Unwavering adherence to turtles’ cause
Published on: Sunday, January 19, 2020
By: Kan Yaw Chong
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The second ‘don’t quit’ stunner for Alex: Turtle comes right in front of his tent to nest. With him is Dr James. (pic by Yusof Teppo)
THIS story is a lesson on adherence to a cause considered transcendental but has no immediate personal, economic, political, cultural or social gain.

The cause is the future of Sabah’s sea turtles.

We have all heard instructive lines like “Winners never quit, quitters never win.”

But a sea of people quit on their own goals as most find it far easier to quit than adhere through thick and thin.

However, there are heroic examples of history that in spite of many tremendous challenges and lost battles, they fight even harder through the obstacles and eventually win.

For example, inventor of the light bulb Thomas Edison purportedly failed in 1,000 unsuccessful attempts.

So a reporter asked: How does it feel? 

Edison reportedly replied: “Well, I did not fail, it just took me 1,000 steps!”     


A local story of heroic adherence to cause in spite of great difficulties   

Edison is a never-say-die American.

Here we have a never-say-die local story on “quitters never win, winners never quit” and we have a winner – Alex Yee who adhered to cause of turtle future in spite of very difficult odds.  

Like Edison’s 1,000 steps before hitting a breakthrough, here we plot Alex’s steps.        

July 2010 – Sabah Wildlife Department Roland Nuin called, asked if he’s interested fund a hatchery in Libaran Island because a police land owner reported villagers were collecting eggs from his land.

September 2010 – Alex, Roland and landowner Amiril Sayuti set off from Sandakan jetty to Libaran Island where Alex saw the need and said yes, he would fund the hatchery with technical advice from SWD.


Hitches right at the start  

December 2010, a lease draft agreement from a lawyer was ready but right after that there were difficulties and hitches which delayed the signing of land lease agreement over a three-acre land until December 2011.

March-April 2012, Alex started building the hatchery named Walai Penyu Conservation Park.    

“Then I realised only a small part of the island was protected but my objective was ensure the whole island was protected. This is why in March 2013, I sent 13 local villagers including the then headman Sarief Nasidi Uyung, to my Nature Lodge Bilit, Kinabatangan for a three-day Honorary Wildlife Warden course, the idea was they would return to Libaran to start enforcing the ban on egg collection,” Alex said.  

The training done, in June 2013, he signed an MoU with Datuk Dr Laurentius Ambu, former Director of Sabah Wildlife Department, that Alex would fund the hatchery, create awareness, open the venue to tourists and scientists for turtle research while SWD provides technical support.


A string of failed attempts

“But three months after the presentation of the Honorary Wildlife Warden status, all 12 had left the job, so people whom I expected to act as the village authority to enforce the ban on egg poaching throughout the island did not happen,” Alex noted.

“My initial idea was besides my hatchery, the villagers would set up their own hatchery on their side of the island and use that as an attraction to draw tourists to set up a homestay programme, so we held a series of small dialogues but all that failed.

“Then in August 2014 we held a big dialogue which looked very promising but that also failed and for some reasons, I was even barred from entering the village.” 


Human and physical failures 

Given that botched attempt to get the village hatchery set up, Alex said he actually started buying turtle eggs from the village side for incubation in his hatchery but when the price was raised from 50 Sen to 80 Sen and eventually RM1 per egg, he gave up the whole idea.       

The problem was not just human, Libaran as it was form 2012 to 2015 was an environmental disaster because trash filled the entire lengths of the beaches as far as the eyes could see.

But nobody cared, neither the Sandakan Municipal Council which was responsible nor the villagers lifted a finger   

But if the rubbish were not cleared, how could any turtle nest given the mountain of obstruction.  

The only hope was to pay villagers to do regular beach cleaning but who pays?

Again Alex had to pay.

If not which tourist would want to visit Libaran.   

On the other hand, by virtue of the MoU with SWD, Alex observed and performed the terms he had signed and agreed to. 

The 12 original Honorary Wildlife Wardens who sacked themselves had to be replaced by others but only two of the present patrol team are wildlife wardens.  


Wildlife wardens costing a bomb but no enforcement 

“Actually, since Day One when the hatchery was set up in April 2012, I already started paying 12 people at RM900 each per month to patrol the beaches meaning I was spending about RM150,000 per year and altogether about rm1 million in total since,” Alex noted. 

For seven straight years between 2012 to 2018, Alex was making big losses., far longer than he ever expected.


“That was my frustration, recovery of my investments happened far too slowly mainly because past village authorities did not buy into the objectives intended by myself and the Sabah Wildlife Department,” he groused.     

“Had they bought into the idea the project would have taken just two years to succeed,” he asserted.


The day Alex seriously considered quitting  

At the height of his big consecutive losses, Alex said he had seriously wanted to quit many times because it was costing too much while nobody seemed to care.

On one of those occasions, Alex sounded the quit idea to this writer over a few drinks. 

That’s when I quoted “Quitters never win, winners never quit” in my level best to talk him out of this saddening feeling. 

From Day One, I used the utmost power of the pen to support this project because where else would we find such a rare private vanguard who sticks out his neck to protect such as big issue like sea turtle conservation, at his expense, at least to start it up?


Three things changed his mind  

Luckily, just as he considered quitting, two things happened that held him back at least two years before economic success began to pick up, Alex noted. 

The first is meeting Dr James Alin, a lecturer at the School of Business and Economics, Universiti Malaysia Sabah. 

“After meeting Dr James, I made him an Advisor of Friends of Sea Turtles Education and Research (Foster). His role was technical and encouragement. Every time we have ideas he would say go ahead or when we have problems, he would say never mind, do it again. So it’s like don’t quit.”   

But it was this writer who introduced Dr James to him because since one of the objectives is to encourage scientific research, it must have links with university academics and other scientific community.  


The second game-changer

The second event that changed Alex’s mind to quit happened at Libaran Island itself.

Just before midnight in one visit to Libaran in February 2016, one huge Green turtle suddenly scrambled ashore to lay eggs right in front of the zip opening of Alex’s tent next to Dr James’ tent. 

“Dr James and myself were chatting in the dining tent outside the kitchen and when I decided to go to my tent to get something, I saw this turtle right in front of my tent. It is an amazing drama to see a turtle throwing large amount of sand backwards with its powerful front flippers to drop her eggs into the hole.

“The turtle seemed come right next to my feet to tell me this powerful message: Alex, you don’t quit helping us ‘Winners don’t quit, quitters don’t win’. You must adhere to that cause!’   


The 3rd call to stay on cause

The third game changer is since the beginning of 2019, the Walai Penyu Conservation Park started to break even and later began to make surplus, thanks to a combination of both European and Chinese tourists. 

But it had practically taken one decade to succeed economically.

(Next Sunday: The new milestone)

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