—Jill Atkinson, conservationist
By Anand Holla
AT HOME WITH THE ANIMALS: As a teenager with parents living in Africa, Jill Atkinson learnt not to scream and run away but to look closer and ask questions, about everything, from interesting plants to beetles to snakes to the angry-looking rhino.
On a pleasant Saturday morning in March of 2011, Jill Atkinson would be offered a fortuitous chance to nurture a lifelong friendship with one of the gentlest reptiles on the planet.
For a clean-up drive of turtle nesting beaches at Ras Laffan Industrial City (RLIC), organised by Qatar Petroleum officials, the teacher of Geography and Travel and Tourism at Al Khor International School (AKIS) was asked to supervise her students.
“Soon after, a group of teachers including myself, were invited to the beach to meet Malaysia-based Dr Nick Pilcher of the Marine Research Foundation who was working on the WWF-Qatar University Environmental Studies Centre-Ras Gas turtle conservation project here,” Atkinson says, and recalls, “We spent the evening learning how to patrol the beach for nesting turtles and asking lots of questions until, finally, a turtle arrived.”
After measuring it, the team spent hours fitting it with a satellite transmitter.
“At dawn, when the turtle was released back into the sea, I felt like I had discovered a new passion,” says the British expat, who has been a Geography teacher for more than 20 years, both in the UK and abroad, “After this day, I took every opportunity to spend my evenings and nights on Fuwairit beach, pining for a glimpse of another nesting turtle.”
Next, Atkinson roped in her friends and made new ones with the AKIS staff and the Turtle Conservation Project staff, getting everyone who mirrored her passion to the beach. “Many would see one turtle and return home happy. For me though, one has never been enough. That’s what kept me going back,” says Atkinson.
After teaching at AKIS for four years and also becoming one of Qatar’s most proactive turtle conservators, Atkinson is now steeped in the frenzy of packing her bags as she leaves the country later this week. “I am moving on to teach in an international school in Indonesia,” she says, smiling.
Despite her far-reaching renown in the turtle-watching community, Atkinson prefers to play herself down. “I don’t want the limelight as it is always the turtles that steal the show for me,” she says.
The modesty can perhaps be linked to her always having been, in more ways than one, down to earth. “As a child, I was taught to value nature. Our home was always full of animals; dogs, mice, gerbils, tadpoles, and so on. As a teenager with parents living in Africa, I learnt not to scream and run away but to look closer and ask questions, about everything, from interesting plants to beetles to snakes to the angry-looking rhino,” she says.
As she spent many hours in Nairobi National Park observing the wildlife, Atkinson’s respect for nature and understanding of the conflicts created by interactions with humans grew. “Initially, I was more interested in the human aspects of development. However, it has always seemed obvious to me that the development of a country cannot be sustainable without understanding its natural environment,” she says.
During her first stint in Doha — as a teacher at Qatar International School in 2003 before returning to England — Atkinson volunteered with Qatar Animal Welfare Society and pursued her interest in yoga. Once she returned to Qatar in 2010, she was drawn into cat rescue and re-homing in Al Khor before the turtles bowled her over.
“Turtles have been around in Earth’s oceans since the time of the dinosaurs. They are survivors. They have adapted and thrived. It is so easy to not know what is going on in our oceans and yet they are so vital to all life on Earth. Turtles play a vital role in the ecosystems in our oceans. Hawksbill turtles are the only species that nest on Qatar’s beaches and they are listed as ‘critically endangered’ worldwide,” says Atkinson.
Understanding these fantastic creatures will help the youth of Qatar to make the connections, she feels. “The youth can then see that our actions have serious effects, on climate change, on pollution in the oceans, on over-fishing,” she points out. Fortunately, Qatar has been kind to turtles. During the nesting season, researchers from Environmental Studies Center (ESC) patrol Fuwairit beach, looking for female turtles throughout the night.
“Once spotted, she is monitored as she digs her nest and lays her eggs. She then heads back into the sea, but the tags fitted on her allow the researchers to identify her when she returns,” Atkinson shares.
Some turtles are fitted with satellite transmitters so as to track their movements when they return to the sea. “Once a female turtle leaves her nest, researchers relocate the eggs to a new, man-made nest in a beach area safe from flooding, human interference and wild predators,” she says.
As for the hatching season, which ended only a few days ago with much fanfare among turtle watchers here at Fuwairit, the nests are regularly checked and a ‘due date’ is calculated.
“The nests can take up to 60 days to incubate. However, they take less time as it gets hotter and like with many births, it is difficult to predict the exact date the hatchlings will be ready to leave the nest,” says Atkinson.
When the nest shows signs of movement, the ESC staff gently checks if the hatchlings are ready. “The baby turtles are then counted and a sample are weighed and measured before they face the crowds and the cameras that await them,” Atkinson says.
Once the turtle watchers get an eyeful of the hatchlings’ adorable baby steps and kids get to even hold them and release them into the shore, the little folks waddle their way into the sea and embrace life in the face of lashing waves. For Atkinson, it has been a wonderful experience to interact with other turtle-lovers who drop by to witness this phenomenon. “It is always a delight to see a smile on someone’s face when they see a tiny Hawksbill hatchling for the first time and watch it swim off into the waves,” Atkinson says.
“The hardest task though is to stop people from using flash on their cameras, and to keep the people back once the hatchlings are released as they are so easy to tread on,” she points out.
For four years, students from AKIS have participated in several clean-ups, both at RLIC and Fuwairit beach, as well as witnessing turtle nesting-hatching events. And the students get cross-references on it in their classes too since Atkinson’s experiences at Fuwairit seep into her teaching.
“In Geography, we study the conflicts that arise from the pressures of development on coastal areas, the sustainable management of areas of biodiversity and we look at the pressures tourism puts on the natural environment. In my Year Seven classes, for instance, we studied the local ecosystems, including the part played by the Hawksbill turtles in Qatar,” she says.
Last year, while taking her students to the beach to see the turtles, Atkinson found herself playing a more formal role in organising their activities. “This, in turn, led me to answer other turtle watchers’ questions and help out when other school groups visited. This year, after having lengthy discussions with Shafeeq Hamza from ESC and seeing the increase in visitors to the beach during hatching, I took on more of a public relations role and put myself out there to answer people’s questions about turtles, and ensure everybody got a chance to see hatchlings up close,” she says.
In Qatar, Hawksbill turtles nest on the beaches of RLIC, Fuwairit and the surrounding areas, Umm Tays and Halul Island. While RLIC and Halul aren’t open to public, Fuwairit being a free-for-all has full-time monitoring on it.
“There are multiple concerns at Fuwairit. The first is the use of cars on the beach during the off season. This leads to the sand compacting, making it difficult for the turtles to dig their nests to the required depth, leading to a loss of eggs,” Atkinson points out.
Other concerns include the beach being used for leisure activities, particularly on Fridays, contributing to huge quantities of charcoal and litter being left to degrade the sand that is most vital to the turtles.
While it would be hard to make up for Atkinson’s absence, turtle conservators will haul in more volunteers for the nesting-hatching season next year. As for Atkinson, among some of her fondest memories in Qatar are seeing “one of these incredible sea turtles” coming to nest and the joy she feels when they head back into the sea, “ready to continue their normal yet extraordinary lives.”
Atkinson says, “Nothing makes my heart sing like the first sight of a tiny little head poking through the sand, soon joined by many others, as these fragile, precious hatchlings brave the waves and head off into the big blue sea. Research is beginning to show that Qatar’s Hawksbills are unique even amongst Hawksbill turtles worldwide. They certainly hold a key to our understanding of our planet and to a sustainable future for Qatar.”