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Luxury tourism is empowering African communities to save their oceans

More than 30 million people live along the East African coastline—a number that is expected to double by 2030. A region heavily reliant on the Indian Ocean ecosystems for livelihoods and food security, both are under threat from overfishing, climate change, mining sand dunes and plastic pollution. 

Now, one conservation group has found a clever way to harness community support to fight back.

“Oceans Without Borders works with local communities to strengthen their capacity to protect their local marine resources through effective patrolling and management of local community sanctuary areas,” says Dr Tess Hempson, a senior marine scientist at the organisation.

“Coral reefs and key marine species worldwide are facing unprecedented threats. The spiralling effects of this are coral bleaching and a loss of habitat, which are having a devastating impact on myriad species.

“These marine conservation areas are established and enforced by the communities to sustain and protect their coral reef fisheries.”

Founded in 2018, Oceans Without Borders is the brainchild of professional game catcher Les Carlisle from tourism and conservation company &Beyond. Carlisle and his associates brought the first international investment into South Africa of the post-Aparthied era, which was used to create Phinda Private Game Reserve, bringing back lions, cheetahs, and elephants on old cattle farming land in the east of the country. 

Carlisle and his team have taken Phinda’s successful terrestrial model—operating under the mantra ‘care of the land, care of the wildlife, care of the people,’—to the nearby marine systems. 

“From Sodwana Bay in South Africa to Zanzibar off Tanzania, Oceans Without Borders have a presence, and we are trying to leverage this to make a difference,” he says.

One critical piece of the project was protecting land from the Mkhuzi wetland to Lake St Lucia, to create a full ecosystem and protect everything in between and out to the coast. 

“Being able to create this area meant we had access to seven completely different ecosystems on the land, which created a tourism experience that is second to none.

“The heart of it is the guest experiences, and changing people’s view of what the environments that support nature and our life on this planet are all about.”

But more than simply creating advocates in wealthy foreign tourists fortunate to be able to visit the region, Oceans Without Borders is heavily investing in services for the people who are the traditional custodians of the waterways, as well as creating a significant job market—with eco-tourism directly supporting up to 20 per cent of people in local communities—so that they feel invested in the health of the waterways.

These communities now have a stake in the long-term sustainability of the reef, and have developed the skills to lobby the government for stronger environmental protections in their area,” Carlisle says.

“If we can’t get communities to see the value of the resource, the resource is going to disappear. From the coral reefs to the trees on the sand dunes, these are critical components in the ecology that keeps us all alive.”

Conservation projects undertaken by local communities include negotiating with the local government to legislate Mnemba Atoll as a marine reserve, and working with Universidad Lurio in Mozambique to gazette new marine protected areas. For Les Carlisle, this is only the beginning.

“We have to stop stomping on the environment as hard as we are,” Carlisle says. “We must start living more lightly on the planet—every single one of us has to change the way we are behaving.”


About the author: Elle Hardy writes as a correspondent for the International WaterCentre, charged with exploring water challenges and the ways these challenges are managed around the world. You can follow Ellle on Twitter @ellehardy.

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