February 20 marks the annual celebration of National Environment Day in Yemen. Article no.35 of Yemen’s constitution mandates the preservation of the environment as a responsibility of the state and society, and as a national duty for all citizens. This year, events, symposiums, workshops, football matches, and cultural activities were held across the country to increase awareness on preserving and protecting the environment.
In areas under the control internationally recognized government, the plight of Yemen’s endangered species was chosen as this year’s campaign, with various events held in Aden, Abyan, Lahj, Socotra, and other governorates, and across various education institutions, spreading a clear message of “Zero Tolerance for Trafficking and Hunting Endangered Species.” Yemen is home to a wide variety of habitats, which are inhabited by rare terrestrial and marine species, including Arabian leopards, Arabian oryxes, gazelles, and different species of sea turtles. In the absence of the rule of law, hunting and overfishing are threatening local wildlife. Yemen’s Socotra Archipelago, a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for its rich biodiversity, was the focus of its own event celebrating National Environment Day.
A Nesting Place for Rare Turtles
The Gulf of Aden hosts a variety of coastal and marine ecosystems that contribute to the genetic and biological diversity of the region and are home to a concentration of turtles. Five species of marine turtles inhabit Yemeni waters: green turtles (Chelonia mydas) loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta), hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), olive ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea), and leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea). According to a 2022 study conducted in 13 countries with coastlines on the northwest Indian Ocean, nesting by loggerhead turtles is only documented in Oman and Yemen, of which Yemen has 50 to 100 annual nesters. According to recent estimates, approximately 6,000 green turtles also nest annually in Yemen, as well as 500 hawksbill turtles.
Some of these species are currently under threat of extinction. Destruction of their natural habitats, as well as pollution of the sea and beaches with plastic and solid waste, presents huge obstacles to their survival. Other threats include climate change, which can impact the temperature of the sand where turtles lay their eggs, and rising sea levels can also affect the beaches where turtles nest, making them vulnerable to flooding and erosion. The most immediate threat, however, is the widespread illegal hunting of turtles that has gone unchecked during the last decade of instability.
Rampant Hunting of Turtles Threatens Species’ Survival
Turtle hunting in Yemen is still prevalent, despite efforts to curb it. Minister of Water and Environment Tawfeeq al-Sharjabi emphasized that the killing and selling of turtles is still ongoing, despite a ban on hunting and trade, and said turtle traders have used the ban as a means to extort restaurant owners and sell turtle meat at higher prices. The demand for turtle meat and eggs is driven by traditional beliefs observed in some parts of Yemen, which attribute health benefits to their consumption. Many Yemenis, including hunters, remain unaware of the precarious position of these rare and endangered species. Deputy Minister for Environmental Affairs Abdul Hakeem Rajeh confirmed that turtles are being hunted in many areas of Yemen, even in officially declared protected areas such as Socotra, Aumira in Lahj, Al-Azeezia in Aden, and Sharma in Hadramawt. Rajeh added turtle hunting is carried out mostly at night, while turtles are at their feeding and nesting sites. The high demand for turtle meat and eggs has led to an increase in hunting of endangered turtles. Moreover, the economic instability and hardship experienced by coastal communities and the lack of enforcement of laws and regulations have made it easier for hunters and traders to pursue their illegal activities.
Treaties and Agreements in Place but Protection Inadequate
The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) in Yemen has conducted several campaigns to raise awareness on the importance of protecting sea turtles and their habitats. In 2019 and 2020, the EPA organized a campaign to clean up the beaches in the governorates of Aden and Hudaydah, where sea turtles nest and lay their eggs. The government has also taken steps to implement laws and regulations that protect turtles. In 2014, the government passed a law prohibiting the hunting and trade of all sea turtles and their products. Some areas have also been officially declared protected environments.
In response to the decline of turtle populations, various international treaties and agreements have also been put in place to protect turtles. For example, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), of which Yemen is a signatory, regulates the international trade of endangered species, including turtles. The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) aims to protect migratory species, including sea turtles, and their habitats. Furthermore, since 2007, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has been working with local communities in Yemen to protect sea turtles by establishing a network of volunteers to monitor turtle nests, protect them from predators and poachers, and collect data on turtle populations.
Preservation of National Treasures
The protection of turtles is still far from adequate, and concrete steps will need to be taken in order to safeguard what are ultimately national treasures. The first step should entail strengthening the current legal framework. Yemeni laws and regulations related to wildlife protection need to be reviewed, strengthened, and enforced to provide better protection for turtles and their habitats. This can be done by imposing higher penalties on those who violate laws related to turtle protection. Second, the establishment of more protected marine areas along the Yemeni coast in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden would go a long way to recognizing the importance of protecting sites with rich ecosystems. Third, more engagement of local communities in turtle conservation might reduce illegal hunting and poaching, while also helping raise awareness among communities and promote responsible tourism. Fourth, improving coordination between the EPA, local councils, security authorities, fishermen’s associations, and environmental associations to report illegal hunting of turtles. Fifth, protecting and restoring turtle habitats is crucial for their survival. Turtles rely on specific habitats for nesting, feeding, and breeding. This can be done by reducing coastal pollution and restoring degraded habitats. Finally, conducting rigorous and regular biodiversity studies, research, and monitoring is essential to track population trends, identify threats, and measure the effectiveness of conservation efforts. This would entail closer collaboration between government agencies, NGOs, and research institutions.