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Integrating Sea turtle conservation with sports

The world cup fever is a welcome craze to billions of people worldwide. This once in a while event comes as a blessing to a wide cross-section of our communities, never mind the fact that some of our local national teams are going to join us on the couch and sharing our popcorn instead of dressing up in jerseys and kicking some ball like their peers! It is that time again when, if you loathe football, you should then descend into a remote bunker that you should have built earlier. This season, however, I doubt whether the sea turtles will be happy with the hordes of football fans who will undoubtedly find their way into South African beaches. I know for a fact that the noise too will be unwelcome because I am sure South Africa will be loud over the next couple of weeks.

On the bright side, this soccer craze has its good tidings. In many places along the coast, hundreds of young people are engaged in this much-loved sport in the name of sea turtle conservation. From Funzi to Kipini, the Mexican wave is rapidly catching on. Take the Turtle F.C. for instance. Supported and sponsored by the Tana Friends of the Marine Environment (TAFMEN), the team is a force to reckon with in the local tournaments. The wannabe Ronaldos, Drogbas and Marigas have a passion not only for kicking around leather, but also keeping the sea turtles alive.

That is why each match is a sea turtle education and awareness opportunity for them, using the pre-match moments to urge the community to conserve the sea turtles and their habitats. Sticking out in the stands, one cannot fail to notice ‘Save the sea turtle’ messages interspersed with team slogans.

Members of TAFMEN are a permanent feature in the cheering stands, taking a deserved breather from patrolling and monitoring their beaches to watch these truly talented young men take to the field. Practice sessions are taken seriously, with the coach imparting both tactical and life skills to the team. To John Kali, a member of TAFMEN and stand-in coach, the soccer pitch is one place where the youth can sit still and listen keenly. Shaibu Mohammed can’t agree more, and he relishes in the very idea of scouting for sponsors and well-wishers to support this young and determined club. He looks forward to the day, which he reckons is coming soon, when other seashore communities shall borrow a leaf from Kipini. Soon, he says, the district cup finals may very well be a match between Green turtle F.C. and Hawkbill F.C., better still, third place could be the new kids on the block, Leatherback United.

At the end of each game, the message left ringing in the spectators’ ears is clear, Turtle F.C. is a good side…………and there really is a need to conserve the endangered sea turtles.
Turtle FC members during practice

Center: Team captain, John Kali

Infront: TAFMEN project coordinator, Shaibu Mohamed


Destructive fishing practices on Funzi Bay

The remains of a large female green turtle was found slaughtered on the south shore of Funzi Island on Tuesday 17th of October. The meat had been removed, probably at sea, and the cadaver was dumped to be taken taken to shore by the waves. This was the first time we encountered this type of incident, which is not very common nowadays. All local fishermen here on Funzi Island are aware that poaching sea turtles is both illegal and immoral.

This incident coincides disturbingly with the presence of few large motorboats who are using ring nets just off shore on Funzi Bay. This non-selective fishing method is extremely harmful to the marine ecosystem. Recently, it also became illegal in Kenya. A ring net will catch everything within its width, with no consideration to what species are harvested and to the size of the individuals caught. When used around coral reefs, ring nets are known to cause massive destruction.

The local people in Funzi are powerlessly watching this destruction occurring on daily basis in their own fishing waters. The unwelcome fishermen operate in large groups, with up to 30 roughnecked men on each boat. It is said that each boat can catch up to 5 tonnes of fish a day. The crew often originates from other areas, even from as far as Tanzania. Their understanding of the conditions in the marine ecosystem here is very limited, and their incentive to brutally exploit the fish here is clear – each fishermen earns about 7000 Kenyan shillings a day (roughly 70€). At least three of these vessels have been exploiting the water around Funzi during the last month. Trying to chase away such a fishing boat from the area might en up in a violent conflict.

