‘Conservation and development have to work together’

The Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project is the only project of its kind in the Middle East. But it’s not just about allowing sick turtles to be nursed back to health – vital scientific work increases the international knowledge base used to further protect these creatures

In the bowels of one of the world’s most luxurious hotels sits a small team of marine biologists who live and breathe turtles; and just as the human guests arrive at the Burj Al Arab by helicopter or Rolls Royce, so distressed turtles arrive in buggies to check in at the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP).

The DTRP was set up in 2004 by Dubai’s Wildlife Protection Office in collaboration with the Jumeirah Hotel Group, which provides the husbandry and finance for the project. It is the only one of its kind in the Middle East with its function being to nurse sick and injured turtles back to health so that they can be released into the ocean, and, to contribute to international marine knowledge through its study of turtles and their migration patterns.

The DTRP accepts any distressed turtle, but by far the most common turtles found in the Arabian Gulf are the critically endangered Hawksbill and the endangered Green Sea Turtle. The majority of rescued turtles are juvenile Hawksbills, which are found washed up on the Gulf coastline during the winter months of December, January and February suffering from the adverse effects of cold sea temperatures. In addition, it is suspected that the cold causes the young turtles to slow down, allowing an abnormally heavy coverage of barnacles to grow on the carapace of some of the turtles – which eventually results in them being unable to swim. Injuries from boats are also a hazard, as is becoming entangled with floating rubbish or becoming sick from ingested plastic.

The turtles that end up at the DTRP are the lucky ones. They are checked over by the marine biologists, the few that need a vet are referred, and then a course of treatment begins that can include fresh water baths which helps to rid the turtle of barnacles, and vitamin supplements and antibiotics as required. Once they have recovered, they are moved to a special turtle enclosure outside one of the Jumeirah group’s other hotels, the Mina A’Salam, for the final stages of rehabilitation. This enclosure works two ways: it allows for the marine biologists to monitor feeding behaviour before the turtles are released, and it raises the public’s awareness of these endangered species. A look at the project’s popular Facebook page (www.facebook.com/turtle.rehabilitation) verifies this: people all over the world follow the progress of turtles they have fallen for while watching them swim and bask in the enclosure.

The Hawksbill and the Green Sea Turtle are in danger of extinction. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature there has been an 87 per cent drop in the global number of nesting Hawksbill females in the last three generations. Modern fishing practices, oil pollution, construction, the Asian appetite for turtle meat and the desire for tortoiseshell are threatening to wipe them out, so the work of the project is paramount in conserving and improving their prognosis.

This winter the DTRP took in 360 turtles, many of them found by the Emirates Marine Environmental Group who comb the beaches looking for distressed turtles. To celebrate Earth Day in April, a group of lucky children were able to release 100 of these rehabilitated turtles from the beach, watched by the public and the world’s press.

Turtles do not usually nest and feed in the same places and can travel large distances between the beaches where they lay their eggs and their feeding grounds, so the study of turtles and their migration patterns is particularly important. Tracking is done by attaching a satellite tag to a turtle; Warren Baverstock and David Robinson, who run the DTRP, explained that the ultimate goal of satellite tagging is to collect information on a part of a turtle’s life history so that this can be used to help conserve and protect the animals and to observe post-rehabilitation behaviour.

The results of their work are shared through the global rehabilitation database that was initiated by the DTRP and is managed from Dubai. This database is used as a tool to connect rehabilitation projects around the world and to facilitate discussion. The team has also been asked to help and advise on projects in Qatar, Sumatra, Kenya and the Maldives.

The true value of the knowledge built up by the marine biologists at DTRP is multifaceted.

The drop in water temperature in winter in the Arabian Gulf is particularly difficult for the tropical Hawksbill turtle, which prefers the much warmer conditions of the Arabian Gulf in the summer. Hawksbill turtles in other parts of the world are not having to endure these drops in temperature and so it is the study of the Gulf Hawksbill turtles which will contribute to international scientific knowledge on their resilience to climate change and what needs to be done to ensure that there isn’t a future imbalance of males-to-females [the sex of the hatchling is determined by the incubation temperature].

In addition, the DTRP is in a great position to advise on turtle rehabilitation. As they continue to provide best practice, they are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible and reducing the number of turtles that die. The satellite tagging project contributes to the increasing database of knowledge surrounding turtle migration which helps turtle conservationists all over the world to understand what needs to be done to protect turtles in their natural habitats.

Lastly, the project is showing how conservation can work alongside development influencing and educating the choices made in industry. As Warren Baverstock says, “Conservation and development have to work together.”