Coastal development and sea turtle conservation: Where is the balance?

Access road blockage

To those who have visited the island, the mere mention of Funzi conjures images of an exotic island, untouched by human development and left behind in the scramble for scarce and fast diminishing natural resources. The island, boasting of a rich diversity of animal and plant life is also a nesting site and foraging ground for the endangered sea turtles, especially the Green and Hawksbill species. Over the years, hundreds of these magnificent sea creatures have left their crawl prints on the quiet beaches surrounding this sleepy island on the South Coast of Mombasa, as they come to nest, almost assured that their young ones will make it to the waters and begin the long voyage that has been replayed for centuries.

As dolphins play in the serene waters, various small animals scout the virgin forest, laid back in their lifestyle and unperturbed by the little human activity in the nearby village certain that no harm will beget them. My camera rapidly clicks away, catching sight of a young colobus monkey idly perched on a tree branch, and I realize that like many of his kin, he is totally unaware that the very tree branch he sits on may soon be turned into a piece into furniture adorning one of the many cottages rapidly being constructed on the island. My mind wanders off and I’m momentarily lost in thought, only to be startled by a terrified Dik Dik in full flight, scared by the strange sound of an approaching bulldozer. The chirping of the many birds hidden among the trees seems to have a different tune, almost revealing the looming threat from the new unwelcome neighbors.

Funzi island is home to slightly over 1000 people, who have over the years sustainably used the many natural resources for sustenance. A good number of the ‘fundis’ are fishermen, making use of traditional fishing methods to feed their families. The island is also home to two resorts, one of which mainly caters for visitors on day trips while the other, an all-inclusive establishment, caters for high-end tourists.

The planned cottages are an off-shoot of this all-inclusive resort, and thanks to this developments, the natural forest on the island, home to numerous small animals, birds and insects will have to go. What’s more, this wanton destruction is the work of one man, driven by profit and unhindered by anything else.

The senseless deforestation has especially complicated the work of sea turtle conservationists working on the island, and since all access paths to the beaches have been deliberately blocked, they have had to quietly sneak through the thickets, lest they come face to face with the dreaded and mean looking, baton-wielding Maasai guards, who are under strict instructions not to let anyone through.

Simple tasks such as beach clean-ups have turned into hide and seek games. Walking on the beaches can only be done in defiance, by those brave enough to stand up to the guards dotted all over the island – never mind the fact that according to Kenyan law, all land 60 metres from the high tide line is public. There’s more to come. The cottages are being built so close to the beach without the lighting ordinances being kept. Counsel and conscience have been thrown out of the window as financial gains and profit-making take the front seat.

Conservationists are now raising the red flag against this looming threat to wildlife. The Kenya Sea Turtle Conservation Committee (KESCOM), which runs a community-based conservation project in Funzi, sees this as a blow to the gains made over the years. According to the project officer, Douglas Maina, there is a need for future development on the island to be controlled if the ecosystem has to be conserved. “It is very important that we see the big picture and think in terms of today’s long-term impact on the environment and the wildlife that we are trying to conserve”, he added. The organization works locally with the Funzi Turtle Club, runs a IUCN Netherlands-sponsored pilot project that seeks to integrate sea turtle conservation with ecotourism. Cottage construction on the Island

Villagers are worried since the area administration is unable (or unwilling) to intervene. To see such a beautiful island being destroyed in such a callous manner is painfully worrying, and at the very least, annoying.

Douglas maina

Integrating sea turtle conservation with ecotourism

Funzi Turtle Club members receive ownership documents of a boat donated by IUCN Netherlands as part of a project ‘Integrating sea turtle conservation with ecotourism’. The boat will be used for sea patrols. The turtle conservation club also carries out other activities such as habitat rehabilitation, beach clean-ups, turtle tagging and release, hatchling release program, in-situ nest protection as well as production of handicrafts and souvenirs out of recycled material. This club is one of the 18 community Turtle Conservation Groups (TCGs) that the Kenya Sea Turtle Conservation Community (KESCOM) currently works with.

Sea turtle conservation in Kenya

Green turtle mortalityKenya Sea Turtle Conservation Committee coordinates sea turtle conservation activities in Kenya and works closely with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Fisheries department, Kenya Marine Fisheries and Research Institute (KMFRI), Coast Development Authority, other national institutions, NGOs and other stakeholders in the conservation of sea turtles. Major threats to sea turtles in Kenya include poaching, destructive fishing methods and degradation of habitats.

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.
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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

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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.

A research exercise

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Research focuses on monitoring trends of nesting, mortalities and sightings as well as threats.