On the black markets of Southeast Asia, rhino horn is worth more per kilogram than gold, cocaine, platinum or heroin. It is a product people are prepared to kill and die for. There are no proven medicinal benefits as it’s made from keratin, the same protein in fingernails. It is prescribed for nosebleeds, stroke and fever. It’s value is artificial, founded on myth and propagated on greed.
We have been hunting rhinos and threatening their survival for over four centuries. The 19th century concept of hunting as a sport, however, has almost completely eradicated the species from the planet. At the beginning of the 20th century there were 500,000 rhinos across Africa and Asia. This fell to 70,000 by 1970 and further to just 29,000 in the wild today. Despite this bleak picture, and the continuing threat of poaching for their valuable horns, overall global rhino population figures have been increasing in recent years.
There are five living rhino species, the rarest of which is the Javan rhino, with only 58-61 individuals tucked away in the westernmost tip of Java, Indonesia. There are no more than 100 Sumatran rhinos, along with around 3,500 of the india-based Greater one-horned rhino makes all three asian species listed as critically endangered. The large-scale poaching of the now critically endangered black rhino resulted in a dramatic 96% decline from 65,000 in 1970 to 2,300 in 1993. Now there are around 5,100, thanks to persistent conservation efforts.
Arguably, the greatest conservation success story of any large mammal is of the white rhino. There are two white rhino subspecies, the northern and the southern white rhino. The northern is not faring so well, with now only 3 living members, all in captivity in Kenya under 24-hour surveillance of armed guards. The southern white rhino, however, is faring much better. As few as 50 were documented in the early 1900’s, whereas now there are as many as 21,077 and has become the most populous of all the rhino species. The white rhino is categorised as near threatened and 98.5% of the population are found in 5 southern african countries including, of course, South Africa.
I was recently in South Africa and took the opportunity to spend four days driving around the incredible Kruger National Park. Set with camera, friends and an ID book, we spent each day from dawn until dusk meandering the dusty trails training on the lookout for anything we could spot. The last time I was in Kruger I was 14. It was the furthest I’d travelled from home, and where I discovered my passion for wildlife conservation. It was incredible to be back on the same safari tracks where it all began. 12 years on, however, I looked at Kruger from a very different, critical standpoint. All the animals in the park are incredible, but something stands out about the rhino for me. It’s massive, intimidating armoured stature juxtaposed against it’s calm, herbivorous and social nature really appeals to me. Although unfortunately, it is exactly these qualities that make them easy pickings for poachers. So where are all the Rhinos
The horns of 3 rhinos, a shotgun, 17 rounds of ammunition, 4 knives and an axe were confiscated from the vehicles of 12 men, poaching in Kruger National Park on the 16th January 2017. Three men were also arrested for trespassing Kruger along with the illegal possession of firearms just the week before. The previous Friday, police had discovered 6 Rhino horns at a property just outside of the park. Poachers have been known to use geotagged photos posted by tourists on Facebook safari pages to locate the animals. It is increasingly common to find discarded ammunition in the dirt by the road, and as you can see, poaching is a very real, very intense issue that is happening even under strict armed surveillance.
On the 20th February 2017 a rhino orphanage was rampaged by poachers. A small team at Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage where present when 5 men breached the gates, killed two infant rhinos, stole their horns and assaulted the staff. This is the most recent example of how out of control the poaching situation is.
Although it serves as a deterrent, arresting, punishing and even killing poachers achieves nothing in the long term. 363 poachers were killed by South African security forces between 2008-2014. This approach will never abolish the international trade of threatened animal products. Criminal poaching activities will persist so long as there is such a large financial incentive, there will always be people prepared to take the risk to make a buck. The only way to stop poaching is to cull the market. You have to get the information to the public.
Poaching is a colossal industry, corrupted and fueled by international poaching syndicates pulling strings to ensure their trophy products are received around the world. Mozambique, for example, is known to provide a passageway for poachers to enter and escape South Africa, especially Kruger, as it shares such a long, porous border (356km). There are also no strict penalties for rhino poaching, and possession of rhino horn and poaching is simply considered a misdemeanour offence in Mozambique.
