For three months of the last winter in Dubai, over 90 sick or injured marine turtles were brought into the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP). The majority of these animals were juvenile critically endangered Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), which according to the IUCN have seen around an 87% drop in the global number of nesting females in the last three generations, a very startling statistic. The main causes for the decline in population of this species are: the tortoiseshell trade, Asian meat trade, egg collection, destruction of foraging and nesting habitats and oil pollution. Populations are declining rapidly all over the world, therefore, the main goal of the rehabilitation project is to return sick animals to full health, and release them back to their environment.
The turtles wash up on the shore along the UAE Gulf coastline in the winter months severely debilitated which is usually manifested by an abnormally heavy epibiont coverage including barnacles of varying species and a large variety of bivalves, worms and anemones. The types of debilitation are varied, some are injuries caused by entanglement or ingestion of plastic waste discarded into the marine environment, however the majority are sick rather than injured. Turtles are reptiles and as such are cold-blooded, gaining their body heat from the surrounding environment. Young turtles in particular are therefore negatively affected by cold sea temperatures experienced within this region during the months of December, January and February, which is when the majority of sick turtles are found.
The DTRP is currently the only project of its kind in the Middle East and Red Sea region. Although it had been running for some years, it was started in its current form by Dubai’s Wildlife Protection Office (WPO) in 2004,
in collaboration with the Jumeirah Group, Al Wasl Veterinary Clinic and the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory (CVRL). 2004 saw the construction of a pre-released turtle holding pen in the waterways of the Madinat Jumeirah, outside the Mina A’Salam hotel. This pen provided a very important step forward, the first public interface to the project, which had previously been behind closed doors. In 2004 Burj Al Arab’s aquarium team became more involved with the utilization of the fish quarantine facilities at the hotel as an intensive care recovery facility. Turtles are found by members of the public on the beaches of Dubai but the majority of the turtles that were brought in this
season were found by the Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG). In fact they found over 40 turtles this season alone. EMEG staff patrol the shores of the Palm Jebel Ali, Dubai Waterfront and Ghantoot Reserve daily looking for stranded turtles. This has been a huge contributing factor in the number of turtles rescued in Dubai. In comparison, the 2008 season produced only 25 turtles brought into the project. Turtle strandings are not new to Dubai and Kevin Hyland who has been here for over 27 years has seen this happen on an ‘annual basis’, however, the current number of turtles being received is unprecedented. Whether or not this increase is due to increased public awareness of the project and the hard work of EMEG or some other contributing factor is unknown. Without exception, all of the turtles found and taken in by the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project were at one stage very sick or injured. Once the turtles are received, they are then referred to veterinarian Dr Mirjam Hampel and the team at Al Wasl Veterinary Clinic. Over the years a practical treatment protocol has been developed, and is still evolving. This can at times include fresh water baths and where necessary vitamin or antibiotic treatments. Each turtle receives a microchip, to allow individual case histories to be monitored. Then, the turtles are returned to the Burj Al Arab Aquarium, and other facilities, where the team can closely monitor their recovery. The great advantage of using the indoor controlled-temperature quarantine facility is that the temperature can be up to 10oC higher than ambient, giving a much-needed boost to the debilitated turtle’s metabolism. During the recovery process, the animals are subjected to ongoing veterinary examination and monitoring, with appropriate medication or surgery being administered as necessary. Once the team is satisfied with the progress and condition of the turtles, they are then transferred to the Mina A’Salam turtle enclosure. Animals that are already too weak to benefit from the treatment regime and succumb to their illnesses are sent to the CVRL where a full post-mortem examination is carried out to determine the cause of death.
The large enclosure at Mina A’Salam allows the team to monitor the final stages of rehabilitation and feeding behaviour before the turtles are released back into UAE territorial waters. This year, DTRP has released 42 rehabilitated turtles so far back into the waters off the coast of Dubai. The turtles are taken over 15km offshore before they are released to avoid areas with construction and heavy boat traffic. Recently, Hatteras have kindly offered their amazing boats, staff and time to transport the turtles offshore. More recently the DTRP released one of the Hawksbills brought in by EMEG at their World Environment Day event held at their Ghantoot reserve. The event was attended by 200 people who clapped and cheered as the turtle returned to the sea. Every turtle released bears left and right individual titanium flipper tags and code numbers, inscribed with the contact address of the Wildlife Protection Office. This allows us to assess the success or otherwise of our releases. To date we have not had any dead turtles returned! It is one of the project’s goals to release as many of our turtles as practical with satellite transmitters. To date, two turtles have been fitted with satellite transmitters to enable us to track their journey. Both transmitters were sponsored by Jumeirah Group and more tagging is planned. One of the turtles that was tagged and released on February 14, 2008 named ‘Dibba’, due to the location where she was found, made the
second longest tracked recording of a Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas). She travelled an amazing 8600km and was the first example of a marine turtle migrating from the Middle East to South East Asia where her last location was recorded off the coast of Thailand. Unfortunately transmissions are governed by the battery life of the transmitter and Dibba stopped transmitting on November 01, 2008. Recently there have been a couple of further transmissions but not strong enough to get a location, but at least Dibba is still out there. Further tracking is important for us to build a picture of where the turtles that are found in the waters of the Emirates, travel to reach their feeding, breeding and nesting grounds as without protection of all of these sites, the turtle population will surely decline further. All of the transmitter data is publicly available via wwwseaturtle.org which provides a powerful educational tool, made free by the project to all interested. Whilst the turtles are held in the outdoor enclosure at Mina A’Salam, they can help to educate others. There are some turtles that the project has retained on the grounds that they are unlikely to survive in the wild, these animals suffer with varying disorders such as neurological problems, missing limbs and blindness to name a few. These individuals provide a stark illustration of why we should not use the oceans as a dumping ground for our refuse. During the 2008/09 year over 1000 students from varying schools in Dubai attended educational talks from the Burj Al Arab aquarium team and hosted by Al Muna restaurant at Mina A’ Salam. During these talks, the students are taught about turtle biology and ecology specific to the Gulf region and how they can help these amazing animals. They are also given the opportunity to feed and interact with the animals to try and encourage future turtle conservationists. At the moment there are two of the largest turtles in the enclosure ever to be brought into the project weighing in at 106kg and 150kg, definitely a sight worth seeing. These turtles were brought into us this winter severely debilitated and very close to death but with a little more time will hopefully
be fit enough to be returned to the wild. Madinat Jumeirah’s waterway enclosure, located outside Al Muna restaurant at Mina A’Salam hotel is open to the general public to see at any time. Every Friday at 13:00pm, a member of the aquarium team will be there to feed the turtles and answer any questions. If you find a stranded turtle or are interested in our educational programme, you can contact the Burj Al Arab’s aquarium team on 04 301 7198 or e-mail us at email@example.com