BEIRUT — In “almost every” blaze during the summer wildfire season, volunteer firefighter Khaled Taleb has found the charred remains of tortoises, too slow to flee the flames that quickly engulf dry brush.
Taleb, who cofounded a firefighting team in rural parts of Akkar governorate, estimates the team has found about 40 burnt tortoises in this year’s fires and were only able to rescue about three of them. “The rest were fully burnt.”
As a nature guide and outdoor enthusiast with the Akkar Trail association, Taleb and his team tackle the worsening wildfire problem in Lebanon’s densely forested far northern reaches.
In some of Taleb’s photos this past summer, the diminutive Testudo graeca — also known as the Greek tortoise, or the common tortoise — are blackened and caked in ash, their heads and arms dangling from their shells.
In one photo, two tortoises lean against one another, a last moment caught before their apparent death in a summer fire.
Animals under threat
The Greek tortoise is a “vulnerable species,” meaning it could go extinct if threats to its environment go unaddressed, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “Red List” of at-risk animals.
“Not all animals can run away from fires,” Taleb says. “These fires affect all sorts of flora and fauna, and are dangerous for the whole area.”
“In almost every blaze this most recent period, we are finding dead turtles,” he adds. “Most people don’t care very much. They care about the trees and other things.”
Hatem Alfahel, another volunteer firefighter, says rescuing animals caught in the blazes is a priority. A self-described animal lover, he works with Akkar Trail and on his own to care for stray and wounded animals, including jackals and tortoises.
Alfahel says this year’s fire season has caused “more tortoises being burnt than any other previous year” as shifting weather patterns bring higher temperatures and denser patches of dry underbrush ripe for fires.
“We try to remove them and other animals from the fire,” Alfahel says. “If the tortoise is okay, we just bring them to a safe place."
But finding treatment for wounded tortoises is trickier. According to Michel Sawan, the founder of an animal rehabilitation center in the north, there are no NGOs in Akkar that treat tortoises — only private veterinarians.
Sawan's rehabilitation center, the Lebanese Association for Migratory Birds, so far only provides treatment to birds, which are often shot at by hunters.
When Taleb and his team find other species burnt by fires, they "ask around" the area for veterinarians who are available to provide treatment. Still, he adds, most turtles don't make it to the vet; they either survive the fires with light wounds and get transported somewhere safe, far from the blaze, or they perish from more severe burns.
Climate change fueling fires
This summer has seen all-time record high temperatures worldwide.
“Higher temperatures mean more evapotranspiration from the vegetation level,” according to Dr. George Mitri, director of the Land and Natural Resources Program at the University of Balamand. In layman’s terms, this refers to drier and more flammable plants, which can be dangerous for forests.
“The second we have any source of fire, we can have very quick ignition of flames … and it can spread to very large areas, like the fires we are seeing in Akkar.”
The Environment Ministry is coordinating with municipalities and local groups to encourage the removal of the overgrown grasses and fight fires, including providing case-by-case emergency funds for firefighting teams, Environment Minister Nasser Yassin previously told L’Orient Today.
Still, recent weeks have seen near-daily wildfires in Lebanon, particularly in Akkar governorate where public funding and equipment shortages for the Civil Defense mean volunteer groups are also stepping in to help.