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April/May 2007
Sensible Solutions to Marine Animal Conservation in Tanzania
By Adam M. Roberts

Tanzania is ranked among the most undeveloped countries in the world according to the UN 2005 Human Development Report (listed at number 164 out of 177 nations included). Life expectancy at birth is 46 and per capita income is less than two dollars a day. Around one-third of the population is illiterate and lacks access to adequate water sources. Startlingly, the report declares, “In 1990 the average American was 38 times richer than the average Tanzanian. Today the average American is 61 times richer.”

Such poverty significantly complicates wildlife law enforcement and animal protection. When resources are unavailable to ensure human needs are adequately met, wildlife suffers too. There is a real difficulty in Tanzania in managing coastal habitats and resident species, conserving endangered marine life and enforcing existing laws for animal protection.

For example, Tanzania’s coastline provides feeding, breeding and nesting habitats for all five sea turtle species found in the western Indian Ocean: green, hawksbill, loggerhead, leatherback and olive ridley. These species are protected from international commercial trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and are listed as either threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Yet, while officially protected in Tanzania, their populations have experienced dangerous declines due to poaching of nesting females and eggs, captures in gillnets and prawn trawlers, and disturbance of nesting beaches. Without vigorously implemented and targeted strategies to protect them, they will continue their precipitous decline toward extinction.

In Situ Wildlife Conservation
One local nongovernmental organization, coordinated out of Dar es Salaam by biologist Catharine Muir, is working hard with the community to ensure a brighter future for these marine creatures. The Marine Turtle and Dugong Research and Habitat Protection Program, executed by Sea Sense, was started in 2001 with the stated objective of promoting “the conservation of endangered marine life in Tanzania in collaboration with coastal communities, local government agencies, research institutions, and the public and private sectors.”

Understanding that local “know-how” and personal involvement with indigenous communities is essential to saving threatened and endangered species, the program works through awareness raising, wildlife monitoring and research. Following three successful years on Mafia Island, Tanzania, the effort recently expanded to the entire national shoreline, including the coastal districts of Mafia, Mtwara, Temeke, Pangani, Bagamoyo, Rufiji, Kilwa and Mkuranga.

Across the shoreline, Muir and her dedicated team have already identified nesting sites, recruited and trained local project assistants and protection officers, implemented a nest protection incentive scheme, translocated at-risk nests, started a turtle catch monitoring program and developed vital turtle conservation strategies.

Culturally, helping with community education is also a vital component to wildlife conservation and ensuring that those who live with wildlife develop a healthy respect for these animals and their habitats. This involves not only informing political leaders, wildlife law enforcement professionals and community elders, but also the children in the relevant communities. These kids are being taught to protect, not harmfully exploit, animals.

In 2006, some 325 green turtle nests were protected. According to Muir, this “meant that almost 25,000 hatchlings successfully reached the Indian Ocean.” Since their work began in 2001, more than 1,000 green and hawksbill turtle nests have been defended.

Clinging to Survival
Endangered dugongs, sea mammals akin to the manatee, are hunted for their meat and oil, captured in fishing nets and face habitat degradation. They are perhaps the most endangered large mammal in Africa, listed on Appendix I of CITES, preventing all commercial trade in the species. Tanzania has no record of international trade in the species since it was listed, indicating that any consumption is likely local. Some ostensibly noncommercial exports of dugong bones, teeth and non-specified “specimens,” however, have been recorded from Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand and elsewhere in the region.

Muir’s colleagues have collected data on dugong sightings and captures; interviewed local fishermen along the Tanzanian coast to assess status, distribution and threats to dugongs; circulated a report on dugongs throughout the region; and started development of dugong conservation strategies in various areas of concern.

The dugong project—even in its early stages—has already had a real impact. Twice in 2004 fishermen accidentally drowned dugongs in their nets, and both times they brought the carcass to the project staff, rather than eating?or selling the meat, which could have netted them some 100,000 Tanzanian shillings (around $80), a large sum of money in a developing country. Education about the threats to the species and the importance of the project has fostered a cooperative and productive feeling among people in the relevant local communities.

A vital part of the project is a comprehensive national dugong survey in cooperation with Dar es Salaam University. Until the carcasses began to be recovered there was speculation that the dugong had actually become extinct in Tanzania. Now there is irrefutable, tangible evidence that a population is still clinging to survival.

Looking Ahead
2006 was the year of the turtle, as declared by the regional states that signed the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Marine Turtles and their Habitats of the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. The nations involved called on countries and communities across the globe to protect turtles, including the specific goals of “celebrating marine turtles, taking measures to ensure their long-term?survival, conserving marine turtle habitats, reducing accidental capture?in fishing operations, and encouraging?applied research.”

Sea Sense single-handedly fulfills all of these goals in Tanzania (and sets an example for all to follow) by: reducing the threats to turtles and dugongs, protecting their breeding and feeding habitats along the Tanzanian coast; building local capacity for conservation, research and management; raising local awareness about the threats to turtles and dugongs in Tanzania; coordinating turtle and dugong monitoring and research along the Tanzanian coast; and promoting national, regional and international cooperation.

With respect for individual animals in need of hands-on care, and an over-arching ethic of wildlife and environmental conservation, Sea Sense is making a tangible difference to species worldwide. By educating the people who live close to wildlife, giving them non-consumptive alternatives to destructive wildlife use, and enforcing wildlife protection laws, we can make a substantial contribution to conservation that will impact future generations of humans and nonhumans alike.

Adam M. Roberts is Vice President of Born Free USA, an animal protection and wildlife conservation organization based in Washington, DC. Sea Sense is a global partner of Born Free. Learn more about Born Free and Sea Sense by visiting


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