Human Interest

The Mediterranean’s loggerhead turtles survive against the odds

By Natalia Román

Tunisia, Aug 25 (efe-epa).- The islands of Kuriat off the Tunisian coast is a much coveted tourist destination but its white sandy beaches and turquoise waters attract another visitor every year, too, one whose numbers are growing despite constant threats to their survival in the wild.

The idyllic isle is widely regarded as one of the few stable nesting grounds for loggerhead turtles in North Africa.

The loggerhead turtle has a wide distribution across the planet but is officially listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union on the Conservation of Nature.

There is a secret behind the growing number of turtles turning up to the Kuriat islands, however.

Officials have been able to limit human presence on the two islands that make up the resort. The larger island is militarized and access is restricted while on the smaller island tourists are only permitted to enjoy day trips during the summer season.

So far this year 38 nests have been identified, nine of which have hatched and conservationists have already identified 800 hatchlings, according to Sahbi Dorai, a marine biologist from the Notre Grand Bleu (“Our Big Blue,” in English).

As well handling natural predators, loggerhead turtles are falling victim to man-made problems in the oceans. Pollution poses a major threat to their survival, with numerous individuals dying after ingesting plastic bags mistaken for jellyfish.

Some 5,000 loggerheads die every year as a byproduct of industrial fishing and others have lost their nesting grounds to tourism infrastructure.

Loggerheads are not spared the impact of global warming either, although the species has managed to adapt by searching for new nesting grounds in places like Spain and Algeria.

This is a strange phenomenon for a philopatric species like the loggerhead as female members of the species will travel thousands of kilometers to lay their eggs on the same beach they were born.

But research suggests that global warming could also play a role in influencing the sex of the hatchlings with temperatures above 29C (84.2F) showing a tendence to produce more females, a trend that could be set to provoke an imbalance in the species and even lead to its extinction.

The influx of tourists during the summer season is another challenge for conservationists, as noise and artificial light acts as a deterrent for the returning females, Dorai says, stressing the importance of educating the visitors about conservation efforts on the island.

“When we found a nest in the middle of a beach bar, the owners complained that it would put off customers but now it has become part of the attraction, with tourists coming to the establishment to try to witness the hatching,” Dorai adds.

Since the May to October nesting season began an army of volunteer rangers have dedicated themselves to locating and marking new nests, counting hatchlings that survived and those that died and educating visitors.

It is a spectacle that begins at sundown, when the volunteers head to the clutches, which are cordoned off with bamboo, to dig the sand and help the newly-hatched turtle on their new journey.

Cheered on by those present, the tiny turtles, often less than five centimeters in length, head off towards the sea and are swept out by the waves. They will swim for the next 24 hours before taking refuge in deeper waters.

Only one in every 1,000 hatchlings will make it to adulthood, but those that do could live up to 100 years old.

“It’s a delicate challenge, the turtles and the fishermen both compete for the same catch and, often, these animals get trapped in nets as collateral victims. We have to try to modify the nets or use green lights to scare them away, but it is a big investment for a sector with limited resources,” says Manel Ben Ismail, director of Notre grand bleu.

The organization’s workshops to raise awareness among fishermen, locals and authorities have made progress.

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