By Mitya Underwood
Warren Baverstock and his team of marine specialists have been rehabilitating sick or injured turtles in UAE waters for the past 10 years.
The Briton, who moved to the country 13 years ago, has seen the numbers of rescued turtles rise from just six in 2004 to an average of more than 120 per year.
The hawksbill turtle, one of seven sea-turtle species, is native to the Gulf and has breeding sites in countries including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Oman. But it’s also a critically endangered species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world authority on threatened species, with only an estimated 8,000 breeding females left.
Since the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP) was set up a decade ago by the Jumeirah Group, more than 690 healthy sea turtles have been released back into Dubai’s waters. Treating turtles is notoriously difficult because of a lack of anatomical information and their shell, which makes it difficult to access the turtle’s body. Their rehabilitation can take up to three years.
“Every turtle that gets washed up in areas that are frequented by humans, they come to us,” says Baverstock. “They can take a long time to rehabilitate – we have had turtles with us for three years. The problem is you can’t get to anything; you can’t just take the lid off and say: ‘Let’s have a look around.’”
Despite the difficulties, Baverstock, the aquarium operations manager at the Jumeirah Burj Al Arab, where some of the rehabilitation facilities are based, is immensely proud of the work that he and his team have done.
A large part of the programme is education and awareness. The DTRP staff give talks to schoolchildren, as well as bi-weekly presentations and feeding demonstrations at the Madinat turtle pens.
“It’s hugely important people know why we are keeping critically endangered sea turtles,” he says. “Without the project, turtles would wash up on the shore and, without help, would die of exposure.”
The vast majority of turtles are brought to the “intensive care” centre, which sits 18 metres under sea level in the basement of the Burj Al Arab hotel, by regular beachgoers. They’re observed, checked by vets and looked after by the hotel’s aquarium specialists. Some of them require force-feeding, special diets and/or antibiotics to keep them alive.
From here they move to two outdoor “turtle pens” at the Madinat Jumeirah, where staff can continue to monitor their progress before being released.
“We tell people that if they can swim away from you, leave it alone,” Baverstock says. “Most of the time, if they are washed up on the shore, they are getting washed up for a reason.”
The most common injuries and illnesses are intestinal impaction, barnacle build-up and injuries caused by jet skis, boats and entanglements with fishing nets.
The animals are known as opportunistic feeders, meaning that they will eat virtually anything they come across.
“The problem is things like cigarette butts, plastic bags or fishing line. [The turtles\ don’t have hands like us, so they use their mouths. If it’s a piece of fishing line, it just takes two or three swallows, and the next thing you know, they might have a hook down their throat. Or they might eat a plastic bag and get ingestion impaction.”
Ingestion impaction occurs when a turtle cannot break down what it has swallowed, causing a blockage in its intestinal system. It’s unlikely to be able to recover by itself, so it will probably either die of starvation or become slow and lethargic, giving barnacles an opportunity to attach themselves to its shell, limbs and even head. A build-up of barnacles can slow down the animal even more, further reducing any chance it has of survival.
Encounters with fishermen have also landed some turtles in the rehabilitation centre.
“One was clubbed on the head by a fisherman in Dibba,” Baverstock says. “You can imagine, an 80-kilogram turtle thrashing around in your fishing net that is your livelihood. It’s a natural instinct to stop it from moving.”
The turtle had to be force-fed for the first six months, before being tagged and released two years later. In nine months, it travelled 8,600km, almost reaching the coast of Thailand before the tag’s battery ran out.
Tagging and tracking the turtles is a major part of the programme, contributing to global efforts to help save the species.
The more data about the creatures’ migratory patterns, breeding sites and foraging grounds, the more chances there are to protect these.
“We’re looking at comparing home ranges for the animals,” says David Robinson, a marine biologist with the DTRP. “If you get a lot of turtles together using one space, you can say: ‘That’s a good area to protect.’ The ultimate point is to see if our animals are surviving.”
The project runs in conjunction with Dubai’s Wildlife Protection Office (WPO), and receives off-site veterinary care at the Dubai Falcon Hospital and the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory.
The team has also treated animals sent from other Gulf countries, including a 50kg green turtle from Qatar suffering from a broken flipper and impaction. After two years of treatment, it was flown back to Qatar and released.
Kevin Hyland, a UAE resident for 32 years, was part of the WPO when the first calls started coming in about injured and sick turtles.
“In the 90s, they came in small numbers. Dubai was a much smaller place. The population was very much smaller and there was much less use of the beach.
“People would phone up and take it to Jumeirah Vet Hospital or whatever. They would say: ‘Phone Kevin, the fish man – he will know what to do.’”
The WPO, a government organisation, provides funding to the project to help cover vet bills. The rest is covered by the Jumeirah Group and donations. The project is the only one on its scale in the Gulf.
In Abu Dhabi, the Tourism Development and Investment Company tries to protect nesting turtles on the emirate’s beaches. In April, it announced its first nest on Saadiyat Island and urged the public to keep a safe distance from nesting turtles and to avoid walking on the beach after sunset. Since early 2010, 650 turtle eggs have hatched on Saadiyat’s beaches. Sharjah Aquarium has also rescued a number of turtles.
Hawksbills mate biannually and lay about 90 to 100 eggs in a nesting hole dug by the female, using her flippers. The turtles usually return to the same place that they were hatched, 30 or 35 years later.
Once the eggs are laid, the female will return to the sea – the hatchlings will emerge after about two months and instinctively head to the water.
“We won’t see the effects of what’s happening today for 30 years,” says Robinson. “If humans are impacting them on a global scale, we won’t know for 30 or 35 years, until they come back and start breeding. Or not.”
Destruction of nesting habitats is one of the major threats to the turtle’s survival. The IUCN also cites the tortoiseshell trade, egg collection, slaughter for meat, destruction of foraging habitat, entanglement and ingestion of marine debris and oil pollution as other contributors to declining numbers.
Under the IUCN’s classification system, the critically endangered definition is based on an “observed, estimated, inferred or suspected population size reduction of 80 per cent over the last 10 years or three generations”.
Dr Nicolas Pilcher, the founder and executive director of the Marine Research Foundation based in Malaysia, says that while the global picture is bleak, the situation in the Gulf may, actually, be more positive.
“When the IUCN says ‘critically endangered’, that is looking at the global level. I’m not so sure the turtles in the Gulf are critically endangered. They have not been declining at rates of 80 per cent.”
The sea-turtle populations in the Gulf that survive the very cold winter temperatures and the very high summer temperatures are critical to the understanding of climate change and marine life, he says.
“Sea turtles are cold blooded, which means they suffer these climate changes. They get very, very cold in winter and extremely hot in summer.
“Any animal that withstands that is an animal that can teach us a lot about the impacts of climate change. We are all talking about the climate getting warmer, and are animals going to be able to withstand this and adapt? Here you have a cold-blooded reptile that can answer many of these questions for you.
“Losing this Gulf population would be a catastrophe.”
To find out more about the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project, and ways to get involved, visit its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/turtle.rehabilitation.