How White Lights are Periling Karachi’s Turtles?
Artificial lights harm turtles. World Bank & KMC project ignore this, install lights near turtle sanctuary
How White Lights are Perling Karachi’s Turtles?
Artificial lights harm turtles. World Bank & KMC project ignore this, install lights near turtle sanctuary
It was a night of contrasts on the Hawksbay beach in Karachi. On one side, there was a celebration of life as turtle hatchlings emerged from their nests and made their way to the sea. On the other, there was a violation of nature as a crowd of picnickers disturbed and endangered the tiny creatures.
I witnessed the scene on a cold Saturday night on November 18, 2023, as part of my investigation into the impact of artificial light at night also known as ALAN on sea turtles. I arrived at the beach around 10 pm, after meeting with Ashfaq Ali Memon, the head of the Sindh Wildlife Department’s Marine Turtle Conservation, at his office. He told me about the efforts of his team to protect the eggs and hatchlings from predators such as dogs and poachers. They had secured 22,000 eggs in their man-made nests, covered with iron cages and nets along an 8-km sandy coast. In 2022, they had gathered 30,000 eggs, out of which 15,600 hatched.
But their work was not enough to save the turtles from the biggest threat – human interference. As I walked along the shore, I saw a procession of bright white lights approaching the conservation office. They came from powerful searchlights emitting white LED beams and mobile phone torches carried by around a hundred or so picnickers who wanted to see the turtles.
Children held the hatchlings in their hands as their parents took pictures and made videos. Some snapped selfies with the creatures. They shone bright white lights into their eyes. The hatchlings flapped their fins, desperate to get away from human hands.
They also scared away a female turtle who had come to lay her eggs. The turtle season lasts from first September to mid-February across Karachi’s coasts. Sandy beaches are favoured by these creatures where they dig three-feet deep pits using their flaps and a further half-a-feet chamber to lay between 60-70 eggs. But when the female turtle was besieged by the blinding lights, she turned back and retreated into the water.
The only person who tried to stop the picnickers was Muhammad Amir, a game watcher from the Sindh Wildlife department. Clad in a rexine jacket and a cap embossed with Sindh Wildlife logo, he had no gear except for his voice. He pleaded with the crowd to turn off the lights and leave the turtles alone. But they did not listen. They argued with him and in babyish-voices begged him to let them be.
I approached Amir and asked him how he felt about the situation. He said he was frustrated and helpless. He said he had been working for the conservation of turtles ever since he was a child as he accompanied his deceased game-watcher father. He lamented the mindset of “parhay-likhay jaahil” or educated ignorant people. He wished people would respect the turtles and their habitat.
When I met Memon of Hawksbay’s Turtle Conservation office, constructed in 2002, to find out about government efforts for the plight of turtles, he told me that all marine turtles were safeguarded under the Sindh Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1972 (Schedule II).
The wildlife department has notified all the beach huts, leased by either the municipality or KPT, to switch off lights after sunset, especially during the turtle hatching season (September to mid February). He said that the wildlife authority has the power to issue directives across the province to protect wildlife. However, as I walked along the Hawksbay beach, I saw several beach houses that were not only lit but also had picnickers interacting with turtle hatchlings.
Memon, who has been at the helm for four years, told me that this season alone, an estimated 250 female turtles turned back to the sea without laying eggs because of ALAN. Moreover, he pointed out that the hatchlings that emerged from their eggs and moved towards the sea, artificial light disorients them and makes them change their routes. He said many of them get crushed under cars on roads or are devoured by stray dogs. He showed me some of the hundreds of artificial nests that the wildlife department had made, where the game watchers place the turtle eggs after collecting them from their natural hatcheries. He said that in this way these nests are safer and more secure for the turtles.
Light pollution saturates the night sky above Turtle Beach during the crucial turtle hatchling season. Picture taken on November 19 at 2 am. Picture by Pyar Ali
Despite warnings from Sindh Wildlife, a late-night party is in full swing, casting blue, yellow, and white lights directly onto the seashore during the critical turtle hatchling season. The hut is just a few meters away from the Sindh Wildlife Turtle Conservation Office. Picture taken on November 19 at 2 am. Picture by Oonib Azam
A hut at Turtle Beach casts bright white light toward the horizon and the shore. Picture taken on November 19 at 2:22 am. Picture by Oonib Azam
I also reached out to Moazzam Khan, the technical advisor on marine fisheries at WWF Pakistan, through phone. He told me that the Karachi coast is home to five marine turtle species, of which Olive Ridley and Green are the most common. The other species include: Loggerhead, Hawksbill, Leatherback turtles. He said that the main threats to the turtle population are poaching and manhandling, not ALAN. He referred to a 2012 study by WWF Pakistan, which revealed that 30,000 sea turtles died after getting entangled in fishnets. He also said that global warming affected their numbers, as the temperature within the egg pits determines the hatchlings’ sex. He explained that if the temperature exceeded 27 degrees Celsius, it resulted in more female hatchlings, causing an imbalance in their population.
