Sabah government investigating viral photo of child tourist riding critically endangered sea turtle

The photo triggered angry reactions from netizens and prompted a government investigation.

A photo of a child riding a critically endangered wild turtle has been making the rounds online, got netizens up in arms, and prompted a government investigation to identify the individuals involved.

The viral photo in question, posted on Sunday (Jan 6), shows a sea turtle on a boat being held down by an adult’s leg, while a child in a life jacket sits squarely on its shell.

The caption says that “to appeal to tourists, the tour and boat operator caught the turtle and put it on the boat for tourists to take pictures with.”

Netizens left hundreds of angry comments on the photo and its reproductions on other Facebook pages, with some tagging the World Wide Fund for Nature and Tourism Malaysia’s social media accounts.

Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) director Augustine Tuuga told the New Straits Times (NST) on Jan 6 that the department was aware of the photo and had sent an enforcement team from Semporna – the closest town to Tun Sakaran Marine Park, a dive site rich in marine life – to investigate.

However, the team were unable to find evidence of the incident.

“Perhaps it’s a recycled photo,” Tuuga told NST.

Tuuga identified the turtle as a Hawksbill Turtle, which is a critically endangered species listed on the IUCN red list – meaning it is at “extremely high risk of extinction in the wild”.

A day later (Jan 7), Sabah Deputy Chief Minister Christina Liew labelled the behaviour an “offence” and instructed the SWD to investigate further, Bernama reported.

“We welcome tourists to Sabah who visit because there are many beautiful places, but at the same time, we expect tourists to respect our laws,” Bernama quoted Liew as saying.

Added the Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister: “To catch a turtle, put it on a boat and ride it is unacceptable.”