Poaching, however, is just one of a two-pronged killer issue for rhinos. 9
The other side of the rhino-killing industry is marketted directly for the public. South Africa and the small kingdom of Swaziland are the only countries in the world where rhinos can be hunted for sport. Over the past decade, demand for rhino trophies have dramatically increased. But it isn’t from who you’d think.
Originally, wealthy americans and europeans founded the industry of ‘trophy hunting’, thirsty for a ‘great African adventure’ living out their ‘huntsman’ fantasies. Nowadays however, wild animal trophies are not all for mounting on walls over a fireplace. If you rattle through the spreadsheets detailing hunting permits issued by South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, permits are now issued to unassuming office blocks or ramshackle rural villages, in obscure corners of Vietnam. It is safe to assume these people are having their trips funded by unnamed benefactors, as it’s reported Vietnamese visitors stay only for a few days at a time and Vietnam is by no means known for a big-game hunting culture. They are there for the horns. And they pay R50 000, R60 000, R70 000 per kilogram. It sells for tens of thousands USD per kilogram on the Southeast Asian black market. Rhino prices have started to rise, and the game reserves supporting this are simply selling to the highest bidder - who cares if it’s an american or vietnamese pulling the trigger?
In November 2016, Vietnam hosted the conference on illegal wildlife trade in Hanoi. Ahead of the conference, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development publicised the destruction of two tons of ivory and 70 kg of rhino horns, seized from illegal traders and traffickers. It was a demonstration on how serious they are about eradicating the illegal trade of animal products, and we can only hope that the determination of Vietnam to stop this trade is genuine and ongoing.
Hunting game in this ‘pay, point and shoot’ way is called ‘psuedo-hunting’. it’s just shooting. This area of sport hunting is complex and makes our contribution as holiday-makers to wildlife ‘sanctuaries’ and safari parks very important. So listen up, as knowing this information is important to which wildlife organisations you support and which to stay away from.
VOLUNTEERING AND PSEUDO-HUNTING
In brief, psuedo-hunting is a tourism industry of international trophy-hunters paying big bucks to select a species, each with a different price tag, and to be chaperoned within a private game reserve with a shotgun to hunt and shoot at (not always on target, these are tourists after all) their chosen animal species.
Within this industry are species-specific reserves, sometimes labelling themselves as ‘sanctuaries’. These ‘sanctuaries’ breed their own animals under the misleading proviso of ‘conservation reintroduction breeding programs’. This is where we come in. Paying volunteers come along to stroke a lion cub or cheetah, coo over a baby elephant, clean up their pens, feed them, and of course get the quintessential ‘volunteer in Africa’ photo to post on social media. We love it, and believe that we are contributing to the survival of major keystone species. Maybe we are, but not in the way our innocent naive volunteer would like to believe.
Hand rearing wild animals is a tricky business. Best practice as identified by the Now or Never African Wildlife Trust includes minimal rhino-human interaction, 24-hour care and specialist vets. This means that taking care of baby rhinos is expensive; around R300 per rhino per day. It also means any good orphanage would not have any volunteers around to interfere with the rhinos. So although sanctuaries that do allow volunteers to handle the animals, and then go on to supply them to hunting reserves is clearly compromising morally and a downright lie to volunteers, the fact that threatened species are being bred successfully in captivity and kept alive (although ironically to eventually be shot), does mean that that species will avoid extinction.
The take home message here is that it is important to be aware that when volunteering or visiting sanctuaries and handling young wild animals, that you may want to ask a few questions as to where the animal came from and where they are going.
As anticipated the festive period saw what seemed like most of the Mozambique and South African residents descend upon Tofo, this small, idyllic beach-fronted market town in a tucked away corner in Mozambique, where I now call home.
The population of our tiny beach town ballooned to almost four times its usual capacity. There was people, music and braai aromas littering the entire Tofo area. Houses I’d not even noticed before, usually derelict, became teeming with life and light at all hours. 6,000 people were reported to have covered the beach on New Years Day. It’s a wonder the electricity held out at all, and the water stayed running (mostly). I feel Tofo survived its own self-inflicted ‘holiday destination of Mozambique’ annual fate rather well.
