Turtle-based tourism in Tanzania has been given a boost by a successful community-based conservation programme. Turtles are endangered worldwide, but the five species of turtles found along the Tanzania coastline are now increasing in numbers.
An intensive education and awareness programme has enlisted local fishermen and villagers in the conservation programme.
Turtle nests are now protected and monitored in many parts of Tanzania. The longest and best documented programme is on Mafia Island, recognised as a regionally important nesting ground for Green and Hawksbill turtles.
Communities living near traditional turtle nesting areas now record and protect turtle nests through local village monitors. The villagers are paid around $10 for each nest they discover and guard.
Village monitor Omari Abdulla is enthusiastic about his responsibilities. During the nesting season he visits beaches where turtles have come to dig a nest and lay their eggs. Once a nest is spotted, Mr Abdulla records its location, the number of eggs and ensured it is protected.
“We find tracks and then find the nest. When the turtles are coming out, we tell all the villagers and school children. It’s about involving the whole community. And we see the numbers of turtles increasing.”
Initiated in January 2001, the number of recorded nests on Mafia Island has more than doubled from 68 to more than 150 a year. And at least 30,000 successful hatchlings have been counted.
Poaching of turtles, once valued as a delicacy, has fallen by 90% on the island since the start of the turtle awareness programme.
Catharine Muir, Coordinator of the Tanzania Turtle & Dugong Conservation Programme, has seen dramatic changes over the years.
“When I first came to Mafia Island 10 years ago all one would see scattered along the beaches were turtle skulls, shells and meat. It was a really sad sight, a turtle mortuary,” she said.
Fishermen are now encouraged to surrender the live turtle accidentally caught in nets. And they assist with the tagging and releasing of turtles for future records on migratory patterns.
School children living near marine reserves have joined in the conservation programme. Schools have participated in painting competitions to show turtles in their natural habitat.
And teachers take students on field trips to see turtle hatchlings scramble from their nests to the sea.
Identical programmes have been initiated in three other traditional nesting areas along Tanzania’s 900 km coastline.
There are two large marine parks and a number of marine reserves in Tanzania which were established to encourage conservation measures to benefit both fishermen and marine resources.
In some coastal areas, new economic activities such as seaweed farming and handicrafts have been introduced to provide alternative income for fishing communities.
The marine conservation programmes have also benefited the critically endangered dugong, also known as the sea cow.
Dugongs were the basis of the mermaid myth in many seagoing societies, including Tanzania.
In Greek mythology mermaids were known as beautiful sirens that lured sailors to a shipwreck death with their sweet songs.
In fact dugongs are placid marine mammals which can grow to 3.5 meters long and feed on sea grass. Dugongs were thought to have become extinct in Tanzania, hunted for their meat and caught accidentally in fishing nets.
Now two small colonies of the mammals have been discovered along the 900 km Tanzanian coastline and they have been adopted as a flagship species.
When local fishermen spot dugongs, they now report sightings to local conservation officials.
Turtle-based tourism and ecotourism are expected to benefit from the conservation programme.
The biodiversity of the tropical coral reefs, home to 25% of all species in the ocean, profits from a healthy population of turtles.