Saving endangered turtles in Lebanon’s former war zone

4 years ago, Written by , Posted in Articles, Civil Society, Media re-posts

Chris Giles, CNN, August 18, 2017

Sur, Lebanon (CNN)In southern Lebanon, near the border with Israel, lies a distinctive orange house.

Located just past a Lebanese Armed Forces military checkpoint in the Mediterranean city of Tyre, it is surrounded by luscious banana groves, sleeping goats and chirping birds. This beautiful oasis is home to 68-year-old Mona Khalil, a self-proclaimed “protector of the sea turtles.”
In 2000, Khalil moved back from the Netherlands — where she’d sought refuge for 17 years during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) — to a piece of land she’d inherited from her grandmother. On her return, she discovered that the endangered green turtle and the loggerhead, which is classified as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, can both be found nesting on the nearby secluded el Mansouri beach.

Mona Khalil, a Lebanese ecologist, activist looks at a turtle at a coast in the southern Lebanese port city of Tyre in 2002.

Turtle warrior

Over three years, Khalil was trained by scientists from the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles (MEDASSET), who visited the beach in Lebanon.
Initially, Khalil’s efforts were resented by some locals who she says were involved in dynamite fishing — the practice of using explosives to kill schools of fish.
According to Michel Bariche, professor of marine biology at the American University of Beirut and author of a book on marine resources in the southern and eastern Mediterranean, “blast fishing” has been used in Lebanon since at least the 1930s. Although now illegal, it still occurs in some remote regions, he adds in an email.

Newborn marine turtles head towards the sea at Mansuri beach, about 95 km south of Beirut.

Mona Khalil, a conservation specialist who is part of the Orange House conservation project, carries a baby sea turtle before releasing it to the sea in El-Mansouri near Tyre, south Lebanon August 28, 2014.

Tumultuous times

Although most visitors these days are treated to a tranquil beach vacation, Khalil has experienced some sticky moments during her time in the Orange House.
During the violent 2006 conflict between Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Israel, Khalil stayed put. “I refused to go. It was the hatching season,” Khalil says. “One of the rockets came into the house and blew up. “Me and my animals were all traumatized and I lost a bit of my hearing. But otherwise I’m still alive and kicking.” The fighting was much more aggressive than Khalil had expected, but she would still monitor the beach and help the turtles hatch when she could.
“I managed to protect most of them,” Khalil says.

Mona Khalil, a conservation specialist who is part of the Orange House Project, removes turtle eggs to move them to a safer place in order to protect them from predators in El-Mansouri near Tyre, south Lebanon.

Traveling to the region

Since 2000, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has been monitoring the so-called “blue line” that was created to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli troops stationed in south Lebanon since the dark days of the civil war. As such, foreign travelers to The Orange House Project must obtain special permission to enter the region from the Lebanese army.

Mona al-Khalil (R) and Habiba (second name not available) collect turtle eggs and baby marine turtles 26 August 2004 at Mansuri beach, about 95 kms south of Beirut.