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Nature Notes: Turtle Tragedy

Despite local conservation efforts, the four species of sea turtle living in Egypt’s waters are still greatly endangered by human activity
By Richard Hoath

Sea turtles are among the most enigmatic of animals. While their land-bound relatives the tortoises are the popular epitomy of slowness, sea turtles in their marine element are almost balletic. They are ancient, their earliest ancestors appearing as long ago as the Triassic, 185 million years ago. They can be huge, the largest, the Leatherback or Leathery Turtle — recorded as nearly three meters long and only slightly less across the front flippers — weighs in at just under 1,000 kg. They are mysterious. While their nesting sites are often well documented, sadly perhaps too well documented, they only come ashore very briefly to lay their eggs. The vast majority of their lives is spent roaming the oceans travelling mind-boggling distances, up to 10,000 km between breeding and feeding grounds in the case of the Loggerhead Turtle. And they are without exception greatly endangered by human activity, by deliberate killing for meat and “medicine,” by trapping in fishing nets, by marine pollution and by the wholesale exploitation and destruction of their breeding beaches.

Egypt boasts five species of sea turtle, the Loggerhead Turtle, the Green Turtle, the Hawksbill Turtle, the Olive Ridley Turtle and the Leatherback — all of which are classified as either globally Endangered or Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). And all of which are in deep trouble here in Egypt. It was with this backdrop that a workshop was held at the British Council under the auspices of the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles (MEDASSET — a fabulous acronym) and Nature Conservation Egypt (NCE) in late February to discuss the threats to Egypt’s sea turtles, and especially those of Lake Bardawil in North Sinai, and to outline strategies to help preserve the future of these ancient and very special animals.

Key among the presenters and researchers was Dr. Mohamed Nada who has perhaps done more than anyone else to trumpet the demise of Egypt’s sea turtle species. I first met him in November 2000 at a conference on sea turtles also held, coincidentally, at the British Council and he was a man utterly dedicated. He won an award for best paper at the conference for his report on sea turtles for the Friends of the Environment Association and I was moved because much of the research, monitoring the fish markets of Alexandria and recording the mistreatment and fate of the animals that meant so much to him, distressed him deeply. But the information gained was invaluable as it quantified what was only known anecdotally at the time. I reported on his findings in my piece for Egypt Today in January 2001 but the findings deserve repeating.

Nada described how the turtles were slaughtered or, if not purchased left on their backs until the following week, at the fish market. He recorded how the fishermen of the El-Anfushi area favored the meat of the turtles and how it was believed that there were medical benefits of drinking turtles’ blood. Young women believed it would help them gain weight and to conceive. Turtle blood, and I quote myself referring to Nada’s report “men believed, as men do for everything from Tiger penises to rhino horns, to be an aphrodisiac. None of this has any root in medical fact. Indeed, given the pollution of the water [off Alex] those supping the blood seem to be taking a health risk.”

Fast forward 13 years to 2014 and that remark may be pretty much on the money. In the press release for the February workshop it was noted that in a study carried out in October-November 2012, up to 100 sea turtle carcasses were reported. The vast majority were Loggerhead Turtles with a few Green Turtles and a single Leatherback. Some had been deliberately killed and it was noted that local fishermen were on the whole hostile to turtles. However “no single, simultaneous mass stranding event” had occurred and “natural causes and litter ingestion cannot be ruled out.” For example the Leatherback, the very largest of the sea turtles, is a jellyfish specialist cruising the oceans grazing on these translucent but venomous lumps of living marine gelatin. But plastic bags are similarly translucent and while not venomous it is widely recorded that, having been mistaken for prey, they accumulate in the turtle’s gizzard and eventually choke it.

Other commentators also expressed concern for Bardawil’s sea turtles. These included the much-respected former head of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) Dr. Mostafa Fouda and the current Director of the Biodiversity Department of the Nature Conservation Sector of the EEAA, Eng. Waheed Salama, a tireless advocate of Egypt’s natural heritage and especially of the Zaranik Protectorate in North Sinai.

Sadly the plight of sea turtles is not just confined to Bardawil or Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. Sherif Baha El Din in his A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt lists two additional species that have been recorded from the Egyptian Red Sea. The Olive Ridley Turtle is a robust turtle, up to 74 cm long, and is probably a vagrant to our Red Sea with just three published records. It does not breed here, the nearest recorded breeding beach being in Oman. The Hawksbill Turtle is much more widespread, being recorded from the Gulfs of Aqaba and Suez south and recorded as breeding at Ras Mohamed, the islands at north of Hurghada, Wadi Gimal and elsewhere. But as Baha El Din notes it is threatened everywhere by tourist development and fishing activities, and its breeding beaches are being bulldozed and built upon.

It is these nesting sites that are so critical to the future of all species of sea turtle. We know very little about the behavior of sea turtles at sea though the MEDASSET and NCE studies showed for the first time that sea turtles were present year round in the vicinity of Bardawil. But once a year or several years the females find their way unerringly to the beaches where they were themselves hatched and there they lay their eggs, clutches of dozens, even hundreds (the record is 242 in a single clutch for a female Hawksbill Turtle) of eggs. The eggs are buried and the adult turtle, job done, goes back to the ocean and, as is the case with most reptiles, takes no role in the rearing of the young.

When the young turtles hatch they head from beach to ocean, a journey of perhaps only tens of meters but a journey over which they are extremely vulnerable. Those that make it run a gauntlet of natural predators such as herons and egrets, crows and birds of prey, then face a hazardous early turtlehood in the sea. Perhaps one in a 1,000 will make it to adulthood and return to the natal beach to lay themselves. But when the dangers of human threats are added to the natural ones, such as habitat destruction, pollution, oil, deliberate slaughter and egg collecting, the odds become very much higher.

I began my January 2001 piece with a description of a dive with a Green Turtle at Eel Garden off Ras Mohamed in South Sinai and to come full circle I would like to end with it now. Eel Garden is a sandy bed, gently sloping, that is home to a large colony of Garden Eels that we had come to watch.

On this particular dive I was with my buddy waiting quietly for the eels to appear when a dark shadow passed over us. Wondering what it was, we looked round to find ourselves being circled by a curious Green Turtle. We stayed, unwilling to disturb either the eels or turtle, and were rewarded by this most graceful of marine reptiles fearlessly staring straight into our masks. The watchers had become the watched.

Sea turtles, should they survive to adulthood, can live for many years. I would like to think that that turtle, briefly my turtle, despite all the threats facing, it is still there in the Red Sea more than a decade on. et

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