“Every summer, hundreds of tourists from various countries flock to Dalyan to see the nests of the loggerhead sea turtles, otherwise known as Caretta caretta. While this generates an impressive amount of income for local tourism, it also endangers the environment and the wellbeing of the sea turtles, as well as the hatchlings coming out of their nests,” says Ali Fuat Canbolat, PhD, the leading expert in Turkey in the field of the protection of sea turtles for more than two decades now.
Dalyan is a town on the southwest coast of Turkey, famous for the façades of the two-millennia-old Lycian tombs on its cliffs and the Dalyan Beach, a prominent nesting site for sea turtles.
Canbolat is an academic in the Biology Department of Ankara’s Hacettepe University and the Chair of the Board of the Ecological Research Society, or EKAD, a Non-Governmental Organisation devoted to the protection of sea turtles and the conservation of their nesting sites. Canbolat and his team of biology students and EKAD volunteers continue to travel every summer to Dalyan, along with another spawning area, Antalya’s Belek coast since the late 1980s.
‘Symbiotic relationship between tourism and sea turtles’
“The wooden stakes over the beach which mark the nesting sites have become a symbol for the symbiotic relationship between tourism and sea turtles in Dalyan,” remarks Canbolat. “We need to find ways to direct some of the tourism income into efforts to protect sea turtles.”
There are eight species of sea turtles, five of which live in the Mediterranean. The Caretta caretta and Chelonia mydas choose Turkey’s Mediterranean shores to nest. The only time the sea turtles come up on the shore is when they lay their eggs into holes they dig. After a two-month period of incubation, the hatchlings leave their nests and head home to the sea. “Unfortunately the hatchlings leave their nests around the end of summer, during the peak season of tourism,” says Canbolat. To his great surprise, there has been a substantial increase in the number of nests alongside the growth of tourism, even though Caretta caretta is known to prefer quiet beaches on which to lay their eggs.
Dalyan’s role as the home for advocates for the protection of sea turtles goes back to 1986 when a luxury hotel was set to be built near İztuzu Beach, the breeding ground for Caretta caretta turtles. When the famed environmental campaigner and writer David Bellamy OBE led an international campaign for conservation, the development project stopped and led the way for conservation efforts the following years. Since then protection of loggerhead sea turtles has stayed an integral part of Turkey’s environmental agenda.
“International collaboration has been the norm for two decades now,” says Canbolat. Both national and international organisations and groups continue to monitor and protect the nesting grounds of the sea turtles. The Dalyan Beach boasts around 250. Caretta caretta nests every year.
Young steps for the Mediterranean
Canbolat first began his research in the area as part of his Master’s thesis in 1988 and continued later for his PhD thesis in the early 1990s. Later he began leading the Sea Turtles Research Team, or STRT, an organisation established in 1999 for carrying out conservation research on sea turtles in Dalyan, as well as the Belek and Patara coasts.
Canbolat and his team are pleased with “how the beach usage regulation continues to be kept despite increasing demands from the tourism sector.” Entrance to the beach is prohibited during the night. While humans seem to pose a minimum threat to sea turtles, fox predation continues to be a major problem both for the eggs and the hatchlings.
Canbolat’s team consists of regulars as well as young enthusiasts. The conservation efforts have never been limited to scientific research, and educational activities on project sites during the tourism season are equally important. The volunteers provide information about the sea turtles and their conservation to tourists.
The limited funds have become a major problem for the conservation efforts. Occasional joint projects have worked as a lifeline for the volunteer groups. One major project, led by the British Council, in early 2000s, brought together young volunteers from Turkey, Greece and the UK to share expertise, approaches and cultural differences towards conservation. “The Young Steps for the Mediterranean project has managed to take conservation efforts for the sea turtles to a broader and younger audience, increasing the number of young volunteers both in Turkey and Greece,” says Doğan Sözbilen, the Turkey Coordinator of the project.
A safe zone for nesting
Turkey has always played an integral role in the conservation of sea turtles in the Mediterranean. Thanks to an abundant number of projects and campaigns since the 1980s, various laws and legislation such as the 3621st Coastal Law and the 2863rd Law of Protection of Natural and Cultural Beauties have been implemented to protect the sea turtles. Turkey has led through example in the region and has become a member of several international accords, including the international treaty protecting endangered species.
With its unique feature of providing a nesting habitat for both freshwater and marine turtles, Dalyan has become a symbol of conservation efforts and the Caretta caretta’s nesting grounds. Nearly one fourth of the baby sea turtles that reached the sea last year in Turkey - 13,961 out of around 50,000 - were from the Dalyan region.
Five years ago, a little more than 200 loggerhead sea turtles built nests in Dalyan. This number has increased every year thanks to the efforts of conservationists. Last year (2010) was a boom year with 354 nests being built, showing an increase of around 20 percent on the previous year when the number was 291. It seems the endangered loggerhead turtles have found a safe nesting zone in Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, and it can only be hoped that the increases recorded in recent years will continue into the future.