Sharma Reserve in Hadramout South Yemen Under Threat

March 11, 2023

Preserving natural habitats and endangered species is a crucial issue facing our world today. The rapid expansion of human civilization and its industries has resulted in the widespread destruction of ecosystems, which has had devastating effects on the health of our planet. Humans rely on the earth's ecosystems for water, air, soil, food, and medicine. However, these resources are threatened by climate change, pollution, and overexploitation, among others.

In South Yemen, this issue is particularly pressing, especially in the Hadramout governorate. Local authorities and the Environmental Protection Authority have reported that influential parties are attempting to create an oil corridor toward the ocean by utilizing the Sharma Reserve as an export location and constructing a new port in the area. Unfortunately, the reserve is also exploited as a smuggling area by certain parties involved in trading oil derivatives, weapons, and drugs.

Despite being a habitat for thousands of endangered sea turtles, the internationally recognized Yemeni government has yet to declare the reserve a nature reserve, despite the first request to do so being made over a decade ago. The Sharma Reserve spans over 74,000 acres of coastline and beach areas. It is currently classified as a category II nature reserve by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and its Resources (IUCN).

Mid-2022, the Minister of Water and Environment, Tawfiq Al-Sharjabi, presented a proposal to declare the "Sharma" reserve a nature reserve to Dr. Maeen Abdul Malik, the leader of the internationally recognized government. The proposal outlined the numerous threats that the reserve is facing, including the killing of sea turtles, using their meat or leaving them as waste, appropriating coastal areas for personal and public construction purposes, destroying nesting sites for turtles, bulldozing or backfilling these areas, and establishing new ports despite having sufficient and suitable areas other than those that are home to unique environments of the region. Additionally, the proposal addressed the pollution from motorboats' waste disposal and the solid and liquid waste being dumped into the tidal zone.

Several studies have shown that the Sharma reserve is home to five species of endangered sea turtles, including green turtles, hawksbill turtles, olive turtles, loggerhead turtles, and leatherback turtles. Ras Sharma Beach is recognized as the most significant nesting area for green turtles in the Arabian region, including the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Studies have previously acknowledged that Ras Sharma Beach is likely one of the world's most critical remaining beaches for these turtles. All five species of turtles are categorized as endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Endangered Species.

The Halfoun Association for the Protection of Wildlife, in collaboration with the Yemen Life Sciences Association and funded by the US Fish and Marine Services Agency, conducted a study in 2013-2014 to monitor turtles over 11 months. The study area covered only 2 km out of the 5220 meters of beach length in the "Yathmon" area. The study discovered that the number of turtles in the monitored area was estimated to be 41,854.

In October 2021, the internationally recognized Yemeni government declared three nature reserves in South Yemen:  The Khor Omaira Reserve in Lahj Governorate, the Azizi and Ras Omran Reserve in the capital city of "Aden", and the Farmhan Reserve in the Hadibu district of Socotra Governorate. However, they failed to declare the Sharma area in Hadramout Governorate as a nature reserve.

According to reports from fishermen and environmental activists along the coast of Hadramout, there is still overfishing of sea turtles in some parts of the Sharma-Gethmoun Reserve in the Eastern Districts. However, the Director of the reserve, Mohammed Awad Al-Gharabi, has confirmed that the slaughter of turtles has decreased in Sharma due to measures taken to secure the reserve's entrance, implemented with the help of the Coast Guard. Despite this improvement, some turtle slaughter may still be occurring at the four nesting sites within the reserve, which cover over 8 kilometers of nesting coast and have multiple entrances.

Al-Ghorabi has highlighted numerous risks and challenges faced by the Sharma Reserve, including uncontrolled urban expansion, random reservations, and residential plans within the sanctuary. Additionally, there are no effective penalties for turtle killing, and entry to the reserve is not adequately regulated to prevent interference with its resources. Lack of environmental awareness among nearby residents and visitors to the reserve is also a significant issue. Most pressingly, the Sharma Reserve has not yet been officially declared a protected area.

Badr Awad Al-Saili, the Director of the Department of Natural Resources and Reserves, has emphasized the importance of the Sharma area as a natural reserve, noting its ecosystem's diversity, which includes green turtles as a vital component of any marine or coastal environment. The area is also one of the most significant nesting sites for turtles in Yemen and has coral reefs, wild animals such as hares and rabbits, birds, natural caves, and historic archaeological sites dating back hundreds of years.

