A Little More Conservation: The First Privately-Managed Coral Park

A coral island off Tanzania provides comfort with little intrusion.  
Tanzania's Chumbe Island
Chumbe Island, Tanzania. Photo: Franz-Marc Frei/Corbis/Imagelibrary

People are travelling farther and wider in search of new experiences. An increasingly popular way to do this is to plunge into the oceans to discover a world hidden within. Reef exploration and diving holidays are gaining favour, with diving enthusiasts seeking new and challenging pristine spots.

Sadly, coral islands all over the world are under threat from climate change, rising ocean temperatures, and over-exploitation. Industrial effluents and waste that pollute the water are as much to blame as callous, uncontrolled fishing and tourism. Coral reefs are the earth’s stabilizers and nursery to over 4,000 species of fish, and their disappearance can seriously impact humankind.

Thankfully, we are a species that have the ability to help repair the damage. All we need is the will and innovative solutions. One such solution is Chumbe Island Coral Park Ltd., the world’s first privately-managed marine protected area. It is a spectacular spot along the East African coast, located about 24 kilometres off the Tanzanian mainland and eight kilometres off the Zanzibar archipelago.

In the 1990s, German national Sibylle Riedmiller identified the uninhabited Chumbe Island as suitable for the creation of a protected area. The sea surrounding it used to be a military zone and fishing was restricted, allowing the underwater world to thrive. She formed Chumbe Island Coral Park Limited, which negotiated with the government for the creation of the marine protected area and now manages it.

Today, Chumbe Reef Sanctuary is registered as a UN-recognized Protected Area and is one of the most diverse and spectacular coral reefs along the African coastline. It is a tropical paradise where visitors can spot rare fish like the giant grouper, endangered creatures like the 16-inch giant coconut crab or robber crab, and over 400 species of fish. Besides the protected coral reef, the island also has a forest reserve. Fishermen and local communities have been trained as park rangers and security guards to protect the coral reef.

The research base on the island and an education trust run by the organisation are funded through money generated from tourism. A minimalist, environment-friendly lodge has been built for this purpose. Only 14 guests are allowed on the island at any given time (day visitors are allowed when there are less than 14 guests). They stay in seven thatch bungalows that have rustic decor but state-of-the art eco-friendly technology, including photovoltaic energy, solar water heating, rainwater catchment, composting toilets, grey water treatment, etc. There’s a strict ban on plastic and guests are encouraged to take back any non-recyclable waste they generate. The motto is to provide guests comfort, with minimal intrusion and impact on the surroundings. (www.chumbeisland.com; full board from $280/₹18,650 per person per night; day trip $90/₹6,000 per person.)

There are no roads or power cables on the 74-acre island, making it an amazing getaway for those looking for peace and tranquillity. There’s plenty to do, between walking the trails through the forested area, exploring historical ruins, and snorkelling in the clear water to see the many-hued coral reef. It is like being in an underwater Garden of Eden.

Chumbe Island is an inspiring example of a conservation project that has been made self-sustainable through controlled tourism. The creation of the marine preserve enabled the protection of many species that had been almost fished to extinction around the world. It feels good to know that among the many things we humans get wrong, we occasionally get something right as well.

Appeared in the May 2016 issue as “Lighting the Way”.

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    Mike Pandey is a conservationist and wildlife filmmaker. He has won the Green Oscar three times.

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