The biggest impact of the sudden population boom, however, was the amount of rubbish. Wrappers, plastic bottles, cans and the like are unfortunately a pretty common sight usually in Tofo, and Mozambique in general. Multiply the population a few times, unsurprisingly Tofo got a bomb off dross, detritus and debris dropped all over it. There are several recycling points around the town, but how much they’re used, raided and/or collected is questionable. And where does the majority of this waste end up in a beach-fronted town? Of course; the ocean.
From afar, Tofo beach looks so pure, pristine, like paradise. Unfortunately, this description is not totally true to reality. It is now much more commonplace for most beaches everywhere to have more than a little plastic lining the high tide mark, or at least have remnants of family picnics be blown about the place. From flip flops to plastic chairs, buckets to microbeads, it seems everything that’s plastic ends up in the ocean eventually.
Since we invented plastic over a century ago, it has become an established part of human life. It’s in our houses, our vehicles, our food is wrapped in it, our clothing is covered in it. Unfortunately, though, so are our oceans. It is a really awfully, terribly catastrophic problem.
And for the scary part; the statistics. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), at least 8 million metric tons of plastic gets leaked into the oceans annually. That’s the equivalent of dumping one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. If no action is taken, this is projected to increase to two garbage trucks per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050. If everything continues as usual, there will be 1 ton of plastic per 3 tons of fish by 2025, and, by weight, in 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. As I said, a terribly catastrophic issue is at play.
WEF state that 90% of plastics are produced from fossil fuel feedstocks, accounting for 6% of global oil consumption. That is the equivalent to the entire global aviation sector, and it is only projected to rise.
Here's an interesting observation: If Shakespeare drank out of a plastic bottle and chucked it in the ocean, it would still be there for at least another 50 years from now (granted you probably couldn’t drink out of it any more, if you really wanted to, but the sentiment still stands).
So there it is; it takes hundreds of years for plastic to degrade. It’s because the bonding between the long chain of atoms within plastic are stronger than naturally-occurring, organic materials. Therefore the bacteria that would normally break down stray materials, cannot easily break these bonds apart. It is widely believed that plastic never entirely degrades at all, only is broken down to microscopic parts called microbeads, which certainly don’t just disappear. Instead, they are ingested by animals or embedded in soils, and remain a teeny plastic particle forever, growing in numbers on whatever substrate they may find themselves, becoming more and more toxic in the meantime.
When pulled into the ocean by high spring tides, heavy rainfall or just being chucked in, plastic finds itself being sucked into great swirling gyres of ocean. The most notable and largest vortex of plastic is the great Pacific garbage patch. It is rather well known these days, taking up the equivalent of twice the size of Texas. There are 5 of these swirling plastic vortex’s in the world's oceans, and scientists have calculated that combined these 5 patches contain up to 150 million tons of plastic.
All hope is not lost, however. There are some noteworthy entrepreneurs that have been dreaming up solutions to this rather sizable issue.
THE OCEAN CLEANUP PROJECT
Boyan Slat was just 17 when he founded the Ocean Cleanup Project in 2013. After a feasibility study and crowd funding campaign, the Ocean Cleanup is now the largest and most successful organisation planning on clearing the plastic in the ocean.
The concept is a giant ‘V’ shaped floating barriers, which sit in the ocean letting the swirl of the vortex pass through it. The lighter-than-water plastic then gets caught in front of the barriers, channeled to the centre of the ‘V’. Meanwhile, the screens under the surface catch the smaller submerged plastics, allowing wildlife to safely swim beneath the screens. All of these plastic pieces are then extracted and stored by a central platform at the centre of the ‘V’, to then be recycled back on land.
A North Sea prototype has been deployed in June 2016 23km off the Dutch coast where it will remain for one year. Following this, the team plan on deploying the Pacific pilot project in 2017, all going well, allowing the full-scale Pacific cleanup to commence in 2020.
It’s an incredibly exciting project and, given the success of this most recent dutch experiment, is looking like this is the best solution we have to reversing the damage in the oceans.
