The man who saves turtles

Dr Nicolas Pilcher - Malaysia

Nick saves sea turtles. In a nutshell that’s what he does. But he has to look far beyond their nesting grounds to make it work.

Hanging on for dear life, Nick (right) had just jumped and caught this 400 kg dugong with bare hands!

Nick has a PhD in turtle biology, but he says it did not prepare him for the real-world challenges of turtle conservation.

“Knowing their biology may be one thing, but working with communities, fishermen and industry to make conservation happen is a whole different story,” he says. 

After an early career in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Palau as a marine biologist, Nick settled down in north Borneo and established his own non-governmental organization, the Marine Research Foundation (MRF), a non-profit entity geared to saving marine life across various countries and facing differing threats. MRF, an IUCN Member, now serves as a base from which Nick addresses turtle conservation at various levels, and with an ever-growing diversity of people.

Thank the turtles!

In Papua New Guinea Nick has brought together seven communities who all share one special thing in common: their beaches are nesting grounds for the Critically Endangered leatherback sea turtle. This community-based conservation project employs villagers to serve as rangers and protect the turtles, their eggs and their hatchlings.

But conservation in Papua New Guinea is tricky because natural resources are owned by the people and reaching consensus about conservation issues is a massive challenge. One of the greatest problems was that there were not enough ranger jobs to satisfy everyone in each village and the benefits of conserving turtles, rather than eating them, were not being felt by the entire community.

To overcome this problem, Nick provides a fixed lump sum ‘grant’ to each community to be used for village development or ‘legacy projects’ as he calls them, so that everyone benefits from having turtles around. These small projects range from repairing school roofs, organizing new church furniture, to the expansion of the fresh water system. And even if one does not get to be a ranger each season, at least there are benefits which all can enjoy.

Nick tells the communities to thank the turtles – and not the project – each time they pass by the new elementary school building, for it is they who bring them benefits. Judging by the continued involvement of all of the communities six years on, it appears to be a winning formula.

No head-butting with business

In India, Nick worked with the industry to get it right. Not more than 15km away from a proposed site for the development of a large port was a beach where hundreds of thousands of turtles nest in a wonderful natural phenomenon called an arribada.

But the Port needed to dredge a long channel for the ships to navigate safely, and lights were a concern as they could disturb nesting females and disorient the emerging hatchlings. Nick developed a plan with the Port authorities and the help of many IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group members (of which he, incidentally, is Co-Chair) to devise strategies to counter these potential threats. These were developed at an initial stage of port development, and so they did not cost the Port any major financial or time losses.

Nick and his team developed ways to stop the dredgers from ever sucking up any turtles, and designed a lighting scheme to overcome the concerns over light pollution. They even helped the port develop a world-class environmental management plan to address all kinds of other concerns and risks, so that the surrounding ecosystems upon which the local villagers depend are well protected long into the future.

“Working with industry, rather than against them, and understanding that although industries have their own needs, much of what is needed for conservation can often be built into their plans, is a much more practical approach to conservation than continually butting heads with them,” says Nick. 

The fisherman's friend

In Malaysia, Nick helps fishermen keep turtles out of their nets. Shrimp trawlers often fish in areas where turtles feed, and the turtles drown accidentally in the nets. But the use of a simple metal grid and an escape flap called a Turtle Excluder Device can save the turtles and allow the fishers to continue to earn a living.

But convincing a fisherman to put a hole in his net for turtles to escape is not easy, as he fears he will also lose his catch. So Nick spends many days at sea with them, and shows them how to use the devices correctly, and showing that he is also concerned that they don’t lose any of their catch. Sitting on the back of a boat fixing nets and sewing in the grids makes Nick part of the fishing community, and allows him to gain their trust. Today this project is gaining momentum and spreading wings to Pakistan and even India.

The list of projects Nick has been involved with is long and the list of problems he has helped to solve – even longer. But he says that it is all worth it:

“I look back on the projects I have been lucky to help with, and think of all the wonderful people that are now part of the solution when once they were the cause of the problem, and I am convinced we have to be optimistic. I certainly am!” 

Nick can be contacted at

Work area: 
North America
North America
North America
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