I spoke to Dr Umair Bin Zamir, a Geographic Information System (GIS) expert and a marine turtle researcher, on the phone. He told me that light pollution was often overlooked in our region, compared to other forms of pollution like plastic waste and oil spills in the sea. He said that white light is a “killer light” for turtles’ eyes and spatial orientation. He asked me to imagine how my eyes would react to white light so close.
He shared with me the findings of a study he participated in on marine turtles along Karachi’s coasts. He said they discovered that a female turtle travels all the way to Australian beaches and returns to Karachi’s coast, to lay its eggs at the same “coordinates [the same spot]” where she layed eggs the last time. This shows how sensitive and precise turtles are to their natural environment.
He said that the harm to turtles and other marine life from ALAN was far more grave. He mentioned that bright white LED street lights near turtle hatcheries harm them. He explained that both turtle hatchlings and adult turtles are naturally drawn toward the horizon’s natural light. If this light is affected by ALAN, it disrupts their natural path.
He gave me an example of how ALAN can create an imbalance in the marine ecosystem. He said that if all the lizards are displaced as a result of ALAN, there will be an abundance of insects which would affect the food chain and the biodiversity of marine life.
Another factor worsening the situation for turtles is the provincial government’s World Bank (WB)-funded development projects, which lack environmental foresight, especially regarding the impacts of ALAN. These projects are pushing female turtles away and making it harder for hatchlings to reach the sea.
One such project is the two-way, 5.9-km Mauripur Road inaugurated by former chief minister of Sindh, Murad Ali Shah, in August last year. The road starts from Machli Chowk and goes to Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP). Nearly 520 white LED street lights of 120 W each have been installed on the road, which is only 80 to 120 meters away from the sea.
The screenshot from Google Earth shows the distance in km from Machli Chowk, where white LED lights have been installed along the road project, to the Marine Turtle Conservation office.
The impact of these lights is evident from two research studies. A 2014 American study indicates that one needs to travel about 170 kms away from urban centers to experience natural light conditions. A 2020 UK study highlights a significant degradation in sky quality near major sources of light pollution, especially from streetlights. This means that areas with many streetlights will affect one’s ability to observe celestial objects.
The WB, however, does not seem to have taken enough measures to prevent such imbalances in Hawksbay. It appears to have no internal environmental audit mechanism and relying on flawed information provided by the city authorities.
Dua Restaurant, located adjacent to Machli Chowk, casts bright white and yellow lights directly onto the beach where marine turtles come to lay eggs. Picture taken on January 9, 2024. Picture by Oonib Azam
The Mauripur road project is a sub-project of the WB’s Competitive and Liveable City of Karachi (CLICK) project, which costs PKR 840 million (US $ 2,978,723.33). The WB assesses the environmental and social impacts of its projects in three categories, based on the scale and severity of the project. This project falls under Category B, which is for projects with limited and reversible risks, which can be addressed through mitigation measures.
For Category B projects, the executing agency (in this case KMC) is required to submit an Environmental and Social Management Plan (ESMP). According to the ESMP report available online, an NOC was obtained from the provincial environment watchdog Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) for the project construction.
When I read the KMC report, I saw that it did not mention the turtle marine conservation site of the provincial government. It claimed that there were no recorded sanctuaries near the sub-project area. It also mentioned that there are various reptiles, such as snakes, lizards and turtles, near the Hawksbay Road. And that turtles were a common sight, since the project area is surrounded by beaches.
The WB has apparently accepted the report, funding a project of installing 520 white LED street lights of 120 W each that is akin to two football fields’ stadium lights (see box) next to a turtle sanctuary.
In its Environmental Management Framework document, the WB explicitly has stated that environmental and social safeguard policies were a cornerstone of its support to sustainable poverty reduction. The objective of these policies was to prevent and mitigate undue harm to people and their environment in the development process.
I first emailed Dr. Thomas Davies, lecturer in marine conservation at the University of Plymouth, UK, to inquire about the limit or threshold of light in W that is considered nondisruptive for marine turtles. He responded that light shielding and using red lights have had some success in reducing the impact on turtle nesting. “It surprises me that any authority would roll out street lighting infrastructure like this without considering mitigation unless, of course, the objective is to light the beach!” he said.
