RAF stops turtles being last of the few

IT SEEMS an unlikely haven for an endangered species but the drought- stricken and heavily militarised island of Cyprus is the scene of a reprieve for turtles facing extinction.

British forces on the island's Ministry of Defence bases are helping to protect the nests of loggerhead and green turtles whose once plentiful numbers have been almost critically depleted by pollution and harvesting. There are now only an estimated 500 mature female green turtles and 200 loggerheads left in the Mediterranean.

According to Flt Lt Andy Knowles, the co-ordinator of the MoD "Turtlewatch" scheme at RAF Akrotiri in southern Cyprus, the coastline within the UK's sovereign bases is perfect nesting territory because it is safe from the inexorable tide of commercial development that threatens wildlife elsewhere.

He hopes that record numbers of hatched turtles on the base this summer - more than 1,500 so far - will help to boost the numbers of both green and loggerhead mature females.

"We have a number of breeding beaches which we haven't allowed to become commercialised or centres of tourism," said Flt Lt Knowles, who runs Turtlewatch in his spare time. "Turtles have come here for more than 2 million years. Everyone who is involved is attempting to conserve what is an endangered species facing extinction in the Mediterranean."

A total of 38 nests on four breeding coves in Akrotiri should produce more than 2,000 turtles by the end of the summer. It is hoped that at least 10 per cent of these will survive to maturity and come back and lay their eggs on these same beaches.

Members of Turtlewatch,part of a larger project run by Cypriots, monitor nests on the beaches with cages and move them if they are too near the waterline or too far from the sea.

Beaches on RAF Akrotiri and the two other Sovereign Base areas offer protection from the noise of discos and boats, fishing, beach parties and obstacles such as sunbeds.

In Cyprus, where schemes to protect turtles are also in place on the northern, Turkish-occupied part of the island, the prognosis for turtles looks better than it has done for years.

But Flt Lt Knowles, 33, is quick to sound a note of caution. "What we do here will not work if pollution and tourist development continues at the rate it has done. We have to hope factors outside our control work in our favour."

Little is known about the migratory and nesting habits of turtles beyond the fact that females instinctively return to lay their eggs near the area where they themselves were hatched. Green turtles are believed to go back to the same beach.

Turtlewatch, advertised with posters and local radio, is made up of volunteers from the armed forces, expatriates and students from Glasgow University who patrol through the four-month nesting season. They check the tracks of turtles that have emerged from the sea to lay their eggs and oversee a safe passage back for baby turtles who can easily fall victim to foxes and ghost crabs.

Loggerhead and green turtles are not the only species benefiting from the vigilance of the British military in Cyprus. Griffon vultures, whose numbers on the island have been reduced from hundreds to a recent all- time low of 24, are also being monitored by the MoD in conjunction with the local authorities.

The birds, whose wingspan can measure 2.5 metres, fly around the cliffs of Episkopi Bay on the west of the Akrotiri peninsula. Seven new chicks have been fledged this year, according to the MoD which is backing a plan to set up a special feeding station where the birds can eat safely.

The griffons, many of which have fallen victim to hunters and pollution in the food chain, do not breed until they are four or five years old and suffer a high infant mortality rate. Three young birds hatched in nests on the Episkopi cliffs were found dead this year.