Lebanon's green turtles threatened by new resort

The Orange House Project, an environmental NGO, has been trying to ensure that turtles reach the sea after their eggs are hatched, but its job gets more difficult every year.

al-monitor Baby sea turtles crawl to the sea at a seashore, al-Mansouri, Lebanon, July 24, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Jamal Saidi.

Aug 14, 2019

AL-MANSOURI, Lebanon — Waves crashed against the shore as over one hundred turtle hatchlings raced down the hill of the sandy beach toward the ocean where they will spend nearly their entire lives.

The 165 loggerhead and green turtles that the Lebanese organization Orange House Project released was their largest in the 19 years that they have been operating at al-Mansouri beach, which is located nearly 10 miles south from the southern city of Tyre. However, despite this being the largest release to date, the number of nests has significantly decreased over the past few years following the construction of the Palagio Beach Resort nearby.

Mona Khalil, founder and head of Orange House Project, told Al-Monitor that prior to the resort's construction, there was an average of 50 nests per season, but since the construction began five years ago, the number of nests has been steadily decreasing with the biggest impact seen last year and this year.

“The year before I only got 20 nests because they [the resort] opened in August, not at the beginning of the season,” Khalil,a dinamic septuagenerian,said. “This year I only got 13 because they opened at the beginning of the season. Most of the turtles came and then they ran away [back to the ocean] from the white lights [of the resort]. The majority did not even think about coming to the beach. Most of them went, of course, to the safest place here — not Lebanon, nowhere in Lebanon. They went to Israel.”

This year’s nesting numbers, while significantly lower than the average, are also a drastic decrease from 2006 when Khalil recorded over 80 nests.

“During the 2006 war when Israel hit Lebanon, I was here,” she said, “and the number of nests was 82 because the locals did not dare to go down [to the beach]. So that was the highest [number of nests].”

Khalil founded Orange House Project in 2000 after finding turtles on al-Mansouri beach and felt compelled to protect the area so that they could continue to come and nest there. She informed the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles that there were turtles on the beach, and, in response, they sent marine biologists to work with Khalil. It was through these marine biologists that she was able to learn how to properly monitor and collect data on the turtles and nests without being intrusive.

Since then, she has taught many young volunteers to study and monitor the turtles every season. One of these volunteers is Rami Khashab who has been with Orange House since 2013 when he was 16. He told Al-Monitor that he learned all of the skills that he uses at Orange House from Khalil.

Every year, he and fellow volunteers keep an eye on the beach and wait for the turtles to lay their eggs. Then, they get to work.

“We monitor the whole beach daily starting May 1 at 5 a.m. looking for tracks of the mothers that come at night to lay their eggs,” Khashab said. “After finding the tracks, we locate the nest and protect it with a wire mesh from foxes and other wild animals. We also relocate some nests if there is a risk of them being swallowed by waves during the high tides.”

However, despite these precautions to protect the nests, Khalil said that sometimes people will come to the beach and steal the wire mesh and use it to make chicken coops or sell it because of the iron. There have also been occasions where people have taken newly hatched turtles from their nests to sell them to pet shops — a crime that could land them in prison.

Still, according to both Khalil and Khashab, the greatest threat for the nesting turtles is the resort.

“All of the sandy beaches in Lebanon used to receive sea turtles during the laying season,” Khashab explained. “But we [Lebanese] built resorts and put kiosks and people are staying on the beach after dark and that scares the turtles. They are very shy animals. They spend all of their life in the sea. So any noises or lights will scare them away and they will just go to the nearest sandy beach that they have the chance to lay on.”

If a sea turtle is heading to a beach to lay her eggs, but she does not feel entirely safe and is desperate, she will just lay them in the water; the hatchlings are almost guaranteed to die then. This is something that Orange House has seen in the past and has tried to prevent.

Khalil informed the Ministry of Environment for several years about the turtle nest data she collected, but nothing was being done until recently when Fady Jreissati was appointed to be its head. Jreissati has been the first minister to meet with Orange House and to actively take steps to support them in their efforts. He even canceled meetings in order to take his children to see the release of the 165 hatchlings.

Hatchlings are released at Orange House, al-Mansouri, Lebanon.

“I think it’s a wonderful project and it’s an exceptional initiative from Mona and all of the team working with her,” Jreissati told Al-Monitor. “It’s great to see the turtles and enjoy them and get the kids here. It’s a very good thing for Lebanon because it is giving a very good image of our country and our people — that we appreciate biodiversity. It is also a very good lesson for the children because the more children come here, the more they learn to appreciate those things and to protect those animals and this type of life.”

Jreissati also expressed concern over the decreasing number of nests and argued that this is not just a Lebanese problem, but a global one and that the world needs to make an effort to protect endangered species.

“It is not a Lebanese thing only,” he noted. “It’s a global issue where everybody, every country, is trying to protect rare and endangered species. We are a part of all this and we have a duty to protect them because the more development is increasing, the less space they have. That's why we fear that their numbers will decrease or keep on decreasing. Unless we do something very quickly and we protect them as much as possible and we create the awareness needed, they are in danger.”

The minister has made efforts to aid Orange House since his appointment, such as closing a portion of the beach so that the turtles can lay their eggs without being disturbed. However, the resort’s lights remain a significant issue.

“Turtles cannot handle white lights,” Khalil explained. “We asked them to change to red lights instead since turtles aren’t affected by red lights. I thought that we had agreed on it, but when the time came, they changed two to red lights that aren’t the right ones and are very strong.”

The Palagio Resort did not respond to Al-Monitor when asked for a comment.

Khalil added that she is starting to feel more and more desperate because despite efforts being made by the Ministry of Environment, nothing has changed. “I’m going to take my rifle and shoot them [the lights],” Khalil stated sternly. “That’s how desperate I am. Nothing is going to happen. The minister is not going to succeed.”

Since the resort opened last year, the majority of turtles coming to nest have decided to go to Israel to lay their eggs since they are more protected there. It is because of this that Khalil is not worried about the turtles. She argued that if Lebanon’s beaches are not suitable, then they will just go somewhere else that fits their needs. Instead, she is worried about how the lack of turtle nests will be a loss to the country, especially for the children.

“What worries me is that for the last 19 years, you have seen how happy it makes the children [to see the hatchlings],” she said. “This is what I do; I make children happy. I make them aware that Lebanon is not only about garbage and no electricity. There is more to it than this. And now mothers call me every day and ask, ‘When? When? You said in August there is a release every day.’ And I tell them that it used to be that way. It’s not like that anymore.”

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