Mermaids are real but fighting for survival
The Bazaruto dugong population has plummeted dramatically over recent decades
With an abundance of palm trees, soft white beaches and clear blue waters, the Bazaruto Archipelago in Mozambique is a popular tropical island getaway for well heeled South African and foreign tourists.
It also one of the last areas in Africa where visitors have the chance of seeing dugongs, a mermaid-like sea creature that was once a common sight in the waters stretching from Somalia to Mozambique.
Distantly related to elephants, these large and odd-looking marine mammals are sometimes called ”sea cows” as they eat large volumes of sea grasses. They can live for 70 years, grow up to 3m long and weigh in at over 500kg.
They also have fluked, dolphin-like tails that may have given rise to the legend of mermaids among ancient mariners.
And while Bazaruto is considered to have the last viable population of dugongs along the east coast of Africa, their numbers have plummeted dramatically over recent decades.Thankfully, their future - and the health of other marine life at Bazaruto – is looking a bit brighter now after the Mozambican conservation agency ANAC signed a 25-year agreement with the African Parks group, a private non-profit conservation organisation that already manages 13 national parks and reserves elsewhere on the continent.In terms of an agreement signed in Mozambique in December, African Parks will be responsible for restoring, developing and managing the Bazaruto national park, a chain of five islands off the coast of Mozambique that were declared as a protected area in 1971.
However, despite legal protection on paper for more than four decades, Mozambican authorities recognise that several challenges have emerged and that Bazaruto is “an extraordinary conservation area whose time has come to be sufficiently protected and revitalised”.
The threats include illegal and unsustainable fishing, unregulated harvesting of natural resources and uncontrolled impacts of the tourism industry.Celmira da Silva, the country’s Vice Minister for Land, Environment and Rural Development believes it is possible to step up protection of one of Africa’s greatest marine sanctuaries while generating sustainable benefits for local communities.
African Parks chief executive Peter Fernhead said his organisation was delighted that the Mozambican government had entered into the 25-year partnership, presenting an opportunity to demonstrate how a national park could form the base of a conservation-led economy.
Paul Dutton, a Durban-based environmental consultant who worked on Bazaruto from 1989 – 1995 and developed the first conservation master plan for the archipelago, has welcomed the latest news and offered his full support.
Dutton said the African Parks agreement “could be the start of great things”, but it was vital that sound conservation imperatives were not usurped by unregulated tourism and fishing.“The original master plan recommended that there should be a limit on the number of hotel and lodge developments on each island. These recommendations were approved many years ago, but over time we have seen the number of lodges mushrooming steadily.”During the 1980s, Dutton said the dugong population was estimated at around 300 animals. In 1990 he counted 133 dugongs from the air, but by 2003 this number dropped to around 80.Last October, only 38 dugongs were seen from the air.
“Sadly, the dugongs along the East African coastline seem destined for extinction at this rate,” says Dutton.
Apart from being hunted for meat, dugongs are also vulnerable to being caught accidentally in gill nets used to supply the shark fin soup industry. And because they feed on marine grass species, it is vital to protect the archipelago’s sea grass meadows from land-based pollution and river sediments.
Bazaruto is also home to an estimated 180 species of birds, 45 species of reptiles, 16 species of terrestrial mammals, 500 species of marine and coastal molluscs and 2,000 fish species.
African Parks says the immediate focus will be on strengthening law enforcement to mitigate the most immediate conservation threats.“Needed infrastructure for park management will be established; marine and terrestrial ranger patrols will be augmented in conjunction with aerial surveillance; and conservation monitoring will concentrate on key species and their habitats,” said African Parks.
“Local community employment will be enhanced through hospitality training and exclusive tourism activities will be explored as alternative livelihood opportunities, while local enterprises will be developed to aid in poverty alleviation.”