The Arabian Gulf is teeming with marine life, but the Hawksbill turtle, which nests in the UAE, is critically endangered. Benita Adesuyan meets conservationist Warren Baverstock, who explains how he’s aiming to increase its numbers.
The Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP) has rescued and released back into the wild more than 800 turtles in its 11 years of operation, but unfortunately, the number of turtles in the waters around the Middle East are declining. The Hawksbill turtle is native to the region and there are currently only an estimated 8,000 nesting females worldwide.
Founded by Warren Baverstock, aquarium operations manager at the Burj Al Arab, in collaboration with Dubai’s Wildlife Protection Office, the DTRP’s aim is to help boost the numbers of turtles in the wild and research their movements by tagging them with satellite tracking devices. On World Turtle Day last month – Thursday June 18 – the organisation successfully released 45 endangered species back into their natural habitat, of which five – Balsam, Tara, Zoe, Jumeirah and Nawfal – were tagged and their movements tracked and recorded on www.seaturtle.org.
Having worked with marine animals for 17 years, Baverstock says that the problems turtles face are caused by the environment and human behaviour, which are ongoing issues. ‘Turtles getting washed up on the beach covered in biofoul [an accumulation of micro-organisms, bacteria, barnacles, anemones and algae] has been happening for years. We get a large number of small turtles that have been washed up and are covered with biofoul. We’ve rescued turtles that are double their body weight due to biofoul,’ Baverstock says. He explains that turtles naturally maintain their body’s condition by rubbing themselves against rocks and crevices, but when sick, this maintenance can be neglected, and that’s when biofoul can cause problems. ‘Due to natural nutrient levels in the Gulf, biofoul can then grow on a turtle quite rapidly, becoming a secondary challenge to a primary one.’ That’s because it’s not actually the build-up of this naturally occurring matter that causes illness in the turtles, but it does aggravate underlying infections and spark health issues if combined with a lack of food.
And the challenges don’t stop there. ‘We see a lot of impact injuries caused by jet-skis and boats, as well as by ingestion of plastics, entanglement and dehydration,’ Baverstock says. Turtles that are brought into the DTRP are taken care of at its intensive care facilities at the Burj Al Arab, where there are five large fish quarantine systems that provide 22 holding tanks including a specially designed tank for larger turtles. Once out of intensive care, the animals are transferred to one of the two rehabilitation facilities located at Mina A’Salam. ‘We had one that had suffered head trauma. It took us three years to rehabilitate that particular turtle. Then when we tagged it with the satellite transmitter and released it, we recorded the second-largest migrational journey from the east coast of the UAE right across to the coast of Thailand, to the Andaman Islands,’ he reavels. The DTRP is now beginning to tag them younger, to see where are they going and whether their habitats are in danger.
The project resumes its weekly feeding sessions in the winter, but for now, Baverstock is urging the community to keep an eye out for turtles in trouble. ‘If you see one that’s injured, recover it, then contact us. Don’t try to remove any barnacles or to rehabilitate it, once we have it within our environment we can ensure it receives the best possible chance for recovery and get it back out to sea in the cooler months.’