Tourist volunteers collecting data to protect Maldives reef ecosystems

A team of 15 volunteers from around the world have begun an expedition in the Maldives to collect data that will be used to compare and protect the health of the country’s vulnerable reef ecosystems.

The amateur marine biologists from countries as diverse as Germany, Russia, Australia and the Maldives have departed on a week-long tour aboard the luxury live-aboard Carpe Diem, during which they will be trained up on the Reef Check program and conduct as many as three research dives a day under the supervision of a team of professional biologists.

The hands-on ‘voluntourism’ trip is organised by not-for-profit wildlife conservation organisation Biosphere Expeditions and Six Senses resorts, which has provided a grant of US$79,000 over the four year program, and scholarships for two young Maldivians – Nishan Thoufeeg and Ahmed Shan – to participate on the trip.

At a press conference launching the expedition this morning, Executive Director of Biosphere Expeditions Dr Matthias Hammer explained that the objective was to involve ordinary people in conservation efforts while generating scientifically-rigorous data that can be used to recommend and implement policy.

Previous expeditions have focused snow leopards in Central Asia, turtles in Australia and jaguars in Brazil, “usually charismatic megafauna,” Hammer said.

Dr Jean-Luc Solantt, a scientist from the Marine Conservation Society in the UK who is accompanying the volunteers, noted that there was a lack of “basic, coarse-level data” required for monitoring reef ecosystems.

“We need to know what is happening on a national scale. The [Reef Check] program has a very basic methodology but it is very scientifically robust.”

The data would contribute to the monitoring and understanding of commercial fish populations, determine the reefs most resilient to environmental pressures, and serve as an early warning system for problems related to warming, bleaching and algae.

“In 1998 the water temperature reached 32 degrees for 4-6 weeks, and that caused most of the reefs down to 30 metres in the Maldives to die,’ he explained. “This data will help us see the pattern of recovery from that global impact, and recommend places that should be made marine protected areas.”

Solantt will check and evaluate the data collected by the group and produce a report based on the expedition. The data will then be collated and made available to scientists worldwide, as well as the Maldives Marine Research Centre (MRC) and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Project, if any of the creatures are spotted.

The group also presented 2500 copies of a colouring book, ‘The Adventures of Anees the Anemonefish’, to State Minister of Education Ibrahim Rasheed.

The book, written by Soneva Fushi’s Marine Biologist Kate Wilson and illustrated by Maldivian artist ‘Angel’, is intended to raise awareness around reef protection and inspire children to seek a career in environmental protection.

“Our country is the most beautiful in the world and we want to keep it that way,” said Deputy Minister Rasheed, “but we can only make policies based on the information and data we receive.”

“We need to make sure people are aware of the fragility of our environment. Education can create this awareness, which is why environment studies is a compulsory subject in the new curriculum,” he said.

Presenting the book "The Adventures of Anees The Anemonefish" to the Deputy Minister of Education

Program participants arrived last night from Europe, North America, Russia, Australia, Asia and the Maldives. Some had participated in previous Biosphere projects.

Tina Kuersten from Germany said the biggest results of a Biosphere expedition are seen long-term. “After my first expedition in Altai, I would get emails and updates about the project. It was great to see the results of our work, and to see how I had contributed to something significant.”

Kuersten’s husband Uwe said, “The value of these trips is that you can do something valuable, and learn more about biology.” He said seeing results motivated him to stay involved.

Riswil Ismail, who is from Malaysia, had followed Biosphere’s work for several years. She said in spite of the prohibitive cost, the diving aspect was very attractive.

“I’ve done a lot of dives, and I think because Malaysia and the Maldives are similar it would be great to learn about conservation in this way.”

Ismail said that the concept of paying to go on a volunteer work vacation was “not so popular” in Malaysia.

“People can donate money to a cause, but they don’t always get to see what their money can do. Paying to work on a vacation is a harder concept to understand in Asia, but I think it’s a really valuable way to contribute to a cause. If Maldives is doing this, why not Malaysia?”