Engineer Mohammed Al-Gharabi, the Director of the Sharma-Gethmoun Reserve, stressed the need to preserve the reserve and halt the overfishing of sea turtles. He recommended establishing traditional regulations that stipulate penalties commensurate with the severity of any violation committed and ensuring their application through relevant executive units. Such measures would require an official declaration from the Yemeni government regarding the reserve's status, the establishment of an administrative structure, incorporation into the regional and international network of reserves, development of a management and development plan, accompanied by an operational budget. He also suggested including the reserve in ecotourism investment sites.

According to Al-Ghorabi, the local community and official authorities' response to the persistent trespassing on the reserve and the hunting of sea turtles is unsatisfactory. However, given Yemen's current circumstances, it is challenging to implement the protection and preservation programs that the authority has prepared. Therefore, efforts are focused on coordination between relevant entities and the Coast Guard Command in Hadramout Governorate, East Sector.

Bader Awad Al-Saili, the Director of the Natural Resources and Protected Areas Department at the branch, has pointed out that recent statistics on the number of sea turtles in the Sharma reserve are not available. However, a survey conducted between 2013-2014 recorded the presence of 41,854 turtles on the beach, of which 37,069 were hunted and killed during the study period of 11 months. Despite this survey, there are still gaps in our knowledge regarding the dynamics of the number of sea turtles, their life history, and the threats and risks they face. Furthermore, there is an absence of published and reliable research on turtles in the Republic of Yemen, despite their significance as a vital source. It is worth noting that sea turtles' numbers have been rapidly declining both globally and locally due to human activities, including urbanization and other detrimental actions.

According to Al-Saili, there is a lack of studies, scientific research, and field visit reports on the Sharma Reserve for researchers and specialists in the authority. He acknowledges that the amount of research available is "very limited," which is evident from the absence of published research on turtles. One of the reasons for this is the lack of cooperation between the Authority and environmental universities and the shortage of material resources to conduct research studies and support them. Additionally, he highlights that the state has not done enough to encourage and facilitate research in this field.

Marine and environmental science researchers have reported that the presence of different kinds of sea turtles, along with diverse plants and coral reefs, is a significant source of national economic wealth. The region has abundant biodiversity; however, it faces numerous challenges, the most severe of which is the human element that engages in activities that put these endangered sea turtles at risk.

Jamal al-Harrani, an environmental researcher, drew attention to the threats faced by sea turtles in the Sharma Reserve in a research paper published on the platform "Holm Akhdar." He noted the presence of stray dogs on the beaches, which form gatherings and leave cadavers that pose a constant risk to small turtles. These gatherings have been observed near the nesting sites of green turtles in the Ras Sharma natural area, and the dogs are also known to hunt turtle eggs.

Yemen signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1997, and sea turtles were included in the annex to the Convention, which means they are protected from international trade as part of the measures taken to safeguard their existence.

Yemeni Law No. (2) of 2006, which governs the organization, exploitation, and protection of aquatic organisms, includes specific provisions related to the protection of sea turtles. Article 52 of the law prohibits any person, whether natural or legal, from fishing whales, marine mammals, or catching turtles or their eggs unless they have obtained a license from the Ministry for scientific research purposes. Article (53) of the same law prohibits factories, laboratories, various laboratories, and shops for the manufacture and circulation of chemicals, petrochemicals, and chemicals from discharging their waste into marine waters. It also prohibits the discharge of polluted public watercourses into marine waters, except after treatment. Finally, all types and sizes of marine buoys are prohibited from discharging their residues containing fuels, oils, greases, toxic substances, or any other harmful substances directly into the sea.

The coastal regions possess a range of diverse ecosystems owing to the geological and geographical heterogeneity of the coastal strip. Among these regions, Sharma-Gethmoun is particularly noteworthy as it serves as a breeding ground for green sea turtles, leatherbacks, and other rare species found in the Pacific region. These areas have registered significant numbers of these endangered sea turtles, and are home to coral reefs, algae, crustaceans, snails, and seabirds, thus making them important for the overall ecosystem and its biodiversity.

Volunteers from Hadramout cleaning up the beach at Sharma coast.

