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Masirah Island, Oman: Loggerhead turtles and much more under threat

Source: Alan F. Rees and Nancy Papathanasopoulou

Photos: Douglas Hykle

Situated off the eastern coast of the Sultanate of Oman, Masirah Island is an arid, rocky, windswept place - but one whose ruggedness retains a remarkable beauty. 

This month, we learn from Alan Rees and Nancy Papathanasopoulou about some of the conservation challenges facing this island paradise in the Arabian Sea.

Four species of marine turtle nest on Masirah's beaches: loggerhead, green, hawksbill and olive ridley turtles (pictured here).  Each has its own specific nesting season different to the other so that on every day of the year one or more turtles will be coming ashore to nest. The loggerhead population is arguably the largest in the world, with tens of thousands of turtles estimated to be nesting annually. 

Masirah also hosts an endemic population of gazelles. There are thoughts of carrying out gazelle breeding in captivity in order to recuperate part of the lost population. 

Over 130 species of shore birds and at least another 200 inland have been recorded there in the last few years and its south-western shores are fringed with coral reefs and associated diverse marine life.  

All this is found on an island approximately 60km long and 20km at its widest point.

Turtle nesting on Masirah has been known to the scientific community since the late 1970's when pioneering work there identified the four species that nest on the island. Suggestions for management and protection of the turtle populations were provided and their importance both regionally and globally noted. The island at that time was known as 'Fantasy Island' by the residents of the air force base, as it would be a fantasy to imagine anything happening there.

Fast forward 35 years and things are changing.  

In 2006 the west side of the island has had the coastal road asphalted and work is progressing rapidly on the east side. 

This has opened up the southern part of the island which was previously mainly visited by fishermen in 4WD pickups. 

The loggerhead beach, which contains one of the highest nesting densities in the world, now is the proud owner of a more than half-finished luxury hotel (pictured below), situated right at the back of the nesting habitat. 

With beautiful sandy beaches and warm coral seas, Masirah is an obvious choice to be developed for tourism and the improved roadways etc. are making this reality more probable.

Locals and visitors to the island regularly drive their 4x4s over the nesting beaches, crushing nests in the process. Numerous beach barbecues and fires at night disturb the nesting turtles and provide cover for more sinister nest poaching activities.

Fishing - both legal and illegal - is impacting on the turtle populations. Large trawlers are observed fishing off the Masirah coast and dead turtle strandings follow. Nylon nets are being set over the reef, catching all the fish they encounter and damage the coral when they are hauled-in. Little is done to counter these threats as the resources and legal framework do not allow it.

The Masirah Turtle Conservation Project, a consultancy for the protection of the sea turtles as well as all issues for sustainable development on the island, is a three year project carried out by TOTAL Foundation in cooperation with the Ministry of Regional Municipalities, Environment and Water Resources (emblem at left)
and the local authorities of Masirah.

The project is undertaking a beach/marine ecology study and will be setting up an environmental information centre.  The project will also propose a general management plan for the island so that development of the island is based on respect for the environment in its uniqueness.

One of the biggest hindrances to the conservation and sustainable development of Masirah is this lack of an institutional framework. Masirah's beaches and turtle habitats need to be declared, by royal decree, as protected areas (natural reserves) and thus development would be regulated and / or prohibited to ensure the safe survival of the species.

Marine turtle protection and monitoring efforts are currently one of the tasks of the six wildlife rangers on Masirah. They are duty-bound to record nesting activity of the four species of turtle, catch poachers that harvest the much sought after green turtles, and tag turtles with monel tags after they have nested.

The rangers are doing what they can with their limited resources and manpower; for example, they have a single vehicle with which they must patrol the coast at night to intercept poachers and monitor the nesting populations. They patrol the beaches unarmed and deprived of enforced legal-binding instruments against poachers. The Masirah Turtle Conservation Project provides them with a second car when they wish to use it and project members are not on the island.

Photo: Alan Rees

The rangers - and hence the work they are undertaking - would benefit greatly from constructive input of resources and training. Capacity building measures such as training workshops for tagging and data collection techniques would strengthen the scientific accuracy of results; and more equipment (e.g. uniforms, night-vision scopes and a new vehicle) would empower the rangers to be more effective in their protection duties.

An entirely new way of operation is also envisaged where there would be a division of work between the scientific monitoring and the direct conservation and protection actions. Teams of university students and volunteers could, in coordination with the rangers, undertake the turtle tagging and data collection thus freeing-up the rangers to patrol the beaches for poachers, the coasts for illegal fishing practices and the inland areas for illegal hunting.

The longstanding efforts by the Omanis to protect their natural heritage are commendable steps in the right direction.

With more resources and support, including a strong legal framework, for the rangers, they would be able to achieve much more effective conservation of Masirah's important marine and terrestrial biodiversity. 

Editor's note: Masirah's loggerhead turtle population has the subject of intensive monitoring by two separate projects in 2006.  As reported in an IOSEA feature story dated 1 July 2006, the movements of ten turtles that were fitted with satellite transmitters in May 2006 can be viewed by visiting the 'Satellite tracking' section of the seaturtle.org website.  

Click here to view the latest tracks.

UNEP © IOSEA Marine Turtle MoU Secretariat, c/o UNEP Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific,
United Nations Building, Rajdamnern Nok Avenue, Bangkok, 10200, Thailand
Tel: + (662) 288 1471 ; Fax: + (662) 288 3041 / 288 1029; E-mail: IOSEA Secretariat
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