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For millennia, sea turtles have swum ashore every summer to lay their eggs on beaches in what is now southern Lebanon. After incubation, the hatchlings race across the sand from their nests to the sea at night. A chance encounter with a sea turtle one night in 1999 inspired Mona Khalil to create the conservation project at Mansouri and Kolaila that is unique in Lebanon. Mona, then living in the Netherlands, had returned to Lebanon to visit her family’s beachfront farm. One moonless night, she was amazed to spy a green turtle laying eggs on the beach – and when she discovered that turtles were in danger of vanishing from Lebanon, she immediately knew what she would do when she came back to live there.

In 2000, just after Israel withdrew its troops from south Lebanon, Mona and her assistant Habiba began restoring the farmhouse, researching turtles and consulting experts on how they could protect them. This turned out to be labour-intensive – keeping the beach clean, daily monitoring to gather data during the nesting season from May to September, relocating nests higher up the beach if they were threatened by agriculture runoff or sea flooding and installing metal grids to protect them from predators.

“We were spending a lot of money on the sea turtle project and no one was helping us, so we decided to rent out a room,” Mona recalls. That was the beginning of the Orange House bed-and-breakfast, an eco-tourism venture that helps fund the project.

In 2006, Israel’s war in Lebanon briefly forced Mona & Habiba to leave the farmhouse, which was damaged two days later by an Israeli bomb. But the 34-day conflict did not deter the turtles, which laid 79 nests that summer, the highest number since the project began. The war had kept people off the beach, leaving the turtles undisturbed. But it also brought a new predator in the shape of foxes, apparently driven from the hills by intense shelling. More than two years later, they are still around, having become more adept at raiding nests than the dogs that were previously the main threat.

Illegal dynamite fishing near the shore and rubbish on the beach also endanger the turtles. Human activity and lights during the night on the beach can prompt females to drop their eggs instead in the water, where they are doomed. Mona and her assistant try hard to spread ecological awareness among local people and visitors in a conflict-torn country where environmental issues have had a low priority.

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