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The United Arab Emirates Works to Save the Arabian Gulf Turtles

posted on: May 31, 2022

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

Environmentalists were pleased when the United Arab Emirates at the turn of the 21st century, set a program into motion to save the turtle. A new country, which has amazed the world with its creation of a paradise atop the Arabian desert waste, this fast-evolving land has put the ‘the protection of the environment’ at the top of its agenda.  

Already thousands of acres of once barren land have been turned green and its programs to save endangered animal species are showing better than expected results.  On its Sir Bani Yas Island, Al Ghar Lakes, near Abu Dhabi and in the huge Al Ain Zoo, the oryx, houbara bustard and numerous other animal and bird species, once almost extinct, are now multiplying in the hundreds. 

Saving the Arabian Gulf turtle is the latest of these environmental programs – an important venture to save this fascinating creature which has existed virtually unchanged for some 180 million years.  From the seven species of turtles found in the ocean of the world, the green and the hawksbill have for thousands of years been breeding on the UAE shores, especially the coastline at Jazirat Al Hamra, in Ras Al Khaimah and the Island of Qarnain.  Of the two, the hawksbill turtle, which breeds mostly on the offshore UAE islands, is considered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as one of the ten most endangered species of animals in the world.

However, all the other six species are also threatened by human activities.  They are hunted for their bones, leather, meat, oil and shell, and their eggs are dug up for food.  Resorts and other developments encroach on their breeding beaches, many are accidentally captured in fishing nets and the seas are becoming polluted, especially with plastic bags which are, at times, consumed causing the turtles to choke to death.  Experts believe that only a total ban on the hunting of turtles will conserve the fast-disappearing population.

The United Arab Emirates has plunged into the thick of battle to meet the challenge and save this ancient sea creature.  Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, chairman of the Emirates Heritage Club, a few years ago declared the Al Sammaliah Island, off the coast of the Abu Dhabi emirate, and its surrounding waters as a protected conservation zone.  The island, 19 km (12 mi) northeast of the city of Abu Dhabi, is now designated to be the home of a number of ecological and environmental research projects.  

To ensure that the turtle population will in the future flourish in the Gulf, series of initiatives to help preserve the marine turtle were put into effect.  One such project is a beach, to be built from scratch, and a hatchery to be built in which the turtles can breed in safety.  In this protected area, the turtles would have a safe place to nest and not be disturbed by poachers.  

Eggs from threatened areas were to be gathered and placed in the hatchery, and incubators were used to increase hatching success.  The hatchery features temperature control and access to the beach.  Hence, when the turtles hatch, they would go straight to their natural surroundings.

In the meantime, while work was in progress on Sammaliah Island, other projects were in progress.  In 1998, the Abu Dhabi-based Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency (ERWDA), attached transmitters to the shells of two green turtles in the Ras al-Khaimah area.  It was hoped that tracking the movements of the two would provide information on the breeding and feeding grounds and the migration routes of the turtles who nested on the islands and shores of the UAE.  The small satellite transmitters monitored the movements of the turtles from the coastal waters of the UAE in the southern Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, then out into the Indian Ocean.

ERWDA also set up a pioneering unit to breed marine turtles on Qarnain Island for the conservation of endangered species.  The island was chosen because it is a natural nesting habitat for both the endangered green and hawksbill turtles.  Here, for untold centuries these species of turtles have been nesting and laying their eggs.  Over 48 turtle nests were located on Qarnain Island shores in 1999 and it was established that fifty eggs on an average were being laid by the female on each of the annual three or four visits. 

The unit’s main goal is to carry out research on these turtles and make recommendations regarding their conservation and release, and to implement recommendations ensuring the sustainable development of the species in the Arabian Gulf.  The project relies on collecting a certain number of hatchlings and raising them in specially designed fiberglass tanks. The other hatchlings are left to grow naturally to ensure the island remains a turtle habitat.  After the first few months the hatchlings are moved to larger tanks where they are kept until they are ready to be tagged and released.  

The Qarnain Island project puts special efforts on the rearing of small turtles until they reach a size that would enable them to withstand natural risks in their first year.  The project also aims to bring better environmental awareness to the public. 

Ironically, while in most of the world, conflicting interests usually cause fishermen and scientists to be antagonists rather than partners, in the United Arab Emirates they are joining forces to save the nation’s 180millionyearold turtle species. Fishermen are informing biologists of netted turtles, enabling researchers to tag and track the species.  

Also, since modern commercial practices tend to kill the turtles ensnared in nets, traditional fishing practices are again becoming popular.  Saving the Arabian Gulf turtle is high on the agenda of the UAEs environmental programs and preserving this fascinating historic creature is well underway in that transformed Arabian land.