A new study on the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles in the UAE shows the species is at risk of disappearing from our shores if more is not done to save them.
The study, by environmental biologist Ada Natoli and scientist Dr. Rima Jabado, was conducted on more than 400 turtles across 67 nests in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sir Bu Nair Island in April.
“A key finding in the report shows a low genetic diversity in UAE’s turtle population. This means hawksbills from one nest are not mixing with those in other areas, indicating they are confined to their nests and not freely moving around the UAE waters. Besides Sir Bu Nair Island, single paternity was the norm in Abu Dhabi and Dubai turtle habitats,” said Natoli.
She said the turtles sampled showed similar DNA suggesting many have descended from a small number of individuals.
“This leads to a fact that the turtle population in the UAE is very small and at risk of disappearing if enough measures are not taken to protect them. There is no strong monitoring programme in the country and one of the things that environmentalists must do is invest in research that provides more information on the hawksbills.”
Arabella Willing, head of Conservation, Community Engagement and Activities – Park Hyatt, Abu Dhabi, said the new study has been extremely helpful to those working on conserving the species.
“It has clearly shown the turtle population is indeed at risk and we need to take measures immediately to improve the situation.”
Willing is working closely with the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) in Abu Dhabi to conserve hawksbills on Saadiyat Island where the first nest was discovered three years ago.
“We work closely with the community to minimise disturbance to nesting mothers by avoiding bright lights and loud noise in the area.”
Why conserve the species
Willing said people have a moral obligation to save the animals as humans are the biggest reason for the turtles’ near extinction.
“Fishing and plastic pollution are the two main causes for turtle injury, sickness and death. On our part, we can make a difference by minimising plastic consumption and refrain from throwing it into the water,” she said.
“Turtles play a large role in the eco-system as they are food for many creatures in the sea. Their eggs fertilise beaches and they also help keep jellyfish numbers in check. Hawksbills also help maintain the health of coral reefs and seagrass meadows that support a number of water creatures,” explained Willing.
Warren Baverstock, aquarium operations manager for the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP) at The Aquarium, Burj Al Arab, said over 300 juvenile sick turtles washed up ashore this year in the UAE. They are running a Dubai turtle rehabilitation programme in collaboration with Dubai’s Wildlife Protection Office in Jumeirah.
“We rehabilitated and returned them to the sea. Turtles usually wash up with barnacles which are a sign that they are sick. People should not try removing them, instead hand them to the experts who will take care of them.”
The Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project has treated several hundred hawksbills and released over 1,100 into the waters after treatment.
Turtle conservationist Major Ali Suwaidi said one of the ways to increase the turtle population is to set up hatcheries. “A hatchery is important to have in a dying population. I am currently monitoring 24 nests in Jebel Ali and released several hundred turtles into the sea. We collect turtle eggs and put them in a hatchery as it protects them from predators and human interference. After 45 days the turtles hatch and we release them into the water.”