There has been a proposal to designate the regions of Ras Shasr, Ras Gethmoun, Bin Ramadan, Ras Baghshah, and Karif as natural reserves, given the rarity of their species and the importance of their coastal inhabitants for the profusion of fish species and crustaceans, which would consequently promote economic, commercial, urban, and tourism activities in the coastal regions. Moreover, the areas mentioned above also function as natural barriers protecting the coral reefs in the coastal and marine regions. These coral reefs are present near coral and rocky coasts and volcanic islands and serve as a significant attraction for diving and swimming enthusiasts. They provide a haven for diverse marine life, including ornamental fish and fish species that support the coastal communities of Hadramout Governorate. These coral reefs are also important nesting sites for various species, such as sea turtles, endemic and migratory birds, making these areas highly valued as popular tourist destinations for residents and visitors alike.

Sharma-Gethmoun is a unique and diverse ecosystem with an abundance of nesting areas for green sea turtles and other endangered species found in the Pacific Ocean and around the globe. Additionally, the region is home to various rare and endemic bird species, both migratory and resident. Furthermore, the marine islands within this region have a widespread presence of coral reefs, adding to the overall ecological richness of the area and making it a top destination for ecotourism.

A draft resolution obtained by the researcher outlines a series of critical actions to address the ongoing violations within the Sharma reserve. Urgent solutions include the prohibition of killing rare and endangered sea turtles, the construction of sewage treatment plants for the cities of Qusair, Qurna, and Ghuraifa in the eastern region, a halt to the disposal of oil and containers into the sea by fishermen, the establishment of garbage dumps, and the provision of transportation equipment and ensuring their proper functioning. These measures are necessary to protect the reserve and its unique ecosystem from further harm.

Engineer Al-Ghorabi provided information on the current status of the reserve. He mentioned that the reserve had implemented earth swamps through the sustainable management of natural resources program, funded by the UNDP and supervised by the Public Authority for Environmental Protection. There were also three unqualified guard rooms and seven contracted guards between 2005 and 2011.

Al-Ghorabi emphasized that there are no significant human activities or interventions in the reserve, except for some occasional trips and traditional fishing with hooks. This is attributed to the leadership of the Coast Guard, local authority, and the Public Authority for Environmental Protection in Hadramout Governorate, which has played a crucial role in maintaining the reserve's current status quo.

Efforts to establish earth swamps, improve guard facilities, and limit human activities in the reserve are essential steps toward achieving this goal. Additionally, the continued support and leadership of the Coast Guard, local authority, and environmental protection agencies are necessary to ensure the effective management and protection of the reserve.

Some individuals who work in the media and environmental activists in Hadramout have expressed concerns about the current state of the Sharma-Gethmoun Reserve. They claim that influential officials are monitoring a pattern of actions that could lead to the reserve's destruction.

Sharma Nature Reserve is recognized locally by the decision of the Hadramout Provincial Council No. (49) of 2013, but this recognition is insufficient to obtain all the privileges similar to those of the reserves approved by the Council of Ministers. Despite being an area of biological and economic diversity, it does not fall under the framework of international natural reserves. Nonetheless, the reserve boasts a biological diversity of turtles that have taken sandy beaches as nesting places and is an aesthetic location that attracts visitors. The rock formations have made it an environmental tourist attraction, according to the Saili. In 2002, the Sharma-Gethmoun Reserve was nominated and placed on the provisional indicative list of World Heritage Sites in Yemen, according to Archiqoo.

In conclusion, the Sharma coastal region of Hadramout South Yemen is a significant area for ecological and economic diversity, providing a home for rare and endangered species such as sea turtles and endemic bird species. The biodiversity of these regions makes them important for the ecosystem. They serve as natural barriers that protect coral reefs, which are vital for the local economy and tourism industry. However, these areas also face significant threats, including ongoing violations that could lead to the destruction of the reserve and concerns about the potential transformation of the reserve an oil port. The proposed critical actions aimed at addressing these threats include the prohibition of killing rare and endangered sea turtles, the establishment of sewage treatment plants, the halt to the disposal of oil and containers into the sea, and the provision of transportation equipment, among others. The continued support and leadership of the Coast Guard, local authority, and environmental protection agencies are necessary to ensure the effective management and protection of the reserve. It is essential to prioritize preserving and conserving these unique and diverse ecosystems for future generations to appreciate and benefit from.

Bassam Al-Qadi 

Bassam is a scientific researcher and journalist covering climate and environmental issues.