x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Satellite technology to track endangered turtles

Over the next three years, researchers intend to tag as many as 100 Hawksbill turtles with transmitters in an effort to find out more about where they spend their lives.

DUBAI // Hawksbill turtles laying their eggs on the beaches of five countries in the region - the UAE, Iran, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia - could return to the sea with a little extra baggage. Over the next three years, researchers intend to tag as many as 100 of the endangered creatures with satellite transmitters in an effort to find out more about where they spend their lives.

The aim, said Lisa Perry, programme director for the Emirates Wildlife Society, in co-operation with the World Wide Fund for Nature, will be to discover which areas are key to sustaining the turtle population. For turtle populations to remain healthy, the animals' foraging and mating grounds need to be protected, as well as nesting beaches. These sites can be thousands of kilometres from each other.

"We need to connect these dots," Ms Perry said ahead of yesterday's World Turtle Day. Scientists know where the turtles lay their eggs but have little idea where they feed. Previous studies have found that while some animals stay in the region after laying their eggs, others travel thousands of kilometres to South East Asia. "After a female has nested, she will begin her migration to the foraging grounds," Ms Perry said.

The satellite transmitters, which send data for up to 400 days, may reveal important information about the turtles' journey. The scientists have already tagged 20 turtles on beaches in the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Iran. In June, they will head to Saudi Arabia, where another five turtles will be tagged. A project of this scope, involving collaboration between governmental and non-governmental organisations across all the five countries, is a first for the region, Ms Perry said.

"All the data and information received will be shared," she said. Together with the green turtle, the hawksbill is the most widespread marine turtle species in the region. It is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. "At the moment we have to believe the status is the same locally," Ms Perry said. As well as remote beaches, where turtle eggs can develop without the risk of being crushed by four-wheel drives and hatchlings can reach the shore without being misled by strong artificial lights, hawksbill turtles also need healthy coral reefs.

Reefs provide crevices where the animals can hide as well as food in the form of sponges and jellyfish. While little is known about the migration routes of the turtles, their role in maintaining healthy ecosystems is undisputed. Dr Nicolas Pilcher, a research partner in the project, has warned that "fisheries can collapse by taking away turtles". The researchers hope they will be able to fit transmitters on 100 turtles, but Ms Perry said the final number would depend on how many sponsors they find.

"We are still fund-raising for it," she said. Companies or individuals can adopt a turtle by footing the Dh30,000 (US$8,200) bill for tagging one animal. @Email:vtodorova@thenational.ae