Fish in Funzi is an important resource. It is an absolutely vital protein source for the islands’ inhabitants and provides a well-needed income for the fishermen. According to experienced fishermen, the landings of fish have been rapidly declining during the last years. The activities witnessed around here will certainly have a negative impact on fisheries and are endangering both the ecosystem and the people relying on it. This, in turn, will certainly make life even more difficult for sea turtles. In addition to habitat destruction and the higher risk of getting caught in nets, there is an overhanging risk that even local fishermen will go back to poaching turtles in the absence of fish. Since this fishing occurs on such a large scale, it is up to the local authorities to take action. The local fishermen can not protect the environment by themselves.

Big clean-up on Funzi Island

Last Monday Suleiman, our friend and a Funzi Turtle Club member, came to us and said that Tuesday was a national holiday and the kids are free from school. He had an idea to take a group of students for a major clean-up in the biggest beach on the island, Mwakinyavu. We jumped at the chance as this is one of the best nesting beaches for sea turtles on Funzi and it is too big to clean for a few people. Our worries were only that the children would rather do something else on their day off…

On Tuesday morning we woke up early, trying to avoid walking to the beach when the sun is already on “scorch”. After eating our daily chapatis washed down with a nice chai maziwa (milk tea) we went to the school to see if anyone would join us. The only ones appearing were two girls, and after 20 minutes our suspicions for a “no show” were growing. But suddenly, the school yard filled with children with the encouragement of another club member, Nashamba. About 25 girls and boys from 6 to 16 years old came and impatiently wanted to get started. After a short introduction from Suleiman we started our 45 minutes long walk in the hot Kenyan sun. When we got to Mwakinyavu the kids just spread out and started collecting all kinds of junk that happened to reach the shore – old plastic sandals, hundreds of plastic bottles and other bits and pieces of plastic.

Within half an hour the largest beach on Funzi was clean. Well, it turned out to be more garbage than we managed to carry back to the village. The rest was taken later by the rest of the Turtle Club members. After the hard work we recovered our strength with a soda with the children who made this achievement possible.

The big problem with the plastic debris arriving the beaches here, apart from the obvious non-appealing sight, is that sea turtles and other animals confuse it with food and either choke or get poisoned from it. The clean-ups by the club members, and the children, are an important contribution to marine wildlife.

Another activity of the Funzi Turtle Club is to create handicrafts from the waste, which creates livelihood and gives some value to the undesired, ever growing piles of garbage on the beaches.

A problem we face here on Funzi is that disposal of garbage is nonexistent. All garbage is burned uncontrolled in open fires or simply dug down in the soil. There are no facilities to do any kind of recycling here. The waste pollutes both the air, soil and water around the island. Better facilities here, or at least a better way to transport the junk to the mainland to be recycled, will contribute much to both people and the ecosystems. But at least we are lucky enough to have many children that care about their environment, the future is bright!

Destruction on Funzi Island Continues

Whenever anybody hears the name ‘Funzi Island’, they think sea turtles, this is because Funzi Island is undoubtedly a turtle haven. With virtually untouched beaches and little human development, this island boasts of six nesting sites, out of which thousands of hatchlings have crawled into the open ocean every year – for thousands of years. All the seven species of the sea turtles are listed by the IUCN as ‘endangered’, with the green turtle being in the red list, meaning it is ‘critically endangered’. Two species of turtles nest on Funzi Island while others are known to forage in the waters off the Kenyan coast. More than 50% of this magnificent island is covered in mangrove forest and an indigenous forest, home to small animals such as the rare colobus monkeys, dik diks, wild pigs and a host of terrestrial and marine birds.

Conservation efforts spearheaded by organisations such as the Kenya Sea Turtle Conservation & Management Committee (KESCOM), the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) among others, seem to be bearing fruit. With the help and support from KESCOM, over 18 local-volunteer-led Turtle Conservation Groups (TCGs) have sprung up all along the coast and are doing an incredible job cleaning beaches, undertaking beach patrols, protecting nests and rehabilitating sea turtle habitats.