PLASTIC-EATING MICROBES WILL SAVE THE EARTH (AGAIN)
Another field of study into reducing plastic is actually employing tiny little worker bacteria and fungi to break down plastics in landfills. By 2016 we’ve been shown independently by Yale and Kyoto University that this rerun of a ‘plastic-eating microbes will save the world’ story may actually have some clout.
Bacteria and fungi have obviously evolved with natural materials, all the while coming up with a tool kit of biochemical processes to break down dead matter and digest it. Plastics have only existed for the last 70 years, which is nowhere near enough time for our bacterial friends to find the right process to digest it. Or so we thought. Turns out Japanese scientists, after spending 5 years trawling through plastic waste, have found and named (Ideonella sakaiensis - catchy, I know) the microbe that can do the job. It uses 2 enzymes, of which the Japanese team have also managed to identify - this is the new progression previous ‘microbes-solve-plastic-pandemonium’ stories have lacked.
Their ability to reconstitute plastic to their starting materials and digest them, producing zero toxins, certainly give them the credentials for any recycling and ‘plastic cleanup’ initiative. It all sounds so ideal, but here’s the catch: they’re slow, fussy eaters - it takes them around 6 weeks at 30 degrees for a thumb-sized piece of plastic to be digested. We are reassured, though, that with a bit of genetic-twiddling, it may be possible for these microbes of bacteria and fungi to be a prospective solution for our plastic addiction.
Most innovations have been just a little too fragmented, and it’s because the standards and practices of plastic production are uncoordinated and unregulated. Plastic bag bans and recycling initiatives certainly have their place locally, but any policy aiming to reduce plastic dependence has been, thus far, simply thrown down by the self-regulated plastic industry.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO?
Here in Tofo, a local recycling scheme is in place. Much more could be done, however, to reduce reliability on plastics in Africa, especially of plastic bottles for fresh, clean water (as you’ll find yourself some extra, possibly unwanted minerals coming out of the tapwater here) and general waste.
Two easy, daily feasible solutions for everyone worldwide could be to simply reduce your dependence on plastics, and disposing properly of the plastics you do use. Pick up the loose veggies instead, and put them loose in your basket, do they really need that silly little bag to sit in for the journey home? Could you use canvas bags instead?
On a larger, community level, setting schemes to prevent plastic getting into the ocean in the first place and by collecting what we can of what does get in, hopefully we might be able to make some progress towards a sustainable plastic-use future. And wouldn’t that be nice.
Although my ultimate happiness lies in the wild untouched landscape away from all these bustling humans about the place, the lives of humans and animals are so intertwined, I feel it relevant to get involved in the human dynamics of community just every now and again. We are also well into the month of December, and with Christmas looming there’s that buzz about the place that makes me feel all giddy and community-spirited.
I like to think we’re all aiming for the same result in life, no matter where we are born and raised in the world. We all just would like a nice time of it. To quote the endless wisdom of Gandalf “all we have to decide is what to do with time that is given to us”. What I find fascinating is how differently we humans have decided to spend our little jot of time in all corners of the globe. The tactics of playing a good game of life here in Tofo, Mozambique, is another small example of how people do it differently.
Firstly, Tofo life would not be the same without these adorable kids running about the town at all times of day, always donned with huge smiles, “ola”’s, and hands aloft primed for record-breaking numbers of high fives each day. There are 3 school sessions in a day, 7am-12pm, 1230pm-5pm and 6pm-930pm. This is so the kids can be of service to their families, either selling bracelets or other souvenirs, I’ve seen small children carrying 5 litre water jugs along the road, or whatever other jobs the family may require of them. Kids are sent to Pre-school from the age of 3, if their parents can afford the 300 meticais (around £3) per year. Otherwise kids will start their free education at primary school from the age of 5. By the age of 11, kids then are enrolled into secondary school if, again, their parents dish out the 300 meticais per year. There is a university, just opened, in this regions’ capital of Inhambane. I’ve met one individual, a police officer from Tofo, studying Law there. So it is now possible, given the right circumstances for the individual, for the young adults of Tofo to attain further education. The vast majority, by the ripe age of 16, have already found employment.
The average life span in Mozambique is approximately 43. One observation I have made about this comparatively short is that the pressure to start a family at a young age is extremely high. It is very normal to have had a child by the time you hit 20 years old.
