Scientists in Malaysia could try to clone the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle, the world’s largest living reptile, if other efforts to conserve it fail, a report said on Thursday.

"We are worried about the dwindling number of leatherback turtles," Junaidi Che Ayub, the director-general of the Fisheries Department, was quoted as saying in the New Straits Times newspaper.

"Although some have been returning to our shores to nest, their eggs have been infertile and do not hatch," he said in the report.

The option to clone leatherbacks, the world’s largest turtles, is part of a 32-million-ringgit ($9.3-million) study to save the species from extinction, the paper said.

Leatherbacks drew large crowds to the coast of Terengganu state in eastern Malaysia during the 1960s, as tourists marvelled at nesting females.

But they have been hunted for their meat and shells and many get entangled and die in fishing nets in the sea, which has brought the creature to the verge of extinction.

The option to clone leatherbacks would be studied over five years, Junaidi said, in a project involving local and foreign experts, who will test the technique on abundant green turtles first.

"Once we have perfected the technique, we will apply it to leatherback turtles as they are a more complicated species in the turtle family," Junaidi said.

Experts say the number of nesting leatherback turtles in the Pacific has plummeted to 5000 from an estimated 91 000 in 1980.

At least 40 conservationists, scientists and officials from the Asian Development Bank are to meet in Terengganu next week to develop a conservation plan to save leatherbacks in the Pacific region.