Funzi Turtle Club is one of the oldest and most active of these groups. Consisting of 30 members, the club has consistently and jealously guarded the six beaches on the island against poachers and wild predators. The group frequently carries out public education and awareness, illuminating the need for community involvement in conservation activities. These efforts have seen a sharp decline in sea turtle poaching and consumption. Sadly, these efforts are being sabotaged and the gains made reversed, thanks to a private developer on the island.

The Swiss-Italian hotelier who is the proprietor of a high-end private resort in Funzi is on a deforestation melee in his unchecked quest to expand his dominance on the island. This capitalistic catastrophe has led him to fence off chunks of forest land effectively hampering movement on the island for the locals and completely blocking access routes to the beaches. His bulldozers work overtime – flattening the tropical forest synonymous with Funzi, a feature which made the island a truly exotic destination. This spells doom to conservation efforts. Funzi residents have now raised the red flag and are crying out in protest.

Particularly enraged are the turtle club members who are unable to reach the beaches to carry out their daily conservation activities. This leaves the nesting sites vulnerable, exposing them to egg and turtle poachers. Collection of vital turtle activity data and nest monitoring activities are also greatly affected, leaving the club members a dejected and angry lot.

Walking through what is left of the once thick virgin forest is a sad and emotional affair. The look on the little monkeys’ faces perched high on baobab trees and staring at fresh clearings almost tells their story – that of impeding doom. Their calls translate to a cry for help, speaking for the other animals and the turtles that cannot speak. The lingering question remains: If this individual will not listen to a plea from humans, can’t he at least stop and listen to the cry of the monkeys?

The Dobos on Funzi

After months of planning and long e-mail exchanges we were finally in Kenya, on the way to “our” island and a voluntary work with the people of Funzi and KESCOM. While waiting for the boat to take us for the first time to Funzi Island, a local fisherman came with a rice sack containing a green sea turtle. It had been caught in the fishing nets early in the morning and was now to be rescued back after measurements and tagging with an ID number. We were so happy about seeing a turtle already on our first day on the island! It was a juvenile, but we believe it was a female and she was named Sonia after me (J or I, doesn’t really matter here). I’m wondering where she might be heading, if she will follow her friends from here that were found as far as South Africa or if she will stay around and watch us while we swim… Anyway, if she will survive all the dangers at sea and at shore, I hope she will be hatching new Sonja-turtles one day!

What worries me now as we have been walking around this small paradise island is that Sonia may not recognize her nesting beach when it’s her time to return. The level of destruction in this island is massive and it seems most of it is caused by just one single businessman operating the island with connections and money.

We are working together with the Funzi Turtle Club, who are doing such admirable work on a volunteer basis to benefit the sea turtles. They are performing daily cleaning of the beaches, patrolling and making handicrafts from rubbish collected on the beaches, to mention a few things. Today we joined beach patrols in the morning. Beautiful sceneries of white sand beaches mixed with mangrove forests and few signs for exploitation – only a few small fishing boats using simple fishing equipments. In the evening we were supposed to visit one of the six nesting beaches to conduct cleaning as well as monitoring of the beach. There is only one road to access this beach, and the land surrounding this road has been fenced by the the above mentioned businessman, who has his private air-strip there. When we came, a Masai guard stopped us from entering the public road leading towards the beach. The guard was holding a knife in one hand and aggressively telling us off, following us back to the gate. We were not able to reach the beach and were left with no other options than to return back home. Our aim, to monitor the beach and clean it from debris, could not be reached.

There is no alternative road to this very important nesting beach, and the turtle group is now unable to perform their patrols, clean ups or monitoring. This is a disaster for the turtles, which are known to come to nest soon, and a hard blow to the dedicated group of people working here. The feelings are turbulent on Funzi at the moment. The locals are being restricted from their right to use their own land, and the turtles are left unprotected. All in the name of greed.

Msambweni education and awareness campaign

Members of the Simakeni Environmental group pose for a group photo after a successiful awareness dayMsambweni residents started trooping in early, on foot, by bycycle and by matatu. I couldn’t make up my mind whether they are ‘constitutionally accustomed’ to keeping time or it is the music blaring from the stereo that prompted their early arrival. Nevertheless, by the time the MC called to order, there was already a crowd that would make any politician’s mouth water. But no, this wasn’t a political gathering, it was one of the monthly education and awareness days organised by Simakeni Environmental Group, one of the Turtle Conservation Groups working under KESCOM in the south coast.

