Hard Shelled, Hard Future? The Turtle Sanctuary at Ras al-Jinz
20/04/21 by Jonathan Bentham
Nature strives for equilibrium. Every so often, it will go about this with a touch of irony.
The Middle East is so often depicted in terms of its crises. Just north of the Arabian Peninsula, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, a civil war rages on in Syria. Another war seethes at the peninsula’s South-Western corner, in Yemen, overlooking the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Both of these wars have displaced millions of people. It is with some irony then, that at the peninsula’s eastern-most point, Ras al-Jinz, overlooking the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, some of the most endangered creatures in the world choose to come to be at their most vulnerable, and to bring new life into the world. These creatures are green turtles.
Green turtles are the largest of hard-shelled sea turtles. Uniquely amongst sea turtles, green turtles are herbivores and only eat seagrass and algae. This diet gives their cartilage and fat a greenish colour, hence their name. However, their diet also serves to support the marine ecosystem. Through grazing on seagrass, green turtles help maintain seagrass beds, which fosters their productivity. These seagrass beds in turn are home to other sea life and fish. Seagrasses and algae consumed by green turtles are also returned to the seabed as nutrients once digested, helping nourish other animals and plants living within the ecosystem. Consequently, green turtles play a very important role in the oceans.
Green turtles can be found throughout the world’s oceans, particularly in the milder areas of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, as well as the Mediterranean Sea. They can live past 70 years and reproduce every 2-5 years once they have reached maturity. To do this, they migrate hundreds of miles from their feeding grounds to a nesting beach, such as Ras al-Jinz. Each turtle nest can contain over 100 eggs.
However, despite the vast dispersion of green turtles throughout the world, their long lifespan, and the fact that they lay many eggs, they remain an endangered species. Green turtles face many threats, not just in infancy and from nature, but from human behaviour and the changing world around them.
Aside from the traditional threats green turtles have faced, such as being hunted for their meat and eggs, they now face a number of other dangers. New threats from ocean pollution, fishing, climate change and degradation of nesting grounds further endanger these turtles. It is for this reason that locations such as Ras al-Jinz are so important.
About Ras al-Jinz
Ras al-Jinz is located on the eastern-most point of ash-Sharqiyah, the eastern-most region of Oman, which is the eastern-most country on the Arabian Peninsula. It is perhaps due its location that green turtles from the Indian Ocean migrate here to lay their eggs in the warm sands of Oman. Historically, Ras al-Jinz was a small fishing village. However, in 1996, a turtle reserve was established by Royal Decree to offer protection to the endangered green turtles that lay their eggs there. In 2008, this reserve was complemented by the Ras al-Jinz Turtle Centre, which transformed the site from a simple reserve into a fully-fledged eco-tourism site.
Since the expansion, the sanctuary at Ras al-Jinz has housed a museum that safeguards archaeological treasures and antiques up to 6000 years old from the wider Ras al-Hadd area. Among its collections one can see Oman’s oldest wooden boat, as well as the Arabian Peninsula’s oldest incense burner. In this sense, the sanctuary serves as a link between Ras al-Jinz’s historical human inhabitants, and its present-day turtle guests; it shows how people made their living hundreds of years ago, while also educating on the survival needs of its wildlife today. At its current size, the Ras al-Jinz reserve stretches over 120km², including a 45-kilometre coastline. This makes it the largest turtle reserve for turtles from the Indian Ocean.
Away from the museum, Ras al-Jinz allows visitors to camp out at specific locations in the reserve area, albeit at a minimum distance of 200m away from the beach so as not to interfere with the nesting activity of the turtles. The sanctuary conducts tours, both at night and at dawn, where visitors can witness the nesting process of the turtles under the supervision and direction of experienced guides who ensure the turtles are protected, while also educating on the unique difficulties that turtles experience.
Beyond the nesting grounds, Ras al-Jinz shelters incredibly important historical archaeological sites and excavations, such as the remnants of ancient fishing villages, and the tombstones of bygone inhabitants. While serving as a historical insight into the former lives of Ras al-Jinz occupants, these sites also demonstrate the connection that the Arabian Peninsula had with its neighbours; discoveries at Ras al-Jinz suggest that fishermen there had trade relations with inhabitants from Mesopotamia, Africa, India and China. The sanctuary serves therefore not just as a protector of Oman’s natural heritage, but as a protector of its cultural heritage as well.
In recent years, Ras al-Jinz has proven extremely popular as a tourist site. According to the Omani Ministry of Tourism, over 20 000 people visited the turtle reserve in 2019. This is both a blessing and a curse. Increased human activity is undoubtedly leading to a deterioration in security for green turtles, as well as other turtle species.
Looking to the future
By the world’s fast-paced standards, Oman today is still a relatively quiet, tranquil and untouched country. The peacefulness, location and temperature of its beaches make for ideal nesting grounds for green turtles.
However, the last few decades have seen rapid transformation in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf states that lie on the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula. With economic prosperity comes rapid development, and Oman has not been immune to experiencing changes. The Environment Society of Oman has claimed that over the last three generations, 70-80% of Oman’s turtle population has disappeared due to issues such as coastal development, plastic contamination of the oceans, and illegal fishing.
With the passing of the late Sultan Qaboos of Oman, the country is under new leadership. On the face of it, this should ensure the continuation of protection for Oman’s wildlife and natural heritage; Sultan Haitham, Sultan Qaboos’ successor, was previously Minister of Heritage and Culture before he ascended the Omani throne. Given his background, there is arguably no better successor to ensure the protection of Oman’s natural heritage.
However, he will have to navigate the challenges of a country becoming increasingly less reliant on its oil exports, and increasingly more anxious to find other methods of income. It is important that in this pivotal stage, Oman fully appreciates the natural beauty and heritage that it possesses and sees that this is an asset for the future, and not merely a trinket of the past that should be cast aside. As long as turtles come to nest at Ras al-Jinz, people will come to Oman to see them. This, as mentioned above, has the makings of a symbiotic relationship that can last well into the future, and ensure nesting protection for green turtles, while providing valuable income and tourist attractions for Oman.
The beauty of Ras al-Jinz, and its cultural and natural heritage are precious, but equally important is its natural symbolism. Nature, as stated at the outset of this article, strives for equilibrium. More often than not, human action has interfered with nature and knocked it off course. Despite the crises that persist at two corners of the Arabian Peninsula, green turtles continue to return to the other to nest and give life, at Ras al-Jinz.
It is at this most eastern point that one can witness beauty, peace, and the interdependence of human and nature. Perhaps that’s why the turtles choose to return year on year to Ras al-Jinz. Despite all the struggles and dangers green turtles go through in life, looking to the east, where the sun rises, they can bring new life into the world at a point that embodies cooperation, opportunity, and hope.
 United Nations – Refugees and Migrants. Accessed 11/04/2021. https://refugeesmigrants.un.org/more-3-million-displaced-yemen-–-joint-un-agency-report;
 More can be read on sea turtles at: World Wildlife Fund. Accessed 11/04/2021. https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/green-turtle.
 More can be read at: NOAA Fisheries. Accessed 11/04/2021. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/green-turtle.
 Ras al Jinz. Accessed 11/04/2021. https://www.rasaljinz-turtlereserve.com/en/
 Oman Observer. Accessed 11/04/2021. https://www.omanobserver.om/over-20000-visit-ras-al-jinz-turtle-reserve/.
 The National News, Oman. Accessed 11/04/2021. https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/mena/oman-s-turtles-face-a-battle-for-survival-1.723986.
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