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Sea turtle situation, studies and conservation in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Source: Asghar Mobaraki, Biodiversity and Wildlife Bureau Expert, Department of the Environment

Photos: Asghar Mobaraki


 

INTRODUCTION

The Islamic Republic of Iran has a coastline extending almost 1800 km on the northern Persian Gulf1 and the Sea of Oman. Four provinces border the sea area: Khuzestan, Booshehr, Hormozgan, and Sistan and Baluchestan. Additionally, about 30 small and large islands with a total coastline of about 600 km are located in the Persian Gulf. Among these Queshm, Hendourabi, Hengam, Kish, Sheedvar, Lavan, Mond area islands (Ommolkaram and Nakhiloo), and Khargoo are the most important ones for sea turtles.
 

SEA TURTLE SPECIES AND HABITATS

One may differentiate between the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman when considering the existing populations of sea turtle species and their distribution within the area. The coastal waters harbour two main species of sea turtles which breed regularly on Iranian beaches: the hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and the green turtle (Chelonia mydas).
 

The species and habitats of the Persian Gulf

Hawksbill turtle at Hendorabi IslandThe Persian Gulf accommodates the main nesting habitats of hawksbill turtles, as well as some green turtles. Certain islands are the most important nesting sites for these two species. Some mainland Iranian sites also exist, but at this stage there is no reliable estimate of the number of turtles nesting at these places.


Green turtles in different life stages are the main foraging species, especially around the islands. However, some feeding hawksbills in juvenile stages have also been found and confirmed. Moreover, there are some occasional records of Loggerhead and Leatherbacks in these waters.

The species and habitats of the Sea of Oman

Green turtleThe Sea of Oman accommodates important feeding grounds for green turtles, of different life stages, all year long. There are also a few important nesting sites for the green turtle (Mobaraki, 2004). Olive Ridley turtles have also been reported in the area (Kami, 1997; Mobaraki, 2003). Despite the fact that the area includes some suitable nesting sites for the hawksbill turtle and reports of its nesting been recorded in the past (Kinunen and Walczack, 1971), there have been no signs of turtles nesting there in the past years.



MAIN NESTING SITES

Main Distribution of Sea Turtles in Iranian Waters


The most important nesting sites of Hawksbill turtles in the Persian Gulf

Considering the nesting populations of hawksbill turtles in the Persian Gulf, as well as effective threatening factors for the species, some islands are supposed to be the most important nesting sites for this species. Of these, the following ones have high priority for conservation (Mobaraki, 2004): the islands of the Hormozgan province, namely Sheedvar, Hendourabi, Hengam, Queshm, Kish and Farour; as well as Nakhiloo, Ommolkaram, Khargoo Islands and Nayband Bay of Booshehr province.


Main nesting sites and feeding grounds for green turtles in the Sea of Oman area

Taking into account the long shoreline of the Sea of Oman and the existing lack of facilities, it is difficult to cover the enter area annually, but regular surveys are thought to have identified the main nesting sites and feeding grounds for the green turtle in the Sea of Oman (Mobaraki, 2004). Ahmad Rizeh, Karatti, Kachoo, Kohpansar and Tang may be considered as the main nesting grounds for this species in the area, while Tang, Pozm, Miami and Djodd serve as feeding grounds.


STUDY OF SEA TURTLES IN IRAN IN THE PAST YEARS

In view of a significant lack of available information on sea turtles in the Islamic Republic of Iran, further research in this field was strongly needed to fill existing gaps, in particular since there was no reliable information on their reproduction biology. In recent years important sites have been visited regularly and missing information and data have been collected almost completely, especially from the islands of Sheedvar, Hendourabi, Nakhiloo and Ommolkaram.


Important hawksbill nesting sites in the Gulf

Sheedvar Island (26ْ 48َ N 53ْ 25َ E)

Sheedvar IslandThis island has been nominated as a wildlife refuge and as the country’s 20th wetland of international importance (Ramsar Site). With an area of only 1sq km, it is not subject to habitation and only the eastern and northern parts of the island, with sandy beaches, are suitable for turtle nesting. Sheedvar is adjacent to Lavan Island, which plays a special role in the area because of its oil exploitation. Significantly, Sheedvar is also being used as fishing site and a resting place for the fishermen, boats and ships.
 

