtles using satellite and acoustic tags, measured hatchling fitness and locomotor performance, and estimated the sex ratio of hatchlings produced at the rookery. In addition, researchers have investigated the predation rate of hatchlings by black tip reef sharks, the spread of fungal colonies between incubating nests and the movement of water monitors along the nesting beach. SEATRU has gained international recognition for its research endeavors as several scientists were elected to the Global 500 Roll of Honor by the United Nations Environment Program in 2001.
Under the Institute of Oceanography and Environment at the Universiti of Malaysia Terenagganu, SEATRU is directly involved in the education of Malaysian university students at the undergraduate level and both international and Malaysian graduate researchers passionate about sea turtle biology and conservation. Their determination to develop novel research techniques and conservation management strategies has won them multiple research innovation awards. The establishment of the Turtle Lab at The Taaras Beach and Spa Resort, Redang Island, in collaboration with Berjaya Corporation, is the first of its kind public-viewing laboratory in Malaysia, allowing for guests to learn about sea turtle conservation during their vacation. The lab’s main purpose is to carry out scientific research, conducting experiments on egg incubation and sea turtle hatchling energetics. In addition to the important research taking place, the Turtle Lab serves as a platform where researchers can effectively engage with the public daily, raising conservation awareness and promoting responsible tourism practices. Educational day trips led by researchers to Chagar Hutang Turtle Sanctuary, are another effective approach towards bridging science and society through their exposure to first-hand conservation field work.