By Madiha Al-Junaid
For years, threats to endangered turtles have made headlines in Yemeni newspapers. Yet, the issue continues to be widely ignored by the Yemeni government and civil society.
Although the cabinet has declared several areas in Yemen to be natural reserves, and the Yemeni government has ratified the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1997, turtles along Yemen’s shores continue to be exposed to severe threats.
In 2013, the state-run newspaper October 14 summarized those threats as including poaching, hunting, trafficking, the destruction of turtles’ nesting places, and the exhumation of turtles’ nests.
The article cited the “pollution of the marine environment through petroleum oils, chemicals, plastic and radioactive material poured to the seas and oceans,” as yet another source of threat.
For more than 100 million years, sea turtles have inhabited the world’s oceans. Having survived a great number of dangers throughout that time, nearly all species of sea turtle are now classified as “endangered.”
Just like the Yemeni October 14 newspaper, the international World Wildlife Organization (WWF) blames human activity for having tipped the scales against the survival of these ancient mariners.
The WWF adds climate change as an important source of threat, impacting turtle nesting sites. “It alters sand temperatures, which then impacts the sex of hatchlings,” the WWF states on its website.
In Yemen, as elsewhere, initiatives have been taken to mitigate existing risks to sea turtles.
At Yemeni shores it is especially those turtles living in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden that need to be protected. They include the green turtle, the hawksbill turtle, the loggerhead turtle, the olive ridley turtle, and the leathery turtle.
All those turtles can be found along the shores of Lahj, Hadramout, Aden, and Socotra governorates in Yemen. While some coastal areas in these governorates are natural reserves, others are not and continue to pose severe risks to turtles’ survival.
Socotra is one of Yemen’s best known natural reserves. Yet, as Socotra’s Deputy Governor Fahd Saleem admits, the protection of the island’s biodiversity is not always easy. Indeed, he describes the implementation of clear protection measures as a “major challenge.”
Marine pollution and hunting around Socotra
The pollution of Socotra’s waters is a large reason behind turtles’ endangerment.
“Plastic waste, including bags and bottles, are affecting marine life—especially the turtles,” said Saleem.
Sea turtles usually feed on seaweed and other marine creatures such as jellyfish. Tragically, many can be found dead on Socotra’s shores “after choking on plastic bags, which they mistake for jellyfish,” according to Saleem.
While turtles are mostly at sea, they come ashore during nesting season. It is around that time of the year that sea turtles face “ferocious attacks, often being killed before laying their eggs,” according to October 14 newspaper.
In spite of a number of awareness raising campaigns emphasizing that sea turtles need to be protected, sea turtles remain an attractive prey for hunters in Yemen.
The UNDP’s Socotra Governance and Biodiversity campaign describes Socotra as one of the most important nesting sites of loggerhead turtles in the region. Yet many female turtles that come on land, starting in May, are captured and slaughtered while trying to lay their eggs. Socotrans then eat their meat and drink their oil, believed to have special healing powers.
One of the tales told among the islanders describes a man who is suffering from a heart disease that doctors declared to be incurable. It was only when his friends advised him to drink turtle oil for one month that he was cured.
In Socotra a number of government and civil society initiatives are trying to protect turtles against local hunting practices. The custom of eating turtle meat has decreased since 1997, upon the interference of the government’s Environment Office and various environmental organizations.
The legal protection of sea turtles in Yemen
Although turtles no longer constitute a popular and accepted dish in Socotra, Abdullah Al-Shar’aby at the General Environment Protection Authority (EPA) reports that the hunting and killing of turtles continues in Yemen.
“These things happen and are being reported by the local councils at the coastal areas,” said Al-Shar’aby, adding that the EPA receives frequent reports of killed turtles, especially turtles of the Red Sea.
Al-Shar’aby could not provide statistics for the number of killed turtles in Socotra, but he says that the figure is considerable.
“The solutions provided are temporary. For example, EPA employees are sent to the reported area to develop statistics registering the number of dead turtles and destroyed eggs, and distributing guards to secure the area,” said Al-Shar’aby.
According to Al-Shar’aby both national and international laws ensure the protection of endangered species in Yemen.
All sea turtle species are listed under Appendix I in CITES, which includes species that face a very high risk of extinction.
Although CITES is legally binding on the signing parties it does not take the place of national laws. Instead, it provides a framework to be respected by each signing state, which has to adopt its own domestic legislation to ensure that CITES is implemented at the national level.
In Yemen it is “article 11 and 12 of the national law designed in 1995 to protect the environment that criminalizes any harm done to endangered species,” said Al-Shar’aby.
Violations against this law are punished by at least 10 years imprisonment or a monetary fine, he explains. The fine has recently been increased from YR50,000 ($233) to YR 5,000,000 ($23,256), “because with time, the relative value of [the Yemeni Riyal\ has declined,” Al-Shar’aby adds.
The enforcement of environmental laws in Yemen is often difficult. Still, many turtle carapaces are found around the island at the end of the nesting season, while hunters continue to try their luck, penetrating into protected areas in Socotra.
According to a UNDP news release, some hunters drive their car very slowly at night along the beach, while others enter protected areas by boat or on foot.
In Socotra, government authorities are supported by a number of local groups and civil society organizations.
While Saleem welcomes existing support systems, he describes them as insufficient: “We need an integrated system not only for turtles but the entire wild life.”
Currently, “our procedures are so simple and traditional,” he complains, pointing out that a limited budget forces the Socotra governorate to rely primarily on awareness raising campaigns. “We merely urge locals to follow traditional [and turtle-friendly\ ways of fishing for example,” he said.
Omar Qambeen, president of the Fish Federation in Hadramout governorate, explains that traditional ways of fishing, such as using fishing rods, are less harmful to turtles than the use of modern fishing nets, which often entangle and harm sea turtles.
In his opinion, many more reforms should be undertaken, including the definition and monitoring of specific sectors and the development of an interactive communication system to observe these locations.
Government and civil society initiatives
In 1998, the first initiative of monitoring and protecting turtles on Socotra was supported by UNDP’s Socotra biodiversity project which was conducted in collaboration with the EPA.
Socotra’s Albahan beach, where most turtles lay their eggs, was declared protected turtle area. Monitoring and night patrolling were organized to guard nesting turtles.
The governorate of Socotra cooperates with a number of civil society organizations to protect sea turtles.
In Qidama area, for example, Socotrans and the local security office are working closely together. “We agreed to establish a local organization that specializes in protecting the location against any abusers. It is called the ‘Association of Qidama Residents’”.
Projects implemented by the EPA are also included in the plans of those interested in a protected and sustainable environment.
In the past, the government ran a project that was concerned with the protection and maintenance of land and coastal reserves.
Amongst others, “it specified where the turtles lay eggs and assigned locals, who received monthly salaries, to guard nesting areas. The project lasted from 2000 to 2005,” explained Al-Shar’aby. Although the program no longer exists, the guards continue to work in Socotra and elsewhere as contractors for the EPA.
Although Al-Shar’aby emphasizes the importance of awareness raising campaigns in the protection of sea turtles, he argues that Socotran islanders already appear to be more conscious on biodiversity protection than Yemenis in Hadramout or other coastal areas.
He links this awareness to the existence of eco-tourism on Socotra and the number of natural reserves.