Hawksbill turtles, Green turtles, satellite tracking, Qaru Island…
It has been a challenging monitoring season for the Kuwait Turtle Conservation Project (www.kuwaitturtles.com ). Kick-started in July 2008 under sponsorship of TOTAL Foundation and TOTAL Kuwait, in close cooperation with the Voluntary Work Center Kuwait (especially its active Senyar team) as well as The Scientific Center of Kuwait, KTCP sent its international teams of researchers, turtling apprentices and volunteers to Qaru and Umm Al-Maradim islands. The team missions were carried out in regular intervals over the last six months in order to learn more about turtles in the country who seem to mainly prefer the sandy beaches of these tiny islets for nesting every year. Unlike last year, a “scouting” year of investigation, this year more gear was packed in the team’s luggage, including satellite transmitters (Kiwisat), flipper tags and temperature and humidity measuring i-buttons.
In order to responsibly mark the beginning of the nesting season, teams began visiting the islands as early as March 2009 and their most recent field trip was carried out in the beginning of October. Monitoring was done with dedication and discipline, the teams working on land and in the water, sometimes around the clock with little or no sleep, all members sharing the same determination of deciphering the turtles’ foraging, mating, nesting and hatching habits on the islets as well as the careful description of their beach and marine ecosystems.
A lot of information about the marine ecosystems encompassing the islands was obtained, with vibrant reefs hosting more than 87 fish species (many of which spawning as we established in our numerous underwater explorations and from the sight of many species’ juvenile individuals) as well as many crustaceans and invertebrates which shall hopefully be described in following articles. Umm Al-Maradim was revealed as a area of importance for birdlife, as in the end of March more than 45 bird species were spotted and photographed on its 65 hectares of surface. Oil seeps were commonly observed from the seabed in Qaru Island this year, the sea life seeming unaffected by it. Sand temperatures were on average lower than last year, maximums measured by noon not over 50 degrees Celsius and unlike last year, humidity levels reached up to 75% in August.
The turtles did not come in high numbers. Nine pits of Hawksbill turtles were discovered in Umm Al-Maradim island from mid-May till the end of June. Then, after a long pause of three months, researchers discovered another pit, which was probably a nest, in October. As suspected since last year, Hawksbills in Kuwait seem to have two nesting seasons, an “early” and a “late” one, at least in Umm Al-Maradim. Because this year and unlike last, Hawksbills nested in Qaru island as well. Nesting season here began in the end of May and continued throughout the month of June with eleven pits in Qaru. In both Qaru and Umm Al-Maradim, none of the Hawksbills were seen nesting by the team. With the cooperation of the Coast Guard, however, some photos and a video were shown to the team, clearly demonstrating Hawksbill turtles nesting. Further proof of Hawksbills nesting in Qaru was given to KTCP in both July and August, with one dead Hawksbill hatchling found respectively on different beach areas during morning surveys. As no nesting females were encountered throughout the nesting season, no satellite transmitters were attached and Green turtles were to be attempted to satellite tag during their own nesting season on Qaru Island. A male Hawksbill was encountered in near shore waters in Qaru in both July and August, seemingly foraging. It was the same animal both times, as photography has revealed.
Unlike last year, when the team suspected a Green turtle nest on Umm Al-Maradim, no such evidence arose this year. All pits were small and clearly Hawksbill-like and the familiar, large and deep Green turtle pits made their appearance only on Qaru island in the first few days of July. The number of females remained low, and though often seen by night shift workers swimming in the shallows, for a series of nights they (or she) seemed reluctant to emerge on to the beach. This was not the case last year, when on one night five turtles emerged almost at the same time and attempted to nest.
The small number of eleven pits was the balance of the Green turtle nesting season in Qaru, most probably the only area in Kuwait where Green turtles nest. One turtle was repeatedly encountered by the team during the early August mission. It was flipper tagged and satellite tagged, and three i-buttons were inserted in its nest. Unfortunately, the satellite transmitter fell off the carapace of the turtle sooner than expected so its migrations were not followed to the disappointment of the team.
As a result, and despite the continuous efforts of KTCP team members, the turtles were monitored but not flipper or satellite tagged to the desired extent. Hatching information about the marked Green turtle nest of August 15th is hopefully to be provided soon, when the nest is dug out by researchers and the i-buttons retrieved.
In the following four months, the team shall continue carrying out its Kuwait environmental education presentations to local schools. So far the teachers’ community has responded to the team’s offer with enthusiasm, in both government and private schools. The team has also explored Failaka Island for potential nesting grounds, following reports of local population about sightings of turtles in both water and on land. The team did not discover clear nesting grounds there, but made the sad discovery that turtles are sometimes consumed for food. They also get caught in “hadra”, tidal fish traps banned elsewhere in Kuwait. KTCP is planning on campaigning for the ban of illegal “hadra” everywhere in Kuwait and the application of strict mainland fisheries legislation to Failaka island as well.
The turtles of Kuwait are still here. The next nesting season is approaching fast, and the team is ready to continue its efforts.