To get the WB’s perspective, I emailed its Urban Development, Resilience, and Land Practice Manager for the South Asia Region, Abedalrazq F. Khalil, on December 19. A week later he replied that the institution was committed to adopting the principles of its Environmental and Social Framework in all its funded operations. He also added that he would get back to me with more details.
On January 3, I received an email from Tahir Akbar, the Task Team Leader for CLICK and the Senior Urban Development Specialist South Asia Region at the WB. He said that the project team were aware of the turtles’ habitat and had visited the area a few times.
He explained that the road in question was proposed by KMC to be rehabilitated in two phases. In the first phase, a 6.5-km stretch of road had been rehabilitated from Machli Chowk to KANUUP Road. He said that this road was about 5-8 km away from the green turtles’ hatching site and passed through an inhabited area where hatching had not been sighted due to the presence of residents, physical infrastructure (huts) and unsuitable soil texture of the beach.
In the second phase, KMC had proposed another scheme for rehabilitating a road from New Machli Chowk to Old Machli Chowk. “We are aware that this road passes through the actual hatching site of Green Turtles,” he wrote. He also added in the email, “while no decision has been taken for this scheme yet, the WB was inclined to exclude this scheme from the list of approved subprojects as the CLICK project has not triggered OP 4.04 Critical Habitats”. He said that the environment team is reviewing the ESMP submitted to the Bank for the second phase of the road project.
However, the World Bank’s response appears to contradict reality. According to Memon of Turtle Conservation office, their turtle conservation sites include the Hawksbay, Turtle and Sandspit beaches. Moreover, the road from Machli Chowk to KANUUP Road runs parallel to Hawksbay Beach at a few 100-meter distances. (Video proof below)
WB’s Akbar claiming that the rehabilitated road is 5-8 kms away from the turtles’ hatching site is incorrect. The road starts at Machli Chowk, which is only 5.4 kms from the Turtle Conservation office and the hatching site spans the entire Hawkbay and Sandspit beaches.
Screengrab capturing the marine turtle conservation spots discussed in the story. Picture by The Citizenry.
I wanted to know what the city officials had to say about the project to install massive lights on a road near a turtle sanctuary. I contacted the mayor of Karachi, Murtaza Wahab, who heads the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation. He sounded unaware of the issue. He said they would make sure that in future, development projects near the shore, the city authorities do not use white lights and would affix light fixtures lower to the ground roads so that they do not degrade natural sky quality.
I reached out to SEPA’s DG Naeem Mughal. When I first contacted him about ALAN and its impact on marine life for my main story, he was unaware of the issue. This time, he said they could also have a provision to include new guidelines and regulations for light pollution without needing to adopt legislation. He suggested that if a study highlights the risks of light pollution, his agency would issue guidelines during the planning and development stages.
Marine conservation sites & ALAN
At Hawksbay, the nearest offshore area had two buffers. The first buffer’s light intensity ranged between 8.943 and 18.02 W, emitting light to about 5.3 football stadiums. The second buffer ranged between 4.519 and 8.943 W, emitting light to about 2.6 football stadiums.
At Sandspit it ranged between 8.943 and 18.02 W equal to the light of about 2.6 football stadiums.
At Manora offshore light intensity ranged between 18.02 W and 36.68 W. The maximum range of 36.68W showed radiance emitted by 11 football stadiums.
The data was collected by the NIO’s Integrated Phsical Oceanography Lab for The Citizenry using remote sensing in April and May 2023.
Explore an interactive map showcasing onshore and offshore light radiance at marine turtle hatchling beaches: Hawksbay, Turtle Beach, and Sandspit, utilizing NIO’s data. Hover your mouse cursor to examine light radiance along these coasts. In the modified roadmap view, discover the names of various areas across the city’s coastline. Created by Ammaz Khan.
EXPERTS ON REDUCING ALAN
- Light shielding and red lights have been somewhat successful in lowering impact on turtle nesting, said Dr Davies of Plymouth University.
- Look into the UK’s Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government guidelines related to light pollution that offer advice on how to consider lighting during the planning stage.
- Lights at a distance of 300 feet from the sea can be managed with timers and dimmers, said architect Andaleeb Rizvi.
- The government needs to come up with a lightning ordinance for the beaches, particularly where marine turtles nest, she said.
- Dim lights or halogen lights are better alternatives, said GIS expert Dr Zamir.
- The government should make and implement rules and regulations to reduce ALAN, he added.
Story produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.
Amrita Gupta, Earth Journalism Network
Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui
This story owes its existence to the unwavering support of the
Muhammad Usman Ghani
Dr Sadia Khalil