An image of a child riding on a critically endangered sea turtle while a boatload of tourists watch has sparked outrage online and prompted an investigation by the Malaysian government.
The picture shows the child sitting on the hawksbill turtle’s back while an adult pins the creature in place with a foot.
It’s believed the photo was taken in Tun Sakaran Marine Park in the Malaysian state of Sabah.
It quickly went viral after being uploaded onto social media, reportedly with the caption: “to appeal to tourists, the tour and boat operator caught the turtle and put it on the boat for tourists to take pictures with”.
Join Independent Minds
For exclusive articles, events and an advertising-free read for just £5.99 €6.99 $9.99 a month
Get the best of The Independent
With an Independent Minds subscription for just £5.99 €6.99 $9.99 a month
A Sabah Facebook account shared the post, which has garnered hundreds of comments.
“Shame on you guys! You don’t treat animals that way!” wrote Anne Wilkens Blauert, while Guan Teng Tommy Cheo commented: “Oh my goodness should report to Sabah Wildlife Department.”
In fact, the Sabah Wildlife Department has since seen the picture, reports the New Straits Times, and investigations are being made. A team from Semporna, a town close to Tun Sakaran Marine Park, has been instructed to look into the incident.
“To catch a turtle, put it on a boat and ride it is unacceptable,” Christina Liew, environment minister for Sabah, told Channel News Asia.
“I cannot comment further until the investigation is complete. What can I say – this is an offence.
“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.”
Justin Francis, CEO of ethical holiday company Responsible Travel, told The Independent: “If this is a photo of a genuine incident then this is a case of real irresponsible tourism.
“Photos like this encourage the abuse of wildlife. Plucking a wild creature out of its natural environment for entertainment or a wildlife ‘selfie’ is wrong and such practices should always be avoided.
“As a tourist, you should never interfere with wildlife, either by touching it, picking it up, feeding it or coming too close. We advise reporting tour operators who encourage this kind of behaviour and holding them to account on social media or review sites if needs be.”
Hawksbills are found mainly throughout the world’s tropical oceans, predominantly in coral reefs, according to WWF.
Sea turtles are the living representatives of a group of reptiles that has existed on Earth for the last 100 million years; they are a key component in marine ecosystems, helping to maintain the health of coral reefs and sea grass beds.
They’re currently critically endangered, meaning they face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild, due to loss of habitat, excessive egg collection, fishery-related mortality, pollution, and coastal development.
They are most threatened by the illegal wildlife trade, which uses their distinctive patterned shells to produce tortoiseshell items such as jewellery and ornaments.