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In the Midst of Conflict, a Lebanese Beach Provides an Oasis for Endangered Sea Turtles

Orange House Project seeks to increase environmental awareness among Lebanese

Every morning at dawn Mona Khalil walks down to the beach to check for traces of Mediterranean sea turtles, which climb ashore during the night to lay their eggs in the sand. The turtles have picked a very sensitive area for their progeny, as the beach lies right against the Lebanon-Israel border. Relations between the two countries have been tense for decades. In 2006, southern Lebanon was convulsed by a month-long war between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah that left more than 1,000 people dead.

sea turtle photoAll photos by Vanessa KellerhalsFor the turtles, at least, the long-simmering conflict in the region has been as much a
blessing as a curse.

For the turtles, at least, the long-simmering conflict in the region has been as much a blessing as a curse. The threat of violence keeps many people away from the area, and that means that the turtles are rarely disturbed by beachgoers. While factories and private beach clubs clutter most of the rest of the Lebanese coastline, the southern portions have remained virtually untouched due to the long Civil War and subsequent Israeli occupation. Like the demilitarized zones on Cyprus or the Korean peninsula, the buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon has also become a kind of de facto wildlife reserve.

Khalil runs an ecological bed-and-breakfast and grassroots environmental outfit called the Orange House Project. The project is located within the United Nations buffer zone between Lebanon and Israel. Public buses do not go inside the buffer zone. There are no signs directing travellers to the beach. Foreigners are required to obtain an entry permit from the Lebanese Army to enter. It’s a hassle to get to the Orange House, but once the property’s yellow gates close behind you, it feels as if you have entered an oasis.

Thirteen years ago Khalil moved to her family’s beach house and started to build a safe zone for Mediterranean sea turtles and an ecological oasis for nature-loving travellers. This was no easy task in a country where environmental activism often suffers from legislative neglect, bureaucratic delay, and public apathy. Lawmakers often postpone combating issues such as polluted shores, traffic overload, and trash dumping, saying such actions will have to wait for “better times.” Khalil started by fighting dynamite fishing and pollution. She was able to successfully chase the fishermen from her land. But the struggle against beach litter continues; every day she collects the garbage that has washed ashore.

Khalil spends much of her time caring for the sea turtles that also call her beach home. The two prevailing turtle species in the Mediterranean are the loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and the green turtle (Chelonia mydas), both of which nest at beaches on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, including in Lebanon. Most of the egg laying occurs between June and September; a green turtle’s nest consists of around 120 eggs, while the loggerhead lays about 70 eggs.

photo of a beach as seen through a garden gateIt’s a hassle to get to the Orange House, an ecological bed-and-breakfast and grassroots
environmental outfit,but once the property’s yellow gates close behind you, it feels
as if you have entered an oasis.

When a new nest is found, Khalil and her employees cover it with an iron grate wide enough for the hatchlings to crawl out but too narrow for foxes to reach the young one. If the nests are too close to the water, they are relocated to a higher spot so they don’t wash away with the tide. Khalil lost five nests to foxes last year, which is why she sometimes takes the eggs to the house in the last stage. The turtles hatch after an incubation time of 45 to 60 days. Some turtles hatch without the shield being complete around their bellies, which makes them easy prey for crabs when they crawl towards the water to begin their life at sea. The premature ones stay at the house in a small basin until their shields protect their flesh.

Even in winter, when the turtles usually don’t come ashore, Khalil occasionally spots dehydrated or trapped turtles. She nurses them at her house for a couple of days until they gain enough strength to be released.

By now Khalil’s work has become routine. But she still remembers how difficult it was at first. When she started her campaign against dynamite fishing and the beach pollution, the local villagers were antagonistic. Someone shot at her house (the bullet hole is still in the door), and someone punctured her tires. Her dog was murdered. The police did nothing.

Khalil says the resistance to her efforts is part of a larger public apathy toward the environment. Some other eco-tourism spots have popped up around the country, and there is on-going work to refurbish green spaces in Beirut, the capital. But a recent incident in southern Lebanon reveals the state of environmental awareness in the country. When a wild sea lion was spotted in the port area of another southern town, the animal quickly became a sensation. But instead of just leaving the animal alone, the sea lion was captured, ogled as a special attraction, and then finally released, frightened and stressed out.

photo of sea turtle hatchlings in a jar on a table outdoorsOrange House Project founder Mona Khalil sometimes nurses dehydrated turtle hatchlings at her house
until they gain enough strength to be released.

Khalil has made it her mission to try to educate her fellow Lebanese about the importance of environmental protection. She rents out three rooms at her house as a bed and breakfast and takes the guests with her to the beach on her early morning turtle patrol. Kids especially are encouraged to participate and get in touch with nature.

Khalil’s efforts to raise Lebanese’ environmental awareness seems to be paying off. In June, a major shoot-out between the Lebanese Army and religious radicals blocked the roads into the UN patrolled buffer zone. Afterwards, no one wanted to travel south, and Khalil thought her rooms would stay empty for a while. But within just a few days she was overbooked with families coming down from the city to enjoy the weekend at the immaculate beach and have their children educated about nature. Many people in Lebanon have long lost faith in their government, but they gradually are starting to have faith in projects like the Orange House.

Vanessa Kellerhals
Vanessa Kellerhals is a young Swiss journalist currently based in Beirut, Lebanon, where she works for a local newspaper.

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