Curnow said the average participant is “a well-educated person with a good job who wants to learn something new.” She said that scholarship programs are designed to attract students from the target location. This year, Six Senses’ Soneva Fushi and Soneva Gili resorts are co-sponsoring two Maldivians to take part in the expedition.

Biosphere Expeditions will run trips this week and next week; results are usually published six to eight months afterwards.


Mission to save a Kimboo

As 30 odd students from Billabong High EPSS International school traipsed to Kudakudhinge Bageecha (children’s park) on the southeast side of Male, one might have thought they were on an outing for enjoyment.

But these students were on a mission. To save the crocodile, or ‘kimboo’ as they say in Dhivehi.

Grade eight student Shiman Shiyam had come to see the kimboo before. It is one of the major attractions at the park along with some birds in cages, and tortoises.

“It was sad to see it before also like that, but we never got a chance to do anything about it,” she says.

Shiman is busy painting a banner on the grounds of the park along with five other students, calling for the freedom of the kimboo.

Here and there pockets of students milling about preparing banners. From time to time, some go to take a peek at the kimboo.

The kimboo was caught off an island in Maldives in 1998. When it was first displayed in the little enclosure at the park, you could sometimes barely see it as it was so small the water at the enclosure could completely cover it.

But after 12 years in captivity it has grown to nine feet in length, and the water in the enclosure no longer even covers it. It can stretch its body, but the enclosure is too small for it now.

Billabong High School’s Biology Teacher, Kate Wilson, was out running with a friend when a detour in the park led them to discovering the crocodile.

Billabong students are on a mission to save the Kimboo, a nine foot crocodile
Billabong students are on a mission to save the Kimboo, a nine foot crocodile

“We were horrified by the size of the enclosure,” she says.

Calls were placed to Environmental protection Agency (EPA). The EPA told them that they had already tried to rescue the crocodile in conjunction with a Sri lankan outfit, to try and send it to a better place, “but for some reason it didn’t work out.”

Kimboo occasionally makes it into local media and even has his own Facebook page calling for his release, but so far nothing has eventuated.

Kate shared the story with her students, who were very keen to help and do what they could to begin the process of finding the crocodile a better home.

“We got in touch with an international agency in Australia, which rescues crocodiles that are injured or in bad conditions,” she says.  The agency is currently holding discussions to see if it is feasible to rescue the crocodile.

To encourage the agency to take action, today the students were making banners and producing a video with messages calling for support.

Shiman is confident kimboo will be rescued.

Aishath Suha, also in grade eight, says she volunteered for the operation ‘because I don’t want to see kimboo suffer.”

She points out the lack of space and says “it will be better off somewhere else in a better habitat.”

Like Shiman, Suha had also come to see the crocodile before and been concerned.

“This is all part of marking  World Environment Day, albeit belatedly,” says Billabong’s Principal, David Key.

Billabong High could not mark the day, as it fell on a holiday.

But now, as part of the activities, groups of students are planting 30 trees along the beach front area, and the beach near the tsunami monument.

“This is to create awareness among students about what they can do, and how they can help in contributing positively to preserving the environment,” says David.

Reasons for rescuing kimboo

Banners completed, the students gathered on the steps in the park. Each group of students gave the message they wanted to say for the video.

A group of young boys likened the kimboo’s captivity to “holding a person in a cage, through no fault of his own.”

Most students mentioned the small enclosure as the prime reason for wanting it to be rescued.

“It would be better off in a better home with others of its kind,” was another reason.

Sadly, after 12 years in captivity, the kimboo can most likely never be set free. But for the grade 7, 8, 9 and 10 students of Billabong, the fact it might get a better home is reason enough to try.

Meanwhile the kimboo lies in its enclosure, its powerful jaws wide open, oblivious to the fact that its future might soon change dramatically for the better.