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Sea turtle conservation project ripples into ecological and awareness gains across the region

05 Nov, 2023

Dubai’s relentless efforts to champion sustainability and a green ethos as part of a new development paradigm have given rise to unique initiatives by organisations across its public and private sectors. One such programme, a dedicated rehabilitation project for sea turtles administered by Dubai’s Jumeirah Group in 2004, is reaping rich dividends today thanks to the conviction of a group of people who truly believe that every little drop in the ocean – and every little being – matters.

For almost two decades, this programme has been instrumental in nursing ailing and injured sea turtles back to health and releasing them into their natural habitats through collaborative efforts with Dubai's Wildlife Protection Office, the Dubai Falcon Hospital, and the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory.

Aligned with the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment’s initiatives to protect these creatures that are critical to the local marine ecosystem, the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project (DTRP) also serves to educate the youth, citizens and international hotel guests about sea turtle biology and the state of sea turtle populations locally and internationally.

The project also assists in tracking turtle movements regionally and globally through satellite technology, supporting rehabilitation assessment and research efforts.

To date, the DTRP has safely returned over 2,100 turtles to the Arabian Gulf, with annual rescue figures averaging over 100.

All seven surviving species of sea turtles are considered endangered, predominantly due to human factors such as poaching, fisheries bycatch, pollution, coastal and offshore development, and climate change. Of the species tended to in the facility, the Hawksbill, which is critically endangered due to turtle shell trading, is native to the Southern Gulf, including Dubai. Hawksbills and Green turtles are the predominant group being cared for at the centre, while Loggerhead and Olive Ridley turtles are also occasionally brought in.

Hawksbills in particular play a unique role in the wider health of coral reefs, making their protection and rehabilitation vital, especially given that they face rising threats to their nests. Juveniles and adults are equally at risk, as evidenced by rapidly declining numbers.

DTRP has released 75 turtles of 4 different species into the wild this year with satellite tags and many of them have travelled to nesting sites and spent extended periods in protected areas, including Ras Al Hadd in Oman and several habitats closer by in Abu Dhabi.

Tagging initiative
The tagging initiative of DTRP also provided new insights on the daunting journeys sea turtles are capable of. Dibba, one of the turtles nursed back to health by DTRP, travelled 8,300 km to reach Thailand in nine months, the first recorded case of a marine turtle migrating from the Middle East to South East Asia. Other beneficiaries of the DTRP programme have made it as far as India, Pakistan, Oman and other Gulf countries.

“Dubai’s incessant efforts to chart a development model where sustainability and ecological responsibility are central themes is admirable and DTRP is glad to lend support to this vision that places equal emphasis on preservation of biodiversity while ensuring renewed participation of stakeholders from various sectors,” said Barbara Lang-Lenton, Director of Aquarium at Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, who leads the DTRP.

Based at the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project places newly rescued turtles in a critical care unit at the aquarium facility as part of the first treatment phase. The turtles are then shifted to the purpose built state-of-the-art, sea-fed rehabilitation lagoon at Jumeirah Al Naseem, where they get to acclimatise to ambient conditions, building up fitness levels prior to release back into the wild.

Key barometer of marine ecosystems
Sea turtles are a visible symbol of ocean biodiversity and play an integral role in maintaining the health of the world’s marine ecosystems. However, alongside more than 800 other aquatic and coastal species, this ancient species is under threat from warming seas and marine pollution. Plastic waste, for instance, poses a massive risk to turtle habitats, with statistics revealing that 19 to 23 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans and other water bodies annually.

The ocean is a climate change buffer the Earth direly needs and the need to protect oceans and their ecosystems couldn’t be overstated. The importance of greater public participation in such endeavours is also the need of the hour. The DTRP team has various avenues to maximise public outreach and, in October 2021, launched a dedicated toll-free hotline – 800TURTLE (800 887853) – allowing members of the public to report distressed or injured sea turtles they come across. Experts are promptly dispatched to assist the animals or the caller is advised on the best way to tend to the turtle until help arrives. The vast majority of animals entering rehabilitation now come through the 800TURTLE hotline, a clear indication that the community is actively involved in supporting DTRP's mission.

Another chance for the public to be involved with the project is coming up soon as the DTRP team prepares to release 14 rehabilitated turtles back into their natural habitat on 8 November from the beach at Jumeirah Al Naseem.

An educational programme of DTRP also fosters interactivity by allowing school groups to learn more about the work it undertakes and its importance. From last October through to April this year, over 1,700 school children from all seven emirates participated in the programme. Hotel guests and visitors are also encouraged to learn more about sea turtles and their conservation, witness their recovery and even participate in feeding them at the dedicated lagoon at Jumeirah Al Naseem.

Data exchange spurs partnerships
The DTRP also works to advance existing knowledge on turtle behaviour, navigation routes and feeding territories. All turtles released into the wild are microchipped and such tagging enables immediate detection if they get washed back onto the beaches. Satellite tags are also affixed to shells of some of the turtles, allowing for data collection and sharing with other global organisations to further boost conservation efforts.

The detailed data thus collected helps assess the success of rehabilitation efforts and the integration of the animals back into the wild, allowing experts to formulate conservation plans moving forward, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). DTRP has, to date, released 75 turtles of 4 different species with satellite transmitters.

Apart from DTRP’s close partnership with Dubai’s Wildlife Protection Office, the Dubai Falcon Hospital and the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory, it is also in constant touch with other aquariums across the UAE, such as the Yas Sea World Research and Rescue team.

Various organisations have donated satellite tags to DTRP, greatly enabling its work. Close coordination with government entities, NGOs and other rescue centres in the UAE is also part of the brief for DTRP, which in 2021 signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Fujairah Environment Authority and Fujairah Research Centre. The agreement promotes rehabilitation, research, and habitat restoration efforts between the three entities.

The 800TURTLE hotline is also accessible in Fujairah with callers directed to the Fujairah Research Centre to ensure prompt rescue and timely care. Callers from other Emirates are quickly referred to relevant authorities. Conservation efforts of the Jumeirah Group are also ongoing in Abu Dhabi at Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort, the Group’s first eco-conscious luxury resort.


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