x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Race to save dying sea turtle

Giant reptile spotted close to death on Abu Dhabi beach by garage worker who called for expert help.

The sick sea turtle, which has been named Zaafarana, is being treated in Dubai.
The sick sea turtle, which has been named Zaafarana, is being treated in Dubai.

EnDUBAI // Weak and dehydrated, the sea turtle used her last few ounces of energy to drag herself onto the shore where she lay helpless and close to death. Her situation looked bleak. But then help arrived in the unlikely shape of a garage worker. The eagle-eyed staff member at an Adnoc petrol station near al Dhabiya island, just west of Abu Dhabi and close to the mainland coast, spotted the turtle on the beach at around 8am on Thursday and called the Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG) for help.

It took five men from the group to carry the giant green sea turtle, which weighs over 200kg - about the same as an adult gorilla - to a 4x4. She was then driven down Sheikh Zayed Road to Dubai and specialist help at the turtle rehabilitation unit at the Burj al Arab. "She is dehydrated and appears to be very ill," said Maj Ali al Suweidi, the president of EMEG. Staff have named her Zaafarana, like the spice saffron, because "she is a fighter and special like saffron", said Maj al Suweidi.

The green sea turtle is one of the world's largest hard-shell turtles. And Zaafarana is quite a specimen, measuring 1.34m tall and 92cm wide. Her huge head is 23cm high and 14cm wide. Zaafarana is now being monitored in an aquarium. The cause of her illness is still unknown but there are several barnacles growing on her surface, one near her mouth, weighing her down and disrupting her feeding. They will be removed by the specialists at the centre.

"We just hope she didn't swallow any plastic," said Maj al Suweidi, who has saved and dealt with thousands of turtles in a career spanning over 30 years. "Her stomach will be flushed out, and if that doesn't work, they will have to operate and take it out," he said. The turtles often mistake plastic bags for algae and many die after swallowing them. "The biggest threat to animals is man, and then the plastic bags," said Maj al Suweidi.

At the rehabilitation centre, she will be put in fresh water for two days, then released to the open sea if she is well. Last year, EMEG, a non-profit organisation established in 1996 under the patronage of Sheikha Manal bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, rescued 25 turtles around the country. The green sea turtle, along with the hawksbill turtle and the loggerhead turtles, are common in the area, but given their breeding habits and low survival rate, are considered endangered.

"Out of a thousand baby turtles, only one survives into adulthood," said Maj al Suweidi. As well as saving turtles, EMEG monitors the population and protects the eggs. Based on data collected last year, 636 eggs were laid at the Ghantoot reserve in Abu Dhabi, but only 341 survived and made it to the sea. "Only recently we started taking their DNA and tagging them to collect data on them," said Maj al Suweidi.

So far, Abu Dhabi has recorded 200 turtles, Sharjah 100 and Dubai 31. @Email:rghazal@thenational.ae