Life Carries on for Turtles in War-Torn Lebanon

Mona Khalil continued her research on the nesting beach despite the war in her country. PHOTO COURTESY OF MONA KHALIL.

Mona Khalil continued her research on the nesting beach despite the war in her country. PHOTO COURTESY OF MONA KHALIL.

By Mona Khalil

When Israeli and Hezbollah fighters went to war on July 12, 2006, the loggerhead nesting season in south Lebanon at Mansouri and Koliala beaches was in full swing. We had no plans to leave the beach, where we have conducted a monitoring program since 2000 with the help of the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles (MEDASSET). So, when Hezbollah fighters appeared on the shore, we asked them to leave, lest they attract an Israeli attack. They agreed— albeit perplexed about what two middle-aged Lebanese women staying in a war zone to look after sea turtles might be thinking. We put out white flags during hasty daily forays to monitor the dozens of nests, but as the Israeli bombing intensified, we moved from the Orange House, our bed and breakfast inn, to a nearby hut for safety.

The turtles paid no heed to the strife, but our own plight became starker, with no electricity and constant explosions. When an Israeli air strike aimed at a Hezbollah rocket crew destroyed our neighbor’s house, we knew we had to leave.

With anguish in our hearts, we left water and food out for our two dogs and cat, and we let our goats out of their pen; like the turtle hatchlings, they would have to fend for themselves. For once we had to put our own survival ahead of the turtles, and on the 16th day of the war, we fled to Beirut.

Three weeks later, a truce came into force, and we returned to find two rooms of our house damaged by Israeli bombs, the goats gone, and one dog missing, although he eventually turned up. Disturbances in the sand told us that more turtles had nested in our absence, but we could not locate the eggs or protect all the nests with wire mesh. Some, including the last green turtle clutch of the season, fell victim to new predators—foxes driven from their normal habitat in the hills by the fighting.

Tank: An Israeli military tank. © RAPHAEL LEVY

Tank: An Israeli military tank. © RAPHAEL LEVY

Somehow the beach escaped direct pollution from the 10,000– 15,000 tons of fuel oil that spilled into the sea from a power plant hit by bombing at Jiyyeh to the north. Despite the war, we reckon around 5,000 hatchlings from 70 loggerheads and 9 green turtle nests made it to the sea this year from the 1.4-kilometer (one-mile) beach we monitor—and that we hope one day will become a state-protected nature reserve.

Some of those hatchlings will be back.