They’ve outlived the dinosaurs by 65 million years and survived everything from climate change to asteroid impacts. But now, the future of the sea turtle is uncertain.
For a few years now, increased numbers of junior hawksbill turtles, an endangered species, have been picked up, injured, along the UAE’s shores. Often, the turtles’ injuries have a similar cause: humans. ‘The biggest threats to turtles in this region are all human related: ingestion of rubbish, in particular plastic bags that they mistake for prey such as jellyfish; impacts with water-going vessels and becoming entangled in fishing nets,’ explains Warren Baverstock, aquarium operations manager at the Burj Al Arab, Dubai.
Since 2004, the turtle rehabilitation unit at the Burj Al Arab has been treating sick and injured turtles found in the region, eventually releasing them back into the wild. ‘Last year we treated 103 turtles in just three months – this is the largest number we have received to date,’ explains Warren.
Last year, the Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG), a non-profit organisation established in 1996 under the patronage of Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, rescued 25 turtles around the country. The green sea turtle, along with the hawksbill turtle and the loggerhead turtle, are common in the area, but given their breeding habits and low survival rate, are considered endangered. Out of a thousand baby turtles, only one survives into adulthood. As well as saving the turtles, EMEG monitors the population and protects the eggs. Based on data collected last year, 636 eggs were laid at the Ghantoot reserve in Abu Dhabi, but only 341 survived and made it to the sea.
‘We’re constantly striving to raise awareness among the residents of the UAE,’ says Nahed S Mayo, education coordinator for EMEG. ‘Many schools, colleges and corporate groups from Abu Dhabi have visited our natural reserve at Ghantoot to learn about the UAE’s wildlife and environment. We welcome anyone who is interested in learning about sea turtles to take part in our educational activities and projects.’
In addition to various spots along the UAE’s coastline, at least five new nesting sites for hawksbill turtles were recently recorded by researchers with the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) on the white banks of Bu Tinah Island, 130km west of the capital. The tiny, protected archipelago, which is a core area of the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve, is one of 28 finalists in a contest to name seven of the world’s natural wonders (see p8 for more info). Home to flamingos, ospreys, dolphins and now turtles, the island boasts a thriving ecosystem.
Turtles are reptiles and as such are cold-blooded, which means that they get their body heat from the surrounding environment. In the winter months, when the temperature drops in the waters of the Gulf, sea turtles, especially the hawksbill, become lethargic, which leaves them susceptible to infections, parasites and barnacles that grow on their carapace or shell. ‘They would normally be able to knock these off on rocks,’ continues Warren, ‘but as they move slower it becomes more difficult until, eventually, there are too many barnacles. The majority of turtles brought to us are juvenile hawksbills, but we do also receive a few cases of large green turtles which are usually injured or suffering from some kind of internal ailment.’
And their biggest success story to date? ‘I would say that would have to be Dibba, a turtle brought to us in August 2006 with a massive head injury, most probably caused by a boat propeller. After 18 months of rehabilitation, we eventually released Dibba back into the wild, with a satellite tag funded by the Jumeirah Group attached to her shell. We were able to follow her journey online and in 266 days, Dibba travelled across the Indian Ocean to Thailand via the Maldives and Sri Lanka. We tracked her for 8,307km until the battery pack on the satellite tag lost power. This is one of the longest recorded journeys that has ever been made by a green turtle to date.’
For the general public, there are some simple steps that can be taken to limit the threat to turtles in the region. ‘The most important thing we ask the public to do is not to litter and to recycle plastics,’ urges Warren. ‘One plastic bag can take up to 400 years to biodegrade and it can kill many animals in that time.’ So before the shop assistant at your local supermarket bundles your weekly groceries into a plastic bag, remember the danger these can pose to turtles and shell out a few extra dirhams for an eco-friendly jute instead.
For further details on how to support sea turtle protection, visit the following websites: www.jumeirah.com,www.emeg.ae, www.seaturtle.org. If a member of the public finds a sick or injured turtle, call the Jumeirah Aquarium team on (04 301 7198) or email email@example.com.
By Claire Carruthers
Time Out Abu Dhabi, 27 May 2010