Saturday 10 of December, 2022
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The Group Saving Egypt's Endangered Turtles

I-Dive Tribe has already built an underwater museum to protect Egypt's coral reefs, and now they're saving our turtles too.

Staff Writer

It's easy to forget about the countless underwater creatures that live in parallel, yet completely secluded from our existence. Egypt’s seas are home to some of the world’s most endangered species, who’ve found their permanent abode within its salty waters , the likes of the hawksbill turtle, the green turtle and the loggerhead.

However, over the years, our underwater neighbours haven’t been made to feel at home by their on-land counterparts, with hunters, fishermen, restaurant owners and vendors displacing, killing, or mistreating them for their own personal gains. What many of us fail to realise is the effect the displacement of these turtles has on on our everyday lives.

I-Dive tribe is a team of local divers of different vocations, who pool their specializations in numerous fields to save Egypt’s seas with all its residents. Founder, Abdel-Rahman Mekawy and the rest of his team, co-founder Farah Akram, and members, Gamal Diab, Ahmed Hayman and Hamed Mostafa are only five of the 300 strong samaritans working towards keeping our oceans in good condition under the I-Dive Tribe umbrella.

"In Egypt, we don’t have a specialist for marine mammals so basically our team is made up of people with different specialisations but one common goal. One of us is a marine biologist, the other is a surgeon, and another one is a dentist and so on,” explains Mekawy. “We all bring our different specialities together to make it work to save the animal. Sometimes we’ll even have an architect, for example, if the animal needs a prosthetic limb.”  

Sea turtles lay on average 150 eggs, with as little as the average of one surviving and making it into adulthood, according to Mekawy.

Egypt's North Coast was once a spot that saw turtles hatching their eggs and making a life for themselves on the sandy shores of the Mediterranean Sea. As the North Coast quickly developed however, these sea turtles relocated to quieter areas where they'd lay their eggs peacefully. Egypt’s Hawksbill and Green sea turtles are found in the Red Sea while the loggerhead turtles are found in Lake Burullus. Nowadays, however, they're under constant threat as they serve a multitude of functions. But who has the nerve to kill something THAT cute, we ask Mekawy.

“Their shells can be used as decoration or to make baby strollers for example. Another issue is that a lot of the turtles are snatched out of their environment and placed into tanks for store or restaurant owners to attract customers into their eateries,” says Mekawy. “Then you have those that are killed by the fishermen out of frustration. Basically what happens is that when a turtle comes up for air, sometimes it bumps its shell by mistake against the motor of the fishing boat. The turtle breaks its shell as well as the boat’s motor. There was an incident in Egypt a while back where 80 loggerheads were massacred by fishermen who’d gotten angry about their damaged motors. The story caught on globally because it was a big deal.”

With the help of animal activist, Dina Zolfakar, I-Dive tribe has managed to get teams set up in several areas around Egypt, and has given them the proper training in an attempt to recruit as many people as possible in their mission to rescue these shelled reptiles. They also created a Facebook group, "Egypt turtle rescue center" to keep track of the turtles in need of aid all across Egypt. 

“We save a lot of the turtles from the market in both Cairo and Alexandria, but not limited to these two areas. So basically we’ll go speak to the vendors, sometimes it works, sometimes it’ll escalate and we'll take more official measures,” says Mekawy.

“Once we’ve got the turtle, we’ll rehabilitate it, give it a name, a tag, a photo ID and take DNA samples then she’s released back into the waters. We have an index of all the turtles we’ve found and the tags are put on a non-invasive part of their body so they could have them forever.”

In Egypt, owning or trading in wildlife is illegal. I-Dive Tribe are strongly opposed to buying sea turtles to save them as it encourages the trade in that sellers will be banking on the money from those working to save wildlife and, the cycle won't ever see an end. 

“We once found a turtle on the pavement in front of a pet shop. We were notified by an online post. It was completely dehydrated and in dire condition. That’s the only time I bought a turtle because if I hadn’t acted fast then and there, she wouldn’t have made it,” says Mekawy. “I gave her antibiotics, put her in some water and once she started eating again, I took her to Dahab and released her in the ocean.”

Gamal Diab, a photo-editor and an I-Dive Tribe member tells us of one of the turtles who had a hook in its mouth while being on display in a restaurant, in Port Said. 

“Basically the hook was there ever since the fisherman had caught the sea turtle and we think it was there for a while,” says Diab. “After we rescued it, Mekawy, who works as a dentist, performed the surgery. We had a vet with us as well, the surgery was performed in a friend of ours' dentist clinic.”

Pollution coupled with poaching and illegal turtle trading, is slashing the number of turtles in our oceans. With Dahab seeing a vast number of tourists coming in every year, the waters are constantly being used as huge garbage dumps. While there is a significant portion of what gets dumped in the water that’s harmless, one of the more dangerous elements is plastic. Turtles feed on jelly-fish which look like plastic bags. As a result of the plastic being disposed of in the water,  the number of turtles dying due to having ingested plastic is significant.  

“The six pack rings which hold the soft drink cans are sometimes thrown in the water as well and the plastic gets wrapped around the turtles’ shells. So the sea turtle ends up having a deformed shell,” says Diab. “We do these clean-ups, usually right after high season in Dahab. Some of the dive centers there contribute by sending manpower to help and lending us the equipment we need for free. The areas most affected by high season damage are Abu Gallum, Mashraba, Lighthouse and the blue hole.” 

First and foremost, I-Dive Tribe aims to raise awareness about the pivotal role of these gentle giants within our ecosystem. Once removed or harmed, the balance of the ocean is upset. Mekawy who’s saved numerous cases wild turtles tells us why these reptiles are important for our survival.

“They’re a natural predator to Jellyfish. Without the turtles, you’d have an increased number of jelly fish. That in turn affects the environment negatively. Jelly fish eat Phytoplankton, which are the lungs of the earth. The reality of it is that the regeneration of the oxygen comes from the sea. So by saving the turtles, we’re actually saving ourselves. Our well-being depends on the wellbeing of our seas.”

While their current focus is on turtles, the tribe helps where it can as their slogan is protect the ocean, protect our future, and they take it seriously. They work towards raising awareness on wildlife and have taken part in numerous seminars, Tedx talks and campaigns, one of which is a course and an awareness campaign for sharks. 

"Sharks are very curious creatures. If you get familiar with their habits then you'd understand and we have workshops that we give for free. On average, the number of deaths caused by sharks yearly is around 6 to 10 whereas the number of sharks killed by humans yearly is around 80 to 100 million." explains Diab. "A shark only bites outside of its hunting time for two reasons, one of which is a state called frenzy where it smells blood. And it’s not even the human blood that puts it in that state, it's fish blood. So what happens is, a lot of tourist boats dispose of their garbage in the sea and sometimes there’s blood or whatever and the shark is in a state of frenzy. Unfortunately, if there’s a human close by, it’ll bite but will spit human meat right out." 

Another reason sharks bite humans is because they look so much like their prey when on the surface. Sharks feed on seals and in certain cases turtles and both those animals look like humans from the bottom to a shark, who feels the vibrations and attacks, according to Diab. 

"Sharks too are very important for our ecosystem because they clean the sea, they eat the garbage. They eat fish that die naturally or those that are dangerous to the eco-system," says Diab. "When you remove a predator, the whole ecosystem faces a critical imbalance."

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