Sheedvar's shallow waters

Besides the importance of the area for hawksbill turtles, the waters of Sheedvar also offer feeding habitats for green turtles. It is also worth mentioning that the island represents a very important nesting site for migratory birds, mostly Sterna spp.

 


 
Hendorabi Island

Hendorabi IslandHendorabi Island is another important hawksbill nesting site in the Gulf. With an area of 22.8 sq km and only sparsely populated (about ten families of local people live there), the island offers on its eastern, northeastern and southern shores small and large sandy beaches that are suitable for nesting. However, the most part consists of rocky shores. Nonetheless, plans for tourism activities, which are supposed to start soon, may change the current nesting situation.

 


 

Nakhiloo Island (27ْ 49َ N, 51ْ 28ََ E)

With an area of 0.32 sq km, Nakhiloo Island has sandy beaches that are suitable for the nesting of turtles. It is also an important site for nesting bird species (Sterna spp.) and forms part of the “Mond Protected Area”. Although unpopulated, the island also serves as a substantial fishing site and resting place for fishermen.
 

 

Ommolkaram Island (27َْْ 50َ N, 51ْ 34َ E)

Hawksbill turtle is nesting on Ommolkaram islandThe uninhabited 0.8 sq km Ommolkaram Island is another nesting ground for hawksbill turtles in the Gulf. Most of its shores, especially in the north and the south, are suitable for nesting. Some occasional body pits indicate the nesting of green turtles as well. Similar to the situation on Nakhiloo Island, it is an important fishing site and resting place for the fishermen and is part of the “Mond Protected Area”. The Mond Protected Area has been upgraded as a national park, named "Dayyer and Nakhiloo", according to its importance.

 

Other important sites for hawksbill turtles

Additionally, Queshm and Hengam Islands located adjacent to each other are other essential sites for turtles in the region. Queshm Island, with about 1,495 sq km, is the largest island in the area. Some parts of it provide suitable nesting sites for hawksbills and feeding grounds for green turtles. Due to its mangrove forests the island plays a crucial role in the area. The jurisdiction of the island falls under the control of Qeshm Free Zone Area which conducted some work on turtles in the past years. There are some small and large villages and a commercially important city on the island.

Hengam Island has a surface of 9.8 sq km. Its few small sandy beaches in the east and the northwest are nesting grounds for hawksbills. Beyond that, it accommodates feeding habitats for green turtles. Some people inhabit the island, which has a small town and villages.

 

Important sites for green turtles

Cholotr beach, Oman Sea areaThe Sea of Oman has the most important nesting and feeding grounds for green turtles in the country. Nesting of the green turtle was recorded for the first time in Iran in 2003, in Cholotr (Mobaraki, 2004). At the same time this study identified the main feeding grounds in the area. However, the nesting sites for green turtles in that region are very limited; and in some cases consist only of small beaches surrounded by cliffs and the sea.
 

 
 

CONSERVATION OF MARINE TURTLES IN THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN

Several measures have been introduced to promote the conservation of sea turtles in the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the nomination of the sea turtle as “endangered animal of the country”. The previous fine imposed by the government for killing a turtle, about 3,200,000 Rials, has been doubled in the 2006 to 6,400,000 Rials (equivalent to about US$ 700). Furthermore, egg collection is punished with a fine of about $US 233 for each egg. The nomination of nesting sites “under management and protected area”, such as the “Mond Protected Area” and the “Sheedvar Wildlife Refuge”, are other significant activities for the protection of the species and their habitats. Furthermore, the monitoring of sites by Department of Environment guards during the nesting season of the turtles minimizes the harm to the turtles and their nests.


MAIN THREATENING FACTORS FOR SEA TURTLES

The sea turtle populations are faced with different threats in the area. Egg collection for traditional usage and even for aphrodisiac purposes occurs at most of the nesting sites. In some places, turtle meat is occasionally used by coastal residents for the same purpose.
 

Bycatch of sea turtleApart from these threats from humans, different kinds of pollution are common -- such as debris, oil and artificial light. Bycatch of turtles in fishing gear is also very common and may be the most serous problem, related to important fishing activities in the area. Natural predators, such as mammals, birds, crabs and insects, are another threatening factor for turtles as in other parts of the world. Also, the density and high number of body pits on some small beaches may prevent hatchlings from reaching the sea. 
 

