Trip Start Feb 08, 2009
10Trip End Feb 26, 2009
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It's Saturday night and I'm just back from 3 days at the Ras al Hadd Nature Reserve. The reserve includes about 50 km of coastline along the eastern most portion of Oman, about 170 km south of the capital, Muscat. The reserve is the nesting grounds to upwards of 20,000 green turtles. We had come to provide input on the management of the reserve to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs.
We based our visit at the Raz al Jinz Scientific and Visitor Center. This is, a new facility that includes a small hotel, restaurant, gift shop and in the near future a museum. Visitors wishing to view nesting turtles in the reserve must now be guided to the beaches through this center. Although a private company runs the center, the staff work in concert with the reserve rangers to manage visitors and protect the turtles. The reserve contains stunning beaches and cliff faces. Some of the beaches are very wide. The sand is quite fine, unlike what we found in the Damaniyat Islands. The sand here comes from the sandstone cliffs as opposed from crushed coral.
Until recently, there was very little control of visitors who came to see the turtles nesting on the reserve's beaches. Many hundreds of people often crowded around the turtles with flashlights when they were attempting to lay eggs in the night. People also were camping on the nesting beaches. These activities greatly disturbed the turtles to the point where successful nesting was being compromised. We went out on a 9 pm and 4 am guided turtle watch to get a sense of how people are being managed and what kind of education messages they are given. We only saw one turtle on each of the two tours. There were about 120 people for the early evening visit. We were placed into groups of about 25 people with a couple of guides/rangers for each group. The guide spoke English and did a good job of telling about the behavior and natural history of the green turtles. No flashlights or cameras were allowed during that night visit. The turtle we observed did not successfully lay eggs, but we did get to see her walking back to the water after her nesting attempt. Not all turtles who come ashore actually end up laying eggs and eventually come back again for another try.
The early morning group was not as well organized. We were one large group (46) with a guide who did not speak English. One of the visitors ended up translating. While the size of the group was too large and the education not as good, being out in the morning allowed us to photograph the turtle as she walked back to the water. This turtle also did not successfully nest.
The rest of our time in the reserve was spent visiting other places that were more remote. Many local fisherman continue to have access to the beaches in the reserve to get to their boats and nets which they leave on the beaches. There have been conflicts in the past with turtles attempting to nest among the boats and nets. Inside the reserve, there is also a lot of development underway. We observed roads, building, and even a new international airport (capable we were told of handling 747 aircraft) under construction. The town of Ras al Hadd is also partially in the reserve; lights from buildings and streets are a big problem for the turtles, as they end up disorienting both the adults and hatchlings. These strong lights actually attract the turtles and they end up not being able to get back to the ocean. Lighting issues are also expected to be a major problem with all the future development in the reserve. By the way, a new 4 land highway was just completed from Muscat to Sur, a town located about 30 minutes from the reserve that cuts about 120 km (or 1 hour driving time) off the trip. In addition to all the new development planned, there are expectations that visitation to the reserve will also increase because of the improved ability to travel by car from the capital. More visitors will put additional strains on the capacity of the reserve staff to protect the turtles.
We had meetings with the manager of the concession operating the science and visitor center and also with some of the rangers. The rangers (all men) are from the local villages and greeted us in their office with traditional coffee and dates. We and they sat on the floor of their offices (on rugs and large pillows) while we discussed their jobs, challenges, and management issues. The conversation was in Arabic with the translation done by one of the Omani biologists in our party from the Environment Society of Oman (ESO). The rangers mostly patrol the beaches, keeping records of the number of turtle tracks they encounter and also keeping people off the closed beaches. They were obviously very committed to their work and doing their very best to protect the turtles.
During the next ande last four days in Muscat, we will be working on our report and having some follow-up meetings with staff from the Ministry of Environment, ESO, Omran (the quasi government tourist development agency), and others.