(firstname.lastname@example.org) / 15 July 2014
A beautiful docile animal, older than the dinosaur, has been traversing the waters of the Arabian Gulf for hundreds of thousands of years. But, as Amanda Fisher finds out, its population is seriously on the wane due to its biggest predator: Man
It is with some despondency the man charged with preserving the dwindling population of hawksbill sea turtles in the UAE accepts that his own species is his biggest obstacle.
“The number of turtles is decreasing, it’s not increasing so far,” Emirates Wildlife Society-WWF project manager Moaz Sawaf tells me about the three-year progress of the conservation project he is heading.
“Unfortunately the threats the turtles have are basically due to man.”
He goes on to detail a quadruplet of threats the hawksbill must try to evade if it is to survive: people taking turtle eggs from their nests along beaches; fishing nets accidentally entrapping them; boats and ships running them over as they come up to the surface for oxygen, as they do every few hours; and threats to their habitats and nesting areas through onshore and coastal development.
MAINTAINING THE BALANCE. Hawksbill sea turtles are very important for the eco system. “What they feed on and what they eat, helps maintain the balance and the cycle of life or nature. When you have one species gone, that’s going to effect the entire environment,” says Emirates Wildlife Society-WWF project manager Moaz Sawaf. —Photo Amanda Fisher
Development and conservation, Sawaf says, are often in a state of conflict, especially as the country diversifies into tourism, with international sun-worshippers seeking sandy beach getaways in 5-star resorts.
“Development is going to happen, but it can happen in a sustainable way.”
The same goes for boating and fishing — Sawaf says these too must happen in concert with conservation efforts.
It is an absurd notion that in a land which now has an embarrassment of foods thanks to global transportation, that people would need to poach turtle eggs to survive. So why are these treasures being snatched?
Sawaf says it is not about food or the exotic trade, but ancient beliefs about the powers the eggs hold.
“The turtle eggs have no value, some people take them for beliefs, they’re not taken and sold on the black market.
“There are some people who think eating turtle eggs can enhance your sexual ability but scientifically it’s not been proven, it’s just one of those myths — doctors, they will tell you it’s rubbish.”
During the project, now in its fourth year, scientists have made some interesting discoveries — and potentially pinpointed yet another threat to the turtle population.
In the first three years of the programme, conservation workers found and tagged 75 turtles, 25 each year, in the UAE, Oman, Iran and Qatar.
They have analysed data about the turtles’ movement, transmitted by the tags, and all of the information is now being prepared for a report due out by the year’s end.
However, there have been several scientific papers recently published as result of the programme, including a paper detailing findings of a new path of turtle migration not previously known.
The turtles’ tags send signals of their locations every time they surface, and based on these readings, EWS-WWF along with Environment Abu Dhabi went to the locations to physically check, using an underwater video camera, whether the turtles had converged in one spot and whether it was a feeding habitat or resting place.
“That basically posed a lot of questions to be answered, does this change (anything), is this migration due to climate change or temperature?”
Sawaf is hesitant to make any predictions too soon, but says climate change could certainly be the culprit.
“You know it could be, we cannot say no…oceans and seas are really affected by climate change.”
The Hawksbill turtle, which is scattered throughout the world’s oceans including the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Red Sea and Arabian Gulf, is listed as critically endangered by conservation authority the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
However, it is unknown how many remain in the world and Sawaf is no wiser about their status in this region.
“Honestly I don’t know, I don’t have an estimate. The population we don’t know, that will be another project.”
The survival of the hawksbill — one of seven marine turtle species — and all sea turtles is critical.
“You’re talking one of the oldest surviving species. They’re very important for the eco system… what they feed on and what they eat, that helps maintain the balance and the cycle of life or nature. When you have one species gone, that’s going to effect the entire environment.”
And it would not only impact the marine ecosystem, but the tourism ecosystem too.
“I don’t know whether this is fortunate or unfortunate, but turtles play a big part in tourism. People like them so much… they attract people from all over the world.”
Sawaf says Hatta is well-known across the world for its turtle nesting sites.
“You will find people from Europe, from the States… they fly all this way to see turtles nesting or eggs hatching… they play a big part in tourism, I think it’s good but they it needs to be well-managed, not exploited.”
While in the protected beaches, there are strict regulations about how many tourists can visit the turtles per day and per season and they must visit with a guide, “outside the protected areas it’s not happening so much”
“Some people may go with their flashlights, which turtles are very sensitive to… that person probably doesn’t know… he’s disturbing that turtle.”
While most people don’t wish to harm the turtles, they can often do so without realising. And it’s easy to see why; these gentle giants — which can grow up to one metre long and weigh more than 100 kilograms — are notoriously placid.
“They are very peaceful animals. Even when we’re tagging the turtles, she’s very quiet, she’s not attacking or kicking or biting. You have to remember turtles existed more than 100 million years ago, they’re as old as the dinosaur.”
Without commenting too much on what needs to happen, due to be outlined in the final report when it comes out later this year, Sawaf says the two key pillars for change are education and regulation.
“What can be done? I think a few things… awareness needs to be more focused, education and awareness. We hope from not only the UAE government but governments in the region to take some action basically from the protected areas, put more rules and regulations in place.”
That means starting awareness campaigns that will reach all segments of society, in conjunction with EWS-WWF’s partner organisations in the UAE, Oman, Iran and Qatar.
“In each country we have a partner, whether it’s the Ministry of Environment, or sometimes it’s a university or institute… we don’t like to go and do the work alone, we always get our partners and sponsors involved.”
In March, the team did a three-day workshop in Dubai for all of their partners to share with them the findings from the project so far, to discuss the next steps.
“We agreed we would all still work together in the effort to save and preserve the hawksbill turtles.”
Sawaf also expects to identify areas where more conservation regulations need to be implemented, particularly around areas of habitation.
“What makes it difficult in the Gulf is the nature of the habitat here. The feeding habitats are not confined to one area, they’re scattered all over the place, it doesn’t make it impossible, but it makes it more difficult.”
As opposed to other countries which have three or four main turtle feeding sites, almost half of the country’s coastline is a habitat here as the micro-coral and sponge the turtles feed on are scattered around the coastline.
But Sawaf remains optimistic about the task ahead:
“I’m sure we can bring the population back up, with more effort I’m sure they will have a chance to recover.”