Lack of surveillance during the Covid-19 pandemic has led to the increased theft of turtle eggs in the eastern coastal areas of Oman.
Residents in the Ras Al Jinz and Ras Al Hadd areas said patrols by rangers have been suspended since April and poachers were taking advantage of the situation.
“Both Omanis and foreign people living in Oman come here and pick up turtle eggs. They come with big bags, pick eggs on the beach and load them in their cars," Rasheed Al-Jaalani, 41, an Omani fisherman in Ras Al Jinz, one of the main turtle nesting areas, said.
"There are no rangers now on the beaches, so these poachers take advantage.”
The local municipality office in Sur, which governs Ras Al Jinz and Ras Al Hadd, declined to say when rangers will resume patrols.
The government imposes a penalty of up to two months in prison and/or a fine of $5,000 (Dh18,365) for poachers, but rangers are not always vigilant and culprits are rarely arrested.
Conservationists said Ral Al Jinz and Ras Al Hadd beaches are used by turtle species as their nesting grounds. They include olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and the green turtle (Chelonia mydas). All three species are threatened with extinction, while the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) -- which has been spotted but is unknown to nest in Oman -- is one the world's most endangered sea turtles.
Dr Ghulam Al Balushi, a member of the Environmental Society of Oman, said poachers sold eggs to private collectors in a lucrative trade in Omani cities, including Muscat, Sohar and Salalah.
"Buyers hatch the babies and sell them to people who use them as pets. Some of them are smuggled out of the country where they are sold at exorbitant prices," Dr Balushi said. Private collectors typically pay between $30 to $50 for a baby turtle, but the rarest species, such as leatherbacks, can fetch up to $350 each.
Turtle watching is a major attraction in Oman, drawing about 400,000 foreign and domestic visitors in 2019, according to statistics from the country's heritage and tourism ministry.
Besides Ras Al Hadd and Ras Al Jinz, Masirah Island and the Daymaniyat Island cluster are popular places for visitors eager to see turtles nesting and hatching.
“Modern structures and facilities have increased poaching in the eastern region. They made it easier for people travelling into these once almost inaccessible areas, then habited only by fishermen,” Hareb Al-Manwari, 56, a resident of Masirah, said.
The government has announced plans to improve access to the area with a 40-kilometre bridge linking Masirah Island to the mainland -- a massive project that is yet to be finalised or building started – and triple carriageway roads towards Ras Al Hadd and Ras Al Jinz. Authorities also opened up the areas to investors who built tourism resorts and hotels. Sleepy villages have since transformed into smart towns, funded by the influx of cash from tourists as retail businesses flourished over the last decade.
“Business is good but we are driving our rare turtles to extinction. Is it worth it?” Mr Manwari said.