By Anand Holla
Earlier this week, on Monday, when nature lovers across the globe celebrated World Turtle Day, a bunch of architecture students from Qatar University (QU) spurred on by their professor, ignited multiple vehicles of awareness on the gravely endangered Hawksbill Sea Turtle through design and dialogue.
From asking people to join them in protecting the hawksbill turtles and promoting the conservation of Al Fuwairit Beach to kickstarting social media campaigns and discussions about the subject, the undergraduate (first year and third year) and Masters students of the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, QU, have certainly opened up a conversation about the need to protect what is widely regarded as the most beautiful sea turtle — the hawksbill turtle.
Dr Anna Grichting Solder, Assistant Professor, Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, at QU, College of Engineering, is not only mentoring this project but has also been at the forefront of raising awareness about the “critically endangered” hawksbill turtles, which figure in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
“Located on the North-Eastern shores of Qatar, Al Fuwairit beach is a nesting beach for turtles,” Grichting explains to Community, “It is part of a larger ecosystem which includes sand dunes and mangroves, all of which are suffering from erosion and human encroachment and activities. In the past, Al Fuwairit was an important coastal settlement. It rose to regional prominence as the home of the Al-Thani family during the early 19th Century. Archaeological excavations have just begun on the ruined site, which is also one of the rare beaches in Qatar where hawksbill turtles nest and hatch each year.”
According to the report, Identification of Important Sea Turtle Areas (ITAs) for hawksbill turtles in the Arabian Region, in Qatar, at least 100 hawksbill turtles nest annually at Fuwairit, Ras Laffan, Halul and in other seaside areas outside of Doha, Grichting points out. “Like many sea turtles, hawksbills are a critically endangered species mostly due to human impact. Their eggs are still eaten around the world despite the turtle’s international protected status, and they are often killed for their flesh and shells. Hawksbills are also threatened by accidental capture in fishing nets, oil and gas industries, urban and industrial development, fishery pressure, and shipping,” she says.
On World Turtle Day, on May 23, the QU students launched a social media campaign on Twitter @hwksblqtr and Instagram @hwksblqtr; launched a website https://hawksbillqatar.wordpress.com; used design media to raise awareness on turtles via photography, films, fashion, children’s story books, etc.; engaged in public art to involve more people; and created a series of videos that will be launched through social media on how we can use and design public spaces in Qatar to generate awareness on Turtle Conservation.
As Shafeeq Hamza, Researcher, QU, says, “Students are the future and it is important that the responsibility of protecting the environment is passed on to them.” Having visited Al Fuwairit and gained a practical understanding of the clear, present and future danger that poses the delightful hawksbills, the students, hearteningly, seem to have imbibed a sense of responsibility for the long run.
Hessa Ali al-Malki, a first year undergraduate student in Architecture at QU, says, “In order to be a successful architect with great designs, you must have an inspiration and a message to deliver through your work, especially if it pertains to an issue that resides in the environment you are building, just like the hawksbill turtles in Qatar.”
Saaeda Nasser al-Bader, architecture student at QU, who has also designed the website, says, “I am really glad that I got the opportunity to have such an amazing experience; protecting not only the turtles but also the environment as a whole has now become my new passion. To me, having a beautiful and interesting approach toward awareness is important. You can use either visual, motion or sound to capture the interest of people, and architecture does all of that.”
The hawksbill turtle’s presence in Qatar is little known by the younger generations and its threatened status even less so, Grichting points out. “It has the potential, as the Oryx, to become a flagship species for Qatar if its numbers can be increased and its habitats restored. The conservation project of hawksbill turtles in Qatar has been taken on by scientists and nature conservationists at Qatar University, at the Ministry of Environment and supported by Qatar Petroleum,” Grichting says, “As for these projects, the students really enjoyed them and I believe they understand the importance of using their design skills in the service of nature conservation, and in particular hawksbill turtles.”
Moreover, the deeply insightful ‘Master Plan for Hawksbill Turtle Conservation and Nature Protection and Restoration at Al Fuwairit Beach’, put together by Masters students under the guidance of Grichting and in collaboration with wildlife and ecology specialists from Ministry of Environment and Turtle Scientists at Qatar University, is a comprehensive go-to guide for the next course of action.
The masterplan for the Al Fuwairit beach and for the larger ecological reserve, including the archaeological site, also seeks to develop the place as an attractive tourist site “through careful and sensitive planning”. Grichting explains, quoting the masterplan, “This project can be an important contribution to a future archaeological and ecological park that will highlight and conserve Qatar’s rich natural and cultural heritage. In order for this to happen, it needs good design and management. It is hoped that this project can be brought forward with the appropriate governance structures and stakeholders and become a jewel on the coast of Qatar.”
In terms of the development of the Conservation Master Plan (CMP) for Al Fuwairit Beach and the wider ecosystem, shares Grichting, the main aims will be to develop the CMP for Qatar’s first ‘Eco-Beach and Nature Reserve’; create a safer habitat for endangered turtles by designating and defining the boundaries of the protected area(s); create landscape and ecological designs to restore habitat including: dunes, marine habitats, turtle habitats, etc.; landscape measures to enhance existing habitats — e.g. turtles light pollution screen, dune creation, tree planting, interpretive signage, bird hides etc; accessibility infrastructure such as vehicle access, roads, parking; designs for a permanent Turtle Information Center for the benefit of scientists and visitors; to use renewable energy sources e.g. solar power, and reduce waste, noise, air and light pollution in the area; propose “soft activities” for visitor recreation that are compatible with the turtle nesting and other fragile species and ecosystems.
Dileep Kumar V Pushpangadhan, who is a former consultant at Ministry of Environment and assisted students with the projects, explained the significance of the campaign, “Hawksbill turtles, one of the most critically endangered species that occur in Qatar, play an important role in maintaining the health of the marine ecosystem. Lack of conservation and management plan for the Fuwairit Turtle Beach led to the drastic degradation of the turtle nesting habitat. This resulted in a drop in the number of nests by more than half in the last 10 years. Understanding the severity of the situation, QU students under the leadership of Dr Anna came forward to work with the experts and develop a comprehensive management plan to setup the first ecological/turtle beach in Qatar. I must also appreciate the work done by several helping hands on this subject, such as Dr Sayed Bukhari, GIS.”
Kumar pointed out that the way each participating student shared the “responsibility to study each element and stage of the master plan was very impressive”. “I am sure that the execution of this management plan will set the standard for future ecological parks in Qatar. I wish they could contribute to more similar green initiatives in Qatar,” he said.
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