x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A natural treasure in the UAE

The timely arrival of a baby turtle at Ghantoot nature reserve underlines Dubai's place in the Gulf's ecosystem as a hub of innovation whose strength lies in its diversity.

Volunteers with the Emirates Marine Environmental Group clean up the mangrove area at the Ghantoot reserve. Amy Leang / The National
Volunteers with the Emirates Marine Environmental Group clean up the mangrove area at the Ghantoot reserve. Amy Leang / The National

It is doubtful that turtles have any concept of luck but, if they did, the six-month-old juvenile washed ashore last week on a normally deserted Dubai beach would be justified in considering herself one fortunate little hawksbill.

Weakened by the cold water, weighed down by the barnacles encrusting her shell and exhausted by the struggle to keep her tiny head above water, she lay wearily on the sand, encumbered by seaweed and algae and vulnerable to any passing predator.

Her story might have ended there. However, not only had fate washed her ashore at the Emirates Marine Environmental Group's Ghantoot reserve, it had also done so during last Friday's National Environment Day, when the place was crawling with approximately 400 human volunteers, busy manicuring the mangroves and combing the beach for flotsam and jetsam washed up by the waves.

Myrtle the turtle - and it is, you understand, an unwritten media law that such creatures must be named - was also lucky not to have been crushed to death in the rush to rescue her.

Economics is another subject at which hawksbill turtles are unlikely to excel, but the global financial storm that has buffeted the ambitions of developers such as Dubai's Nakheel turns out to have been good news for the species Eretmochelys imbricata - and for the protected enclave upon which its members are becoming increasingly dependent.

The EMEG reserve, opened in 2003 and tucked away at the end of a dirt track that runs down to the sea from the Sheikh Zayed Road, is an increasingly popular destination for school trips - last year 8,000 visitors passed through its unmarked gates. Nevertheless, it remains one of the UAE's best-kept secrets. Once upon a time a public beach, it can still be visited, and even camped upon, but only by small numbers who have registered in advance with EMEG.

The reserve is approximately two square kilometres of desert scrub fronted by a sand-spit beach, behind which fish thrive and breed in a naturally formed lagoon that broadens out into a mangrove wetland - a man-made adjunct fashioned from the hollows of a quarry once worked to supply the sands for many of Dubai's hotel beaches. Here, nursery-raised mangrove plants thrive, virtually tame hammour surface to be fed and, over the course of a year, more than 130 species of resident or migratory birds can be seen from its hide.

The reserve's beach has also become the last mainland nesting site in Dubai for the threatened hawksbill turtle, but it is a fragile and quite possibly temporary sanctuary: the site is slap-bang in the middle of Nakheel's massive, though stalled, Waterfront development, "An entirely new city, twice the size of Hong Kong island", conceived in pre-crash days as a home for up to 1.5 million people.

Close to the north end of the beach can be seen the western crescent of the massive Palm Jebel Ali, where work has been on hold since 2009. Only last week Nakheel, as part of its restructuring efforts, announced it was offering the thousands of investors who had made down payments for planned properties on the Palm and elsewhere on the Waterfront development the choice of alternative properties elsewhere - or, if they were prepared to wait for five years, their money back.

For now, at least, the dredgers and bulldozers have ground to a halt.

"It's good news for the environment," says Keith Wilson, EMEG's marine programme director. "We've been able to demonstrate that, in the context of the whole Gulf, this is actually a very important nesting beach for the hawksbill which is a critically endangered animal."

As for the site's feathered inhabitants, "it's a major resource for the people of Dubai; this is one of the few places they can go to enjoy all the desert birds", including the black-crowned finch lark, the chestnut-bellied sandgrouse, the cream-coloured courser, as well as lots of migrating and wintering birds.

Wilson is more familiar than most with Nakheel's plans. The British marine ecology specialist came to Dubai in May 2008 as senior environmental manager for the company's Waterfront project but transferred to EMEG after the financial storm struck. The reserve lies in Waterfront's phase seven, for which the planning team had only just been appointed when Nakheel ran into difficulties in September 2008, "so there were no firm decisions made regarding the fate of that area", he says. "Hopefully the voice of reason would have persuaded Nakheel to let the reserve stay there, but no firm decisions were ever made."

EMEG's multinational team, led by its founder, Major Ali al Suweidi, a former officer in the UAE navy, is making the most of the breathing space created by the slump to secure the reserve's future.

"Every month we send a report to Nakheel and we show them how the reserve is really important for the wildlife in the UAE and for education," says Laurence Vanneyre, the group's French project manager.

"It is one of the only remaining places like this and we see more and more hawksbill turtles every year. Last year we had 30 nests, and the year before it was 19. It is not because there are more turtles, it is just because with all the development in Dubai they have no other space any more so they all come here."

Perhaps Nakheel's new management team will appreciate the irony that the only residents to have moved in on the Palm Jebel Ali so far are the two female turtles who laid their eggs last year on one of the development's deserted artificial beaches. Because turtles tend to return to the beach where they were hatched when it's their turn to breed, EMEG relocated the eggs to the reserve - a tricky business which entailed transferring the sand in which they were buried and maintaining the eggs' compass alignment.

Turtles come ashore at Ghantoot to lay their eggs from the beginning of March. Between then and when the hatchlings start to emerge in July and August, their chief enemy ceases to be man and becomes the sand fox.

"There are a lot of them," says Vanneyre. "They come at night and they dig up the nests and eat the eggs." During the season EMEG volunteers mount a 24-hour guard, and this year will try protecting each nest with fencing.

For Major Ali, who founded EMEG in 1996, the group's multicultural effort to protect Dubai's marine environment is symbolic of the UAE's wider relationship with the outside world.

"Here, everybody is local, nobody is foreign," he says, gazing around contentedly at the western families, the abaya and khandoura-clad Emiratis and the gaggles of neatly uniformed South Asian schoolchildren who have all come together to do their bit.

"Our country is young and we are planning to be the best country in the world, but if nobody helps us and nobody is beside us, I don't think we are going to be."

Major Ali's father sailed the trade routes to India and Africa as the skipper of a dhow and his grandfather dived for pearls and "became rich from it; he found the biggest pearls in the world". In the modern UAE, however, the knowledge and assistance of foreigners "is the treasure we look for today".

Myrtle, now recovering at the Burj Al Arab turtle rehabilitation centre, is living proof of the wisdom of that philosophy.