War Disturbs Turtles in Unlikely Lebanese Refuge
MANSOURI, Lebanon — Ghost crabs scuttle along an empty beach in south Lebanon, but other predators have already eaten the last green turtle hatchlings of the season -- foxes driven from the hills by Israeli-Hezbollah fighting.
The foxes left their prints in the sand by the despoiled nest, strewn with the white shells the hatchlings had clambered from to start their doomed trek to the sea a few metres away.
"This is a massacre," lamented Mona Khalil, 57, who has run a turtle conservation project on the Mediterranean beach since 2000 with her 48-year-old associate, Habiba Syed.
Israel's 34-day war with Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas erupted on July 12 in the middle of the four-month turtle breeding season, eventually forcing the two women to flee.
"This is a green turtle nest and it came during our absence, so the location of the eggs was not really clear," Khalil said.
Normally, she and Syed insert a wire mesh over the nests that female turtles dig in the sand. The mesh protects the eggs from dogs or foxes, but allows hatchlings to crawl through.
The 1.4 km (one mile) long beach near the Shi'ite village of Mansouri might seem an unlikely refuge for endangered sea turtles, but Khalil and Syed have monitored 70 loggerhead turtle nests this season and nine nests of the rarer green turtles.
"In spite of the war around 5,000 (hatchlings) went out successfully," Khalil said, but added that only five of these might survive to maturity and return to the beach to breed.
During the conflict, survival became the goal not just for the turtles but for those trying to conserve them, as Israeli bombs crashed down across the south and Hezbollah fired rockets across the border.
"We stayed for 16 days, we didn't want to leave," said Khalil. "But when the Israelis bombarded the neighbour's house and there was heavy fighting, we realised we had to go."
The women abandoned their goats, two dogs and a cat, taking only an African grey parrot with them to Beirut. When they returned after the Aug. 14 truce, the goats had gone, but the dogs and cat had survived on the food and water they had left.
Khalil's "Orange House", set in banana and citrus groves about 200 metres from the beach, did not escape unscathed.
Israeli rockets damaged two of four rooms the women rent to guests for simple bed and breakfast accommodation.
Khalil said they had seen Hezbollah fighters on the beach in the first two days of the war, but the guerrillas had left when asked. However, they fired rockets at Israel from a nearby property, which led to the bombing of the neighbour's house.
The nesting turtles were oblivious to the strife.
"They will come anyway. When they have to lay eggs, they have to lay eggs. There is no stopping them," Syed grinned.
The conservation project won backing from the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles, after Khalil and Syed told the group that green turtles were nesting at Mansouri.
Loggerhead turtles, with their rusty coloured shells and large heads, and green turtles are threatened by the destruction of breeding grounds and the fishing fleets that catch or drown them by mistake.
The beach near Mansouri is a relative haven of tranquillity in a troubled region, where 15,000 Lebanese army troops backed by an expanded United Nations peacekeeping force, or UNIFIL, have deployed since the war.
To the south rise the white cliffs of Naqoura, where UNIFIL troops have their main base on the Israeli border. The port city of Tyre juts into the sea 10 km (six miles) to the north, and foreign warships lurk off the coast to ensure Hezbollah gets no weapons by sea.
The ships that brought new UNIFIL contingents and those patrolling offshore have also brought more rubbish that washes up on the beach, especially plastic bottles of Italian and Spanish mineral water, which Khalil and Syed collect every day.
"We get 30 to 40 bottles a day -- water, shampoo, conditioner, orange juice," said Syed. The new detritus adds to the more familiar trash with Lebanese or Israeli brand names.
UNIFIL's political adviser Milos Strugar told Reuters he would investigate the complaint to ensure that the force's strict rules on waste disposal were being observed.
Khalil and Syed have found UNIFIL cooperative in the past, such as when they persuaded the commander of the Fijian contingent to prevent his men from buying turtles from Lebanese fishermen to supplement their diet.
"Fortunately people here don't eat the eggs or flesh because it's forbidden by Islam," Khalil said.
Lebanese law bans fishermen from catching turtles, but enforcing the edict is not easy.
Other forbidden, but still common, practices include fishing with poison and dynamite -- blasts from homemade explosives shatter the calm of the shore almost daily.
Khalil and Syed admit it is hard to instil environmental awareness in the local community, but hope the government will one day declare the beach a nature reserve to save it from the hotels and beach clubs that clog much of Lebanon's seaside.
What keeps them going in such tough surroundings?
"The love for animals and life, continuity," Khalil replied.