Housing is so varied, as Tofo is host to a fair few well-monied expats that have shipped materials over to create their modern beach-facing wrap-around terrace dream house. For the most part, however, the local families live in modest wood or concrete huts, topped with thick layers of straw. Most have just one or two rooms, with an outdoor toilet building, which provides just a little privacy away from your 3 sisters and 2 brothers you'd have bothering you the rest of the day. There are no road names (except for one, very random non-major road) and there is only one tarmac road leading up to Tofo’s entrance, after that, it’s all sandy tracks. Needless to say it doesn’t take long whilst walking around Tofo to find another car fallen victom to the sand, wheel spinning, sending a plumage of sand about it’s back end as it goes nowhere.
Typical jobs in just the small town of Tofo include fisherman, drivers and skippers, vegetable-stall and general market salesperson, carpenter, I’ve even met a cobbler. Several incredibly talented artists sell their goods in the market too. The beach kids sell bracelets and coconuts. Some are found in the restaurants as chefs and the like. There are also several in the diving industry. It seems the vast majority work in the tourism sector, but behind the scenes there are an awful lot of local people working for private households, where cleaners and gardeners seem to come with houses as standard.
INTERVIEWING THE PEOPLE OF TOFO
To get an insight into the lives of the people of Tofo, I figured that I'd better get talking to them. I asked them a series of questions and just let them tell me (or rather, tell my incredible awesome translator friends) about their lives and, most importantly, what they plan on doing for Christmas. Here are the responses:
I asked my new friends to tell me their greatest life ambitions, which were varied hugely. One said that he would like to learn all the local Mozambican dialects, a couple with dreams of travelling, a young girl dreamt of becoming a veterinarian. The one response that stood out to me was a vegetable market seller. He responded “I have dreams to change the world, one banana at a time”. It’s a beautiful sentiment, although given a little digging probably lacks any actual game plan. But I did not dig, what’s the point? If he believes that selling bananas to people will improve their lives, and perhaps the world, then good for him. I bought 20 bananas from him that day.
I asked my new friends what their greatest luxury in life is. One said he loves to watch the local football teams, several others enjoy time to be in the sea. One lady loves to watch the Humpback whales when they're in season along the coast. The vast majority of people, however, have exactly the same luxury in life as anyone else in the world: family. Family and friends tend to be the greatest luxury a person can afford, whether one lives in the Sahara or the city.
And of course, onto that festive topic of that southern hemisphere Christmas. It’ll be my first Christmas down here, and I was intrigued to find what people will be up to in the blazing African heat of December. Of course, being that Tofo is all about that beach life, most said they would be heading to the ‘praia' at some point after their morning church visit to play in the waves or throw a ball around. Of course, as with everywhere, the Christmas meal is the main focus.
The diet of local Tofo-ians is revolved, quite unsurprisingly, around fish. And so laid upon the Christmas plates of the hungry Tofo families will of course be the catch of the day, which is, according to every single person I spoke with, barracuda.
Although this won’t be my first Christmas away from home, I shall certainly be missing the traditional tree and present exchange, the cloaked santa that doesn’t seem so out of place in the cold climate, and of course, family time. My Tofo family will be here, however, and Christmas on the beach under a beautiful hot sun is going to be a pretty big novelty.
Merry Christmas from Mozambique!
Humans have done a pretty good job exploring the earth thus far, climbing mountains, crossing continents and planting flags in the name of science. One part of the world that has remained mysterious to us, though, is the very place that accounts for 99% of the Earths’ living space and 71% of it’s surface: the ocean.
We may have sailed across it, drilled for oil in it, employed Robson Green to create extreme fishing reality shows in it, we’ve let James Cameron show us the deepest part of the ocean, 7 miles down, in the enticingly-named Challenger Deep, but despite all our exploitations of the big blue, it is estimated that 95% of the ocean is unexplored.
It is curiosity that drives our exploration and discoveries. The more we learn, the more we realise we do not know. It’s like the more light we cast, the more shadows we create. It’s the need to see what’s beyond the edge of your lights, to see the unknown for yourself, that’s the force that drives all exploration. As Jacques Cousteau said: “If we knew what was there, we wouldn’t have to go”.
