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Sabah Wildlife Department looking into photo of tourists abusing a sea turtle

A rather heartbreaking and outrageous photo has been circulating on Whatsapp and social media that shows a child riding a sea turtle in what appears to be a tour boat. The incident, which is believed to have happened somewhere in Sabah, has sparked outrage among the public with netizens calling for authorities to take action against the errant tour operator.

The picture shows a group of people with their faces blurred out wearing neon orange life jackets commonly handed out during boat tours. They are sat around a child, also wearing a life jacket, who is sitting on top of a sea turtle, apparently posing for a photo with the animal. The sea turtle is a totally protected species in Sabah.

Singaporean Glenn Yong shared the photo on Facebook as well and lamented that this kind of atrocity occurs almost every month but the relevant authorities don't seem to be doing anything about it.

The Malaysian news portal New Straits Times reported that the Sabah Wildlife Department is aware of the incident and has launched an investigation. Director Augustin Tuuga said, "I've checked with our enforcement team in Semporna and so far, they found no such incident has taken place. Perhaps, it's a recycled photo but I've instructed the team to look into it."

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of details to go on in the photo. Wildlife Department assistant director Dr Sen Nathan noted that for the department to take action, they would need to first verify the place, time, and boat owner. That would be difficult as there were no further details provided by the complainant who had posted the photo on Facebook and tagged Dr Sen Nathan.

If identified, those responsible (i.e boat owners and those tourists on the boat) would be charged for endangering the life of a protect wildlife species of the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997 under Schedule 1 which covers green turtles, hawksbill turtles, and olive ridley turtles.

The incident has also caught the attention of Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Christina Liew who said that regardless of whether the offenders were tourists or locals, they would be held responsible for breaking the law in Sabah. She said, ‘everyone must respect our laws in protecting our wildlife species’. She added that she hoped the investigation would reveal more details of the culprits so that appropriate action can be taken against them.