turtle conservation takes baby steps in dubai
Last Updated : GMT 13:26:15
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Last Updated : GMT 13:26:15
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Initiative on Jebel Ali beach stretch

Turtle conservation takes baby steps in Dubai

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Almaghrib Today, almaghrib today Turtle conservation takes baby steps in Dubai

Hawksbill turtles
Dubai - Arab Today

Emirates Marine Environment Group's rehab initiative on Jebel Ali beach stretch succeeds in helping endangered hawksbill turtles to proliferate
Exit 13 on Sheikh Zayed Road en route to Abu Dhabi — past Ibn Batuta mall, past the Emarat petrol station, past the Etisalat power grid on the left — takes you to a stretch of road that had no other cars on it. Take a right turn 50 metres after the green Etisalat sign and you're stopped by security guards at a gate made of blue steel boards that read Nakheel. No entry beyond this point, the sentry tells you, unless you're with or expected by authorised personnel. Luckily, Major Ali Saqar Sultan Al Suweidi, founder and president of the Emirates Marine Environment Group (EMEG), is expecting us, and is very much an authorised personnel.
From Major Ali's office — situated enviably on a pier on a frond of The Palm, Jebel Ali — it's a short drive to a stretch of beach not accessible to the public, as it is a reserve for marine creatures, including foraging turtles looking for a spot to nest. "We get lots of folks here,” Major Ali says about the small round thorny looking specimen near the parking lot of his personal pier that turns out to be a sea urchin.
Major Ali, as he is known, has been involved with the environment for over 25 years. In 1996, he set up EMEG. Besides developing artificial reefs, cleaning coasts and harbours, he manages 17 other marine environmental projects. One of these is relocation of eggs to safer environs, and the satellite-tracking of post-nesting hawksbill turtles.
Nesting behaviour
The turtle rehabilitation programme began in 2006. Hawksbill turtle nesting areas in Dubai occur along the 12km-long sandy stretch of beach between Jebel Ali and Ghantoot. Since 2006, various studies have been done on hawksbill behaviour patterns — how they nest, when they nest, what they eat (mollusks, marine algae, crustaceans, sea urchins, fish, and jellyfish), how they forage, what temperature of water they like best, how often they return to shore, and sand conditions preferred by lady turtles for their long 60-day nesting periods.
To nest, a she turtle hunts for a suitable spot, choosing a texture of sand that is warm and soft and away from predator spotlight. She is not happy with too many rocks. When the two-month-long nesting period is over and she's been through the labour of egg-laying, she will secrete a glue that will seal the eggs, preventing them from being sniffed out and attacked by sundry starving marine creatures. She's happy to return to sea at the earliest, none too attached to her yet-to-be-hatched little ones.
Hawksbills, like many sea turtles, are critically endangered due to the trade of tortoiseshell jewellery, watches, eye wear frames and the like that fetch a great deal of money. Due to the trade of its carapace, 80 per cent of hawksbills have declined in the last century. No surprise then that hawksbill turtles are listed on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List as ‘critically endangered'.
Jebel Ali Waterfront
The drive to the beach, where newly hatched baby turtles will be released into the ocean, is something out of National Geographic, and perhaps the closest Dubai can come to a jungle safari. From Major Ali's Chevrolet Silverado, we pass a pair of gazelle standing still, head cocked in the direction of the vehicle. On the way to see the turtles, we also pass a shining blue kingfisher flying low, and spot at least three crabs scuttling out of their sandy burrows.
Predator vigil
The team at EMEG protects turtle eggs before foxes, worms, lizards and crabs get to them. Scorpions and snakes don't like the beach as it's too salty for them near the water, so they rarely get to the eggs. A volunteer with EMEG, Dr Shahid Mustafa, says, "This season a fox destroyed at least one nest on the Jebel Ali beach that had 35 turtle eggs in it. We can tell it was a fox from the footprints.”
EMEG has this year protected 33 out of 35 nests.
Another environmentalist who doesn't want to be named says that big developers and construction companies in the area are eating up the natural habitat of the fox. The creatures have nowhere else to go so they come to the Jebel Ali beach looking for something to eat — i.e., turtle eggs.
But to prevent the eggs being gobbled up by foxes and other predators, the team at EMEG translocates the eggs to a safer place with similar sand texture and at a similar angle, without turning it because the little turtle inside will die if the egg is shaken.
Timing is everything. Some eggs hatch at odd hours resulting in turtles disoriented about day and night, like employees on a graveyard shift. The EMEG team then has the task of correcting their confused trajectories. Some eggs if they hatch in the day let out baby turtles who tend to waddle off in the direction of land, not sea.
Soon after the hatchlings emerge, they are released into the ocean, and the waves carry them home. During season, the team releases 20-30 turtles back into the ocean twice a week.
Seeing them off
"Their eyes will now open,” Major Ali explains at 5pm on a Sunday evening at an otherwise empty beach. He's holding a yellow bucket partially filled with sand and teeming with 25 newly born (one-day old) baby turtles. He picks up one and drops it into my palm. The creature is barely larger than a button mushroom. It starts wriggling about immediately, investigating fingers and wrists, possibly wondering where to go.
The instruction is to scatter them on to the beach, not too close to each other (so they don't all end up as dinner to one large fish), but close enough to the water, in the direction of the waves, and watch their survival instincts take over. These newborn turtles are up against sharks and whales, preying birds, and mounting odds of boats and poachers fishing nets, to say nothing of the plastic bottles and poly bags that we toss into the ocean and that these turtles mistake for a meal of jellyfish.
Some turtles are washed away at once, their little black-green bodies visible under the spume of the shallow waves. Some take a few moments, seeming reluctant and wandering sideways like crabs, dragging their flippers across the sand. But sooner or later, within minutes, all the released turtles are swallowed by the tide.
"They'll come back next season,” Major Ali says, "they always do, and they'll be larger then, all grown up.” In the meantime, they're on their own at sea.
Source: Khaleej Times

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