From glowing oceans, massive deep sea creatures, underwater ecosystems with basically thousands of undiscovered alien species, we still have a lot to learn. Probably more than any other place on earth, there is still so much that we just don’t know about it. Or at least, not yet.
Of all marine species, I bet you’d assume the world of whale and dolphin research would be pretty covered by now. Did you know, for example, that pilot whales go through menopause? Or that dolphins give themselves a fin-pedicure? Well these curious behaviours have only just been discovered, thanks to the work of the humble, charismatic and instantly likeable dolphin researcher, Sina Kreicker.
Dolphins are marine mammals, or ‘cetaceans', belonging to the family ‘cetacea'. There are 89 known species of cetaceans, from the harbour porpoise to the blue whale. Cetacean-like creatures appeared around 50 million years ago, diverging from their closest living relatives the ‘artiodactyls’, who are hoofed mammals, such as hippopotamuses, camels and pigs.
I had the pleasure of getting to know Sina well during her 3-week stay in Tofo, Mozambique. She is a research associate wuth the University of Zurich and lives mostly in Egypt, working with the Dolphin Watch Alliance. The purpose of her visit was to establish the current state of dolphin research in this area, but also to explore the potential for further research. She teamed up with resident conservationists at Marine Megafauna Foundation and Underwater Africa and has now set in motion the use of a cetacean identification website, flukebook.org. Anyone around the world can now use their picture of a breaching dorsal fin, of any dolphin species, and upload it to this website to be identified and tracked.
Sina also made a great point about how to maximise the encounter with wild dolphins, even swim with them, just by adapting boat driving behaviour. She pointed out that dolphins are, as we know, very sensitive to sound volume and pitch, given that their primary mode of communication is by echolocation. It turns out that changing boat speed, causing the rev and lull of a boat engine, can completely alter the behaviour of cruising, foraging or even sleeping dolphins, causing them to swim away. So next time you’re at sea and come across a pod of dolphins, cruise your boat at a patient, steady speed for maximum time with the pod. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, they might even be curious enough to come over to you if you slip into the water with them.
Dolphin tourism obviously comes with it’s benefits for local business, but unfortunately it seems there is little benefit for the dolphins themselves. It was whilst talking with Sina that it was made clear scientists are only beginning to understand the extent of dolphin intelligence, and the effects of captivity on these brainy beauties. When in captivity, dolphins are often given valium to sedate them. It’s a sad and inconvenient truth that when any migratory, long-ranging animal, humans included, are enclosed into a comparatively un-stimulating undersized space, they can react extremely negatively. Behavioural ‘loops’ like pacing, aggression, appetite suppression and appetite growth are some side effects some of us may relate to if we’re stuck in the house for any length of time. I know I am often found, bored, traipsing back and forth to the fridge in an irritable rage after just one day stuck in the house.
There is hope, though, for our extremely smart squeaky friends. Scientists like Sina all over the world are trying to establish, in completely natural conditions, exactly how clever our dolphin compatriots are. For example, in 2014 Sina published a study describing how bottlenose dolphins taught each other how to utilise tools, in this case marine sponges, to exploit a feeding niche and increase their fatty blubber reserves. Not only does this make these dolphins pretty nifty at attaining nutrient-dense food previously unavailable to them, but it makes them different to their bottlenose friends down the ‘road', inferring culture, and cultural differences between the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin communities.
Have you ever, just the first time you hear of a place, immediately known that you’re going to fall in love with it? You’re surprised that you’ve never heard of it before, but now that you have, every cell in your body is pushing and shoving, gravitating towards the airport screaming “You MUST go!”.
I can safely say this happens to me, on average, every couple of days. Some call it ‘wanderlust'. I call it ‘evasion of responsibility’. Either way I cannot help myself. If there is a place to be explored, experiences to have, people to meet, a new sport to be tried, I consider it a challenge to be accepted.
