Kemaman River Terrapin Conservation Project

Our river terrapin nesting and tagging study was initiated in 2011. To date, this community-based conservation project has saved more than 4,500 terrapin eggs from human consumption, and released close to 3,000 head-started terrapins into the Kemaman River.
Malay name: Tuntung Sungai

Adult size: 45 – 62 cm
Adult weight: 20 – 36 kg
Sexual maturity: ~ 22 years

Listed as one of the top 25 most critically endangered freshwater turtles and tortoises in the world.

Only found in southern Thailand, Cambodia and Peninsular Malaysia.

Wildlife Conservation Act:
Totally Protected species

Threats: Consumption of eggs, indiscriminate fishing gears, habitat destruction (i.e. sand mining)

The female (left) and the male (right) river terrapins exhibit very different characteristics during the breeding season. Adult males are smaller than adult females. During the nesting season, the male’s head, neck and feet turn jet-black and the iris change from creamish to white in colour. This condition is called “sexual dimorphism.”
Incubation duration: 60 – 110 days for ex-situ nests
Hatchling shell length: 5.2 – 8.4 cm
Hatchling body weight: 60 – 89 g
The identifying characteristics of the river terrapins are the up-turned snout, and four front claws.
Adults are mainly herbivorous, feeding on mangrove apple (Sonneratia sp.), sedges (Scleria sp.), screw pine (Pandanus sp.), Colocasia (Ficus sp.) and water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes).
This is the river terrapin nesting bank in the Kemaman River.
The “Terrapin Guardians” as they call themselves.
After nesting, the female terrapin is brought back to the campsite. At the campsite, the length and width of the terrapin are measured.
The Terrapin Guardians are also trained in basic data collection and recording.
A microchip is inserted into each female as a form of individual identification.
The next morning, the Terrapin Guardians return from the nesting bank.
Unlike sea turtle eggs, river terrapin eggs are oblong in shape.
All the terrapin eggs are immediately incubated in the hatchery.
All nests are labeled, and cylindrical cages ensure the hatchlings do not escape after emergence.
All terrapin hatchlings are head-started in the hatchery before they are released.
Every year on the first Saturday of October, we shell-abrate our annual Terrapin Independence Day, during which all head-started terrapins are released into the Kemaman River.
Number of terrapin eggs collected and incubated in the Kemaman River from 2011 to 2018.
*Eggs were collected from one nesting bank, except in 2017, when they were collected from two nesting banks.
Number of head-started terrapin hatchlings released into the Kemaman River from 2011 to 2018.

Number of female terrapins micro-chipped since 2011

Number of terrapin eggs saved from human consumption

Number of terrapin hatchlings produced

Number of head-started terrapins released into the Kemaman River


A 3-minute video by Our Better World, Singapore International Foundation

Dr. Chen Pelf Nyok was recently awarded the Commonwealth Point of Light from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for her efforts in the community-based terrapin conservation project in Kemaman, Terengganu.

Vicki Treadell CMG, MVO, British High Commissioner to Malaysia said:

“Dr. Chen has done a great deal on the research and conservation of turtles particularly river terrapins. She has also earned respect for educating, motivating and empowering local communities and children to conserve turtles. Her passion and dedication truly embody the spirit of volunteerism. I am pleased that she is made Malaysia’s Commonwealth Point of Light.”

This is Pak Wazel. He is 56 years old this year. He has 10 children and 9 grandchildren. His youngest son is now 17 years old.

Pak Wazel originates from Kuala Berang, about 2 hours from Kemaman. He was an odd-job worker before settling down in Kg. Pasir Gajah and starting a family. But because he was from a different village, he was regarded as a “nobody” here. A few years ago, when asked about him, local villagers would say, “Wazel? Which Wazel?”

But after joining our terrapin conservation project, he is now known, not only in this village, but also in other communities, as “Wazel Tuntung.” This terrapin conservation project in Kg. Pasir Gajah has indirectly given him “an identity.”

This is Nurul Huda. She is 34 years old, and she has 2 children.

When we started this terrapin conservation project, we needed to do everything ourselves, from marking the terrapin hatchlings to weighing and measuring them, to recording the measurements.

Nurul was always at home taking care of her son, Adiq (in the background). We started teaching the her basic procedures to weigh and measure the terrapin hatchlings, and she subsequently helped us in our routine work.

The first time we paid Nurul an allowance of RM50 for her assistance, she had tears in her eyes. That was the first time she was paid to do anything in her life.


We are looking for collaborators who are passionate, hard-working, proactive, results oriented, love good science and enjoy working with the local communities. There is much potential for turtle research in Malaysia but not enough scientists/ students studying them! If you have a project in mind and would like to collaborate with us, we are happy to discuss it further with you!