How one woman is saving the endangered sea turtles of Lebanon

As scientists are starting to raise the alarm about humanity’s negative impact on the oceans, one woman in Lebanon is fighting to lead the country’s first marine conservation effort to save endangered turtles. Scott Preston finds out more.

At the age of 70, Mona Khalil is as determined as ever to protect the endangered sea turtles nesting on the public beach outside her home in southern Lebanon. With the help of a select few teammates over the past 18 years, she has served led the country’s first conservation effort for the marine animals.

The operation began at the turn of the millennium, when Khalil decided to return to Lebanon from Holland. At the time the area was occupied by Israeli forces. Despite the danger, Khalil’s intuition told her that change was coming and she decided to move to a family property in the coastal village of al-Mansouri.

Within three months the Israeli army withdrew, liberating the south and the public beach near her dwelling. By that time, she was busy restoring the abandoned property and doing her best to care for the sea turtles on the coast. Before long, she was contacted by the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtle, an international NGO that was interested in learning more about her work.

“I sent them photos and one of the photos was a green turtle and they went crazy,” exclaims Khalil. “They were so excited because the green turtle is critically endangered. For example, this beach is 1.4 kilometers only, the sandy beach where they lay eggs. So if I have three nests of green I’ll be very happy, the rest are Loggerhead. Two species that are in the Mediterranean they come to this beach, that’s why this is important.”

With this dispatch, Lebanon was officially added to the list of Mediterranean countries that host the precious turtles. Over the next three years, Khalil received a crash course in conservation as international organizations sent marine biologists to southern Lebanon. They taught her how to protect the nests from predators and incubate feeble hatchlings until they’re healthy enough to release. In the mean time, she converted her villa into a bed and breakfast, dubbed the Orange House, that provided a steady source of revenue for her activities.

In an average summer, Khalil cares for about 50 nests with an average of 5,000 to 6,000 hatchlings each year. This amount is considered large given the number of nests. The count is augmented by the the loggerhead population in the area, whose massive size enables them to lay more eggs.

One of the biggest reasons the beach hosts so many turtle nests is due to the human intrusions on traditional habitats nearby. Just to the north is the Tyre beach protected coast, where similar efforts are underway to conserve the turtle population. However, a proliferation of seaside kiosks that cater to summer beachgoers with music, food and other services have scared many of the turtles away. In search of more suitable nesting grounds, many have come to the Orange House instead.

But now, Khalil’s operation could also be in jeopardy. A new resort nearing completion on a section of the beach could send many of the endangered sea turtles further south to Israel. Undaunted, she has initiated a dialogue with the project’s owners which she hopes will result in a more turtle-friendly environment.

For Khalil, the issue is one of a multitude memories acquired over the years as she has pursued her dream to save the endangered creatures. “All of it is in my head, I have one thing that, I don’t forget, so its all here, good and bad. Happy and sad. Every day is a special day, everyday something happens. Every day mother nature teachers me a lesson. I wake up every day like a child going to school.”