This is why I find myself, at this current moment, on a bunk of a ten-person dorm room, having four bananas for breakfast, melting in the African morning heat, my first full day off in 21 days, although still dreaming that I were at work… Although, nowadays ‘work’ doesn’t quite carry the same meaning. ‘Work’ just a few weeks ago was standing before the preying eyes of twenty 13-year-olds, each of them experts in procrastination, until the bell sounded the end of the lesson. But now, work chimes a totally different bell. I am training to become a divemaster in order to continue my pursuit of a career in marine research. This is what brings me to Tofo, Mozambique, Africa.
Mozambique, which gained its independence from Portugal in 1975, is still emerging from a 17-year civil war, which officially ended in 1992. Tensions remain high between the ruling Frelimo party and the rebel group Renamo, where great conflict between these parties are still rife in the northern region of the country. Despite being one of Africa’s fastest growing economies being that it has billions of dollars worth of natural resources, earlier in 2016 Business Insider UK ranked Mozambique the 7th poorest country in the world, with a GDP per capita of only £841.
In southern Mozambique, in the Inhambane province, is a small but incredibly lively town called Tofo. Tofo is a very special place, combining a stunning sand-dune coastline, vibrant local markets and a charismatic expat community of surfers, divers and conservationists. Tofo is exceptional in so many ways, the most exciting of which being that it hosts one of the world's most diverse megafauna migration routes along its coastline. A sunrise off the Mozambican coast, in July to October, can provide you breaching Humpback whales on the horizon. With daily ocean safari tours you can snorkel with whale sharks and dolphins. Don your SCUBA gear and head underwater to enjoy a magnificent encounter with sharks, both species of manta ray, stingray species and so, so much more. Some of these weird and wonderful species travel all around the world, like the mola mola (or Sunfish), also found in Guernsey. But from global migratory species, Tofo also hosts some of the rarest species. The small-eyed stingray, for example, is the rarest and largest stingray of all 70 species of ray in the world. It was believed to be extinct until a photograph was taken in Tofo of the 2.2 metre beauty, now only ever seen alive here in Tofo or in other places, dead, as fishery by-catch. The BBC took the first ever film of this elusive ray in 2009 here in Tofo, in collaboration with Dr Andrea Marshall and the Marine Megafauna Foundation.
With such diverse aquatic wildlife on offer, Tofo does not only attract diving tourism, but us also serves as mecca for front-line conservation research. I have had the pleasure of meeting several world-leading marine species experts, visiting Tofo to either explore the research potential of the area or just enjoy the natural beauty of the place. One of these conservationists, a German shark conservationist and environmental politician, arrived in Tofo after delivering a speech during the CITES (Convention of the International Trade of Endangered Species) in Johannesburg in early October. His speech outlined the species of sharks most at risk, and those species which require every countries’ care and attention to ensure the trade of these species is limited or abolished. He described the primary cause of many sharks’ demise, as we are all too aware, is the continued ‘finning’ of sharks for the small filaments, called ceratotrichia (see image) for the production of shark fin soup. Alone, these filaments provide no flavour and no proven medicinal value. Hammerhead sharks, also found along the coast of Tofo and in serious need of further research into population stability, have the largest price on their head for their fins. Porbeagles and Thresher shark species, found in places including both Mozambique and Guernsey, are increasingly being fished and globally are on a steep decline. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red list of threatened species classifies Porbeagle and all three of the Thresher shark species as ‘vulnerable’, however, much more research is desperately needed to properly assess the impact that overfishing is having on these globe-trotting species, especially around the west indo-pacific region.
I first heard of Tofo three years ago from a friend whom lived here. At the time I was still in the midst of my ecology and conservation degree, however, since diving and the underwater world flooded all my senses (in both a literal and metaphorical sense) during a university trip, the field of marine research was the place for me. There is a plethora of research, adventure and development opportunities in Mozambique, from the local schools to eco-tourism, of which I see as a challenge accepted. I now see why I have been gravitating towards Mozambique for so long.
After 3 months of buses, hostels, diving, Spanish language fails and, of course, worldly epiphanies, I made it to this special island on the east coast of the Yucatan, Mexico. Cozumel is a tourism hotspot known for world-class diving and triathlon. It's no wonder why I found myself checking in to the ferry to get there. I was basically just following the Ironman decals covering the terminal.
