Scores of endangered turtles killed in Egypt

Published online 22 November 2012

Decapitated and battered turtles washed up on the shores of a lake in northern Egypt has environmental groups and governmental teams looking for answers.

Mohammed Yahia

Dozens of dead turtles have washed up on the shore of Lake Bardawil.
Dozens of dead turtles have washed up on the shore of Lake Bardawil.
© Noor Noor/NCE

Over 80 sea turtles, mostly endangered green sea turtles or loggerheads, washed up on the shore of Lake Bardawil in October. Some of the turtles were found decapitated or had their heads crushed by blunt objects. Some turtles were found sick with suspected poisoning.

"We realized that the 84 dead turtles were counted in a small area, not even in the entire lake. The number of dead turtles might be well higher than that," says Noor Noor, executive director of Nature Conservation Egypt, an environmental non-government organization, and one of several independent groups that has visited the lake to find out more about the reported deaths.

"Some of the fishermen claimed that other fishermen injected fish eaten by turtle with poison to target the loggerheads. We are still waiting for results," says Noor.

The team studied the area where the turtles were found and met with the local fishermen and the government officials responsible for maintaining the area, part of which belongs to a natural protectorate in north Sinai.

Two sick turtles were found and sent to two laboratories, but died before tests could be conducted. The researchers need to capture a live turtle to determine if it was indeed poisoned. "We are trying to find another live sample now to test thoroughly and determine if there are traces of poison in it," says Magdy Elwani, an oceanographer at Suez Canal University who has visited the lake.

Changing biodiversity

Many of the dead turtles have had their heads and shells crashed with blunt objects.
Many of the dead turtles have had their heads and shells crashed with blunt objects.
© Noor Noor/NCE

The loggerhead sea turtles, classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), have rarely been sighted in the lake. However, recent changes in the biodiversity of the saline lake have led to growth in their numbers.

"Some of the locals have started throwing used tyres in the lake. This has created an artificial reef which increased the populations of shrimps and crabs, the favourite foods of the loggerhead marine turtles," says Elwani.

The turtles are known to feed on small fish as well, bringing them into competition with local fishermen. And they can rip them to shreds if they become entangled. Ten metres of the nets used by local fisherman can cost up to 1,000 EGP (~US$165). "We need to keep in mind that the fishermen are not evil people, they are underprivileged and going through economic hardships and the turtles have very little value to them," stresses Noor.

"Only a minority of them admitted to actually killing turtles. To them, these are considered intruders."

"[The fishermen] are unaware of endangered species and the laws governing them," says Elwani.

He contends the government has not been doing enough to protect the turtles. "We have laws that prevent the killing of any endangered species but they are not being enforced, especially so after the revolution.

"We do not blame the fishermen, but we would like to take initiatives to raise their awareness. Everything is very costly, however, and we have no budget to work with," he says.

Egypt's Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs sent a team to determine the cause of death, but are yet to report their findings.