Other problems are caused by mismanagement; while boat strikes, which happen regularly, seem to be increasing in some parts. Different kinds of coastal area development are another threat for the nesting sites and turtles. Other natural factors such as erosion are common in most places, especially on small beaches, and can cause damage to turtle habitats.

Finally, some other important threats arising from human beings have to be added to the list. On the country level, we can observe mismanagement, unsuitable cooperation, lack of understanding and sufficient support, complicated bureaucracy and lack of considerations/attention, which combine to make the effort to protect the species much more difficult.

 

MAIN ACTIVITIES ON SEA TURTLES IN IRAN

After research and studies on the nesting sites as well as nesting turtles, and collection of needed preliminary information, a tagging program for sea turtles was initiated in Iran for the first time in 2005 with the kind help and support of the IOSEA MoU Secretariat. About 500 Hawksbill turtle and about 20 Green turtles have been tagged at different sites (Mobaraki 2010). The tags used are titanium flipper tags with the number and the address of Department of the Environment of Iran. Iran was also one of the cooperating countries in the "Gulf Turtle Project" for satellite tracking of hawksbill turtles, conducted in 2010 with the support of WWF-EWS and MRF. Oman, Qatar, and U.A.E. were the other participating countries. 


Some highlights of behavioural studies

Among the highlights of recently-conducted behavioral studies are:

  • 10 emergences for a single turtle during a one week visit to Sheedvar;
  • Diurnal nesting found to be common in hawksbill turtles;
  • Some turtles were found to construct 2 to 3, or even 4 to 5 trial (false) nests/body pits;
  • One turtle was observed to have laid only 2 eggs;
  • A turtle was found alive with only one rear limb.


Genetics works: necessity and aims

There are many reasons for conducting genetic research on sea turtles in Iran. Not only are there different nesting sites related to each other in the country itself, but there is also a relationship with the sea turtle populations of the other countries in Persian Gulf. The long migration routes of sea turtles span the Gulf area and also other parts of the world. 
 

Map of sea turtle genetics work conducted in Iran


The genetics work conducted in recent years is the first of its kind in Iran. The four main nesting sites have been studied for at least two years, and 100 tissue samples taken. For all the samples, the sequencing is being done using new PCR primers that amplify a longer segment of DNA than was done in previous works. A 800 bp mtDNA control region is amplified instead of about 400 bp. The sites can be grouped into two main regions consisting of Sheedvar–Hendourabi to the west and Ommolkaram–Nakhiloo to the east. The tests indicate that the two areas have significantly different haplotype frequencies and 6 and 8 haplotypes were recognized in the sites, respectively. 
 

FINAL REMARKS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

There is a crucial need for international cooperation for the conservation of the sea turtles in general. Sea turtles are highly migratory species which means, consequently, that their habitats and populations of the species are shared; and thus can only be conserved through common policies.

From my point of view, future projects should include a cooperative genetic study for the western and eastern parts of the Gulf and Sea of Oman in order to identify the populations, as well as satellite tracking of turtles and close cooperation between countries for conservation, research and other studies. The formation of an expert group for the region could be of significant value for conducting these activities.


* * * * * *


Bibliography of papers mentioned in this article

1- Kami.Haji Goli, 1997, First Record of the Olive Ridley Turtle in Iranian Coastal waters, Zoology in the Middle east, 15, 67-70
2- Kinunen, Wayne, Steve Bullocl, 1971, Lavan Island Aquatic Survey, Report to Iran DOE, 9pp
3- Mobaraki. Asghar, "Marine Turtles in Iran, Results from 2002", 2004, Marine Turtle Newsletter, No 104, 13
4- Mobaraki. Asghar " Nesting of Hawksbill Turtles in Sheedvar Island, Iran",2004, Marine Turtle Newsletter, No 103, 13
5- Mobaraki. Asghar, "Results of Sea turtle Study in Iran and The Conservation Needs, "Second Marine Conservation Forum, Abu Dhabi, UAE, 2010.
 

1 In accordance with practice formalised by an Editorial Directive, the term “Persian Gulf” is used by the United Nations Secretariat as the standard geographic designation of the sea area between the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic Republic of Iran; and the United Nations Secretariat reproduces, without any change, the terminology used in any material provided by a Government.

 

   
 
   
 
   
 
   
 
   
 
   
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