As it so happened, two university friends were living in Cozumel at the time. The last I saw them was on the unfavourably icy slopes of Alpe d'Huez in 2011. Here we were, in quite opposite conditions in the humid, beach paradise of Cozumel in 2014. Rachael and Adam were working in a dive shop along the commercial-fronted side of San Miguel, the only side of the island to have any real development. The rest of the island has, so far, been left undisturbed; white-sand beaches and mosquito-infested marshland are left as a contrast to the monstrous cruise ships, frosted margarita bowls and 10,000 identical jewellery and souvenir shops along the one sea-front main road. There's also a Hooters, although Sam was not so keen on going there at all... weird.
Although we were originally planning on spending only a few days here, it just so happened (really, it was a coincidence!) that the Ironman 70.3 was to be held the following weekend. Rachael and Adam, the infinitely relaxed and accommodating people they are, not only opened their home to us, but also took me out on several diving trips. One of these in particular, towards the end of our trip, was centred around Sam. Throughout the previous three months I had been trying to persuade Sam of the enthralling life under the surface, but he was having none of it. Now, however, in the company of an instructor, divemaster and rescue diver, he finally cracked. Personally, I don't think he found it too painful.
Sam and I managed get ourselves positions as finish line 'catchers' at the Ironman, repeating an enthusiastic 'felicidades!' and literally catching the shrivelled, dehydrated bags of people slumping over the finish line and crumpling under the weight of their medals. It was electric. We were running back and forth from finish line to medical tent for 6 hours in 100% humidity and 30+degrees. Not only was this just an outstanding day of the whole series of incredible travelling days, I managed to get a hug off this wonder-woman, who won the event, British pro Leanda Cave!
Although all this excitement truly made our trip to Cozumel pretty magical, the best was yet to come: saving the turtles.
Cozumel is host to two species of sea turtle, the loggerhead and the green. Both nest along the eastern coast which is largely undisturbed by tourists. The issue is with wild dogs, cats, vultures, but mostly with poachers. As with many cultures rife with traditional but totally unnecessary slaughter, turtle meat is considered a delicacy. There is also a black market for dried baby turtle necklaces. Yep. Real baby turtles hanging on a chain. There is, however, hope for these majestic, endangered creatures. A bunch of volunteers, just Cozumel locals, decided to do something about it. There is now a full-scale beach observation throughout the nesting season of the turtles from June to September, marking the location and awaiting the eruption of the little critters gung-ho-ing it to the sea. (11:14 in the video is Cozumel)
Females of both species nest 3-7 times every season, leaving behind up to 210 eggs in nests up to 3 foot deep. It takes around 60 days until the babies hatch. Despite there being so many laid every year, the chance for these wee blighters to make it to sexual maturity is less than 1%. Those odds only consider the natural, environmental pressures. When you throw poaching into the mix, it is a painfully small number of these adorable characters that are able to contribute to the survival of their species.
On average 90% of each clutch successfully leave the nest. The remaining 10% are left squashed, misshapen and disfigured by their over-zealous siblings lucky enough to be laid above them. It is therefore key, no more than a few hours after the nests erupt, that the remaining half-hatched bent-double baby turtles are rescued from the bottom of their sandy graves before they have no chance for reproduction at all.
Saving just a few of these charismatic, enthusiastic creatures reignited my desire to dedicate my life to such endeavours. Their tiny little mal-formed bodies wriggled and squirmed, desperate to be free and scuttle head-first into the great huge ocean beyond. Do they know where they're heading? or why? How do they even know which direction the sea is from their minuscule buried perspectives is just incredible. Against the odds, their drive to live and thrive is actually a little inspirational - if a teeny weeny turtle can want to tackle the big blue wilderness, surely something like an ironman is peanuts.
If you happen to be visiting Cozumel for any reason (such as racing in the ITU Triathlon World Champs in September perhaps!?), please do check out the Programa de Proteccion a la Tortuga Marina. There's never enough hands on deck to help dig out these adorable pequeña tortugas, and it really adds a sense of purpose to your evening.
Jenny was born in Dorset, and now is living in Mozambique. She participates in long-distance triathlon and rowing challenges. She has a conservation degree, and is currently working toward her masters degree studying the Stingrays of Mozambique.