This particular one was so involving and interactive and was led by KESCOM staff, together with officers from the local office of the Ministry of fisheries. The awareness is carried out under the Tiwi, Diani Chale, Management trust with a CDTF grant.

Not only were the presentations stimulating, so was the input by the locals who wowed all of use with their knowledge of turtle conservation issues. Standing out was a villager nicknamed ‘bwana kasa’ (Mr. Turtle), a self confessed former turtle poacher, now in the forefront in conservation.

The discussion topics included, general sea turtle biology, the need for conservation, laws that protect the sea turtles as well as the community’s role in conservation.

At the end of the day, it was clear that this particular community was ready and willing to give sea turtle conservation, the much needed community support. It was also another feather in the Simakeni group’s hat for managing to organise yet another successiful awareness day.


Good tidings in Funzi with the advent of the tourism high season

Apologies for being offline for a couple of weeks. We are glad to report that we are back again. The high tourism season is here again and we are glad to report that Funzi Island has not been left behind. Just last week, about 200 tourists visited the island! The sleepy island is now coming to life.

 I spent a weekend with Sergei and Nick, volunteers from GVI who so generously visited the IUCN funded ecotourism project to learn about what the club is doing. Their two days on the island were packed with activities. We visited turtle nesting beaches, did the village walk, enjoyed local food, met club members and jioned in the handicraft production among others.

The lowpoint of the trip was seeing the indigenous forest destruction that is supposedly to enable construction of cottages. Whatever it is, the bulldozing is massive and a bit senseless. We kept asking ourselves what we can do to save the island. Some construction has begun, and most of it goes on right next to the beaches. As we walked through the remnants of a once dense forest, the cry of the colobus monkeys brought us to the stark reality that some of this wonderful creatures may not have a home in the next few months! With all this going on, it chills to imagine what Funzi will be like in ten years if thess developments are left to continue unchecked and unhindered.

Taking part in the club activities was as usual, so exciting. The handicraft training that the members received in April is bearing fruit – as seen through the diversity of the products they are able to creatively produce. The project is so far on course, the members are really optimistic that with the increased visitor numbers, they will be able to sell more and more of their products.

This month, there are more patrol trips around the beaches, fourse major beach clean-up exercises, more camping activities and a mangrove planting day. The club has a busy month – but its all in the name of saving the magnificent sea turtles.

Conservation efforts in Tana delta

TAFMEN members take measurements of a turtle found dead Some of the mangroves that TAFMEN members have plantedA stranded dolphin is helped back into the water by TAFMEN members

KESCOM has over the years employed the use of community based conservation groups to ensure sustainability on protection of coastal habitats and sea turtles. One such group is Tana Friends of the Marine Environment (TAFMEN) situated in the lower Tana delta, Kipini division, Kenya. Efforts by the group members have seen quite a vast cover of mangroves restored and through facilitation by KESCOM, beach patrols and monitoring of turtle data such as nesting and mortalities, has been intensified. For instance recent beach patrol by the members had seven Chelonia mydas turtle species deaths reported between 6th and 7th April 2009 and a dolphin stranded along the beach. The dolphin was later helped back into the waters by these dedicated conservationists.

What we do

In collaboration with local communities (currently 18), we undertake beach patrols to collect data on turtle activities, beach clean ups and mangrove planting to rehabilitate degraded beaches.
Members of Jimbo Environment group, one of the KESCOM group pose for a photograph after mangrove planting exercise. So far, we have planted over one million mangroves. We also strive to inform our members about our activities regularly through a newsletter called Jambo Kasa.

A beach clean up exercise

We also undertake research activities to continuously inform awareness activities that are undertaken within the communities and in schools. We spent about 50 % of our resources towards education and awareness.