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Into The Wild

At risk of extinction, wild turtles have a dubious future. But the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project is helping protect the species by saving the sick and injured – Vhairi Walker discovers how they are nurtured back to health and ultimately freedom.

As the Mexican Gulf contends with the aftermath of a sweeping oil spill thought to be the worst environmental disaster in American history, it would seem preserving marine life elsewhere is crucial. Several thousand miles away, the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf are home to a vast array of species, including the green and the critically endangered Hawksbill turtles – feared to be amongst the victims of the BP spill. According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), there has already been an 87 per cent drop in the global number of nesting Hawksbill females in the last three generations. While oil pollution is a factor in their decline, the Asian meat trade (China has an infinite appetite for turtle meat), egg collection and the destruction of nesting habitats has contributed further to their dwindling numbers. In the modern world, even day-to-day life can be hazardous for the sea turtle. Injuries sustained from boats and jet skis are common, while floating rubbish can be entangled or ingested. Adding to this, turtles simply get sick. Relying on gaining body heat from their surrounding environment, the reptiles are particularly vulnerable during the cooler months, when the ocean’s temperature dips. Last winter (over a three-month period), more than 90 sick or injured turtles were brought into the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP).

DTRP was established in 2004, and is the only organisation of its kind in the Middle East and Red Sea region. Run in conjunction with the Wildlife Protection Office and Burj Al Arab Aquarium, the group aims to rehabilitate turtles for return to their natural habitat, while at the same time raising awareness of the species’ plight. All the turtles under the project’s care have been rescued from the waters of the UAE having been injured or fallen sick. Most often in the cooler months they wash up along the coastline. If they are not found on Jebel Ali Waterfront and Ghantoot Reserve by Emirates Marine Environmental Group’s (EMEG), or Dubai Municipality’s regular patrols, they are brought in to the facility by kind-hearted members of the public. These turtles are initially taken to a private veterinary clinic where a blood test is taken to determine the course of action needed. The turtles are also micro-chipped for monitoring purposes before they are taken to Burj Al Arab Aquarium to recover in indoor temperature-controlled quarantine baths. “The great advantage of using this facility is that the temperature can be up to 10 degrees higher than ambient, giving a much-needed boost to the debilitated turtle’s metabolism,” says Warren Baverstock, the Aquarium Operations Manager.

Those that regain their health are transferred to the Mina A’Salam turtle enclosure at Madinat Jumeirah for the third and final stage of the recovery process. “The large enclosure of Mina A’Salam allows the team to monitor the final stages of rehabilitation and feeding behaviour before the turtles are released back into the UAE territorial waters. It also provides a perfect focal point where guests and visitors can learn about the plight of turtles globally”, explains Warren. Not all the turtles are fortunate enough to leave. Neurological problems, missing limbs and blindness would mean survival in the wild is improbable, so they remain at Madinat Jumeirah where they are cared for and fed. The public are invited to visit the turtles, which are located in a waterway by the Arabian/International restaurant Al Muna, and a feeding session is held every Friday during brunch. By having public interaction, Warren hopes to raise awareness for the species and the importance of protecting marine life – even if that simply means not littering on the beach. Once turtles are fit enough to be returned to the wild, both flippers are fitted with titanium tags that carry code numbers for identification purposes and the contact details of the Wildlife Protection Office. Going a step further, the project would like to attach more satellite transmitters to track the journeys that the turtles make following their release.

“Further tracking is important for us to build a picture of where the turtles that are found in the waters of the Emirates travel, to reach their feeding, breeding and nesting grounds. Without the protection of all these sites, the turtle population will surely decline further,” says Warren. In celebration of World Turtle Day, Burj Al Arab sponsored a turtle release where a total of 25 rehabilitated turtles were re-introduced back to their habitat. This event included the purchase of a satellite tag, which was fitted to Moonlight, a 32kg green turtle. You can track Moonlight’s progress online at the below websites. Other turtles released on the day included Sabri, a 108kg green turtle plus 23 hawksbill turtles. Tagging offers a unique insight into the vast distance that can be covered by sea turtles. Of two turtles that were previously tagged (funded by the Jumeirah Group), one named Dibba was recorded travelling a remarkable 8,600km from the Middle East to South East Asia. For Warren and the DTRP team, such information is not only helpful, but also heartening to know that after all the hard work is done; the turtle that they saved has a second chance.

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