The race is on: on June 6, Emirates Wildlife Society released 22 hawksbill turtles into the wild as part of a five-week race to see which can travel the furthest. The turtles were located from the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Iran and by Emirates Wildlife Society and WWF, which equipped them with high-tech tracking systems so scientists can monitor their journeys, their breeding grounds and their resting places. We caught up with programme director Lisa Perry to find out about the environmental benefits of the project, as well as how you can track the turtles at home to see how they’re getting on.
What exactly is the Great Turtle Race?
The Marine Turtle Conservation Project was launched last year – it’s a three-year project focused around the hawksbill turtle, which is critically endangered. The project spans four countries – Oman, Iran, Qatar and the UAE – where we’ve located 24 turtles and tagged 22. At this point it’s all about science and research, identifying where they are going. We can track the migration to their feeding grounds and identify key areas in the region that are most in need of conservation. This year we want to spread more awareness of the project, not just within the scientific community. We’ve designed the Great Turtle Race as a fun way to tell people about what we’re doing – you don’t have to be a scientist to understand it. These transmitters tell us which turtle has travelled the furthest, and at the end of the five weeks we’ll see who’s won. We have turtle sponsors, and people vote for their favourite turtle on the website.
What can the turtles tell us about our environment?
There has been research done, but it’s very sporadic. We’re using the turtles to tell us which areas of the sea are being used, which is vital for the survival of the species. We can tell a lot about the health of these areas – whether there is food there and whether they are healthy foraging grounds.
So you’re pioneering ecological discoveries in the area?
It’s the first time such a large-scale project has taken place with more than one country involved – that’s why it is so important to have the government, NGOs and our sponsors on board. Without them we wouldn’t be able to do this.
Will you be able to identify problem areas in the sea?
We’ll see that turtles are not going to certain areas, prompting researchers to investigate those areas. Those spots will be interesting to watch.
It’s an expensive project, involving high-tech equipment and satellites. Tell us more about how it works.
The satellites feature a switch: when the turtle is underwater the battery automatically shuts off, then when it comes out of the water the switch reactivated and sends a signal to the satellite. It’s only when the turtle surfaces that the signal is switched back on. So if you have a particularly active turtle, which comes to the surface much quicker, we pay for it every time it transmits those signals. The cost of each turtle is approximately Dhs30,000, including the tracking, the device and the field work and time, but the research is priceless. The information is incredibly valuable – it will pay for itself, I’m sure. Most of the turtles are sponsored and have names – people can visit the website to see how the turtles are doing.
Which turtle do you think will win?
I really don’t know. It’s fair game right now, but the mileage is calculated at the end of each week so it will become more obvious who’s at an advantage as the weeks go on.
For more on the Great Turtle Race, and to track the progress of the participants, see www.gulfturtles.com
There are several ways you can play a part in helping the project. Businesses can help out by sponsoring a turtle (which also involves naming it), and costs Dhs30,000 a year. If you want to help on a smaller scale, you can buy a turtle adoption pack, on sale at outlets around town. You’ll get a cuddly toy turtle with a transmitter on top, and inside the transmitter are loads of fun facts about turtles and the Gulf Turtle project.
To sponsor a turtle or for more info on outlets selling adoption packs, see www.gulfturtles.com