Eco Centres in the spotlight as Kuramathi centre wins prestigious industry prize

European travel and tourism group TUI has awarded the Eco-Centre at Kuramathi its ‘International Environmental Award’, “recognising its exemplary contribution to the protection and conservation of nature and biodiversity” and in particluar its work protecting coral reefs in the Maldives.

The award, which includes a prize of €10,000 (US$13,500), was presented during a ceremony held at the resort yesterday attended by President Mohamed Nasheed.

While many resorts in the Maldives now run eco-centres and environmental awareness programs, a trend that has grown in parallel with the increasing eco-awareness of guests from leading markets such as the UK. The Kuramathi centre, currently headed by Dr Reinhard Kikinger, is one of the oldest such facilities in the country. It was founded in 1999 by Director of Universal Resorts Ali Noradeen, in response to catastrophic coral bleaching caused by the el Niño effect which destroyed 95 percent of the country’s shallow reef coral – a disaster from which the country’s coral is still recovering.

“Water pollution and over exploitation through tourism can lead to irreparable damage,” TUI said in a statement following the event.

“The compelling concept of the Kuramathi Eco Centre was bringing nature conservation and tourism into harmony based on research, the sustainable use of resources and the raising of public awareness, which are performed in cooperation with TUI and the local population.”

Eco-conscious trend

Many resorts in the Maldives now run eco-centres and environmental awareness programs, a trend that has grown in parallel with the increasing eco-awareness of guests from leading markets such as the UK.

Marine biologist Verena Wiesbauer Ali, currently a consultant with Male’-based Water Solutions but who has worked at resorts all over the country, explained that the concept of running an eco-centre and employing a resident marine biologist was one that took off in the Maldives after increasingly eco-conscious guests began to ask more and more questions of resort staff.

“The first centre was opened at Kuramathi, but in 2009 I counted 12-15 centres at resorts across the Maldives. There will be many more by now,” she said.

Many of the marine biologists and eco-centres in the Maldives communicate with each other over a lively online newsgroup, reporting aquatic abnormalities and swapping tips on how to convince resort managements of the potential impacts of practices such as manta and sting ray feeding exhibitions (with one suggesting that feeding mantas leads them to mob snorkelers, who can panic and potentially stand on a sting ray).

Initially, Wiesbauer said, there was an assumption among many resorts that a marine station generated no income and was just “a luxury addition” to the resort – “but I believe that if run properly, they do [generate revenue] – I did my Masters thesis on it. ”

Guided dives and snorkel tours, and presentations on marine life and reef protection, might be the most self-evident activities of a marine station or eco-centre, Wiesbauer explained, but broadening the role of marine biologists to incorporate other aspects of the resort could greatly improve its sustainability – literally, in cases of beach erosion.

“As well as guiding snorkeling tours they can help improve things like energy efficiency, and even things like the purchasing department – for example, there are currently a lot of illegal transactions going on around the purchase of lobsters [from local fishermen]. Only a few resorts have asked their marine biologists to make sure the lobsters they are buying meet minimum size limits.”

Some resorts, Verena noted, were heavily involved in marine research – with academic work carrying the potential to greatly enhance the prestige of a resort.

“For a resort to fully benefit, the marine biologist has to be involved in many departments,” she explained. The end result – ‘going green’ – was a highly marketable benefit in key European markets such as the UK, and at upmarket resorts such as Soneva Fushi, a key feature of the resort.

A rising trend at many resorts with eco-centres was to develop them into focal points for environmental awareness programmes and marine biology classes in nearby communities and schools – effectively exporting the resort’s eco-knowhow to the community, as the Kuramathi centre does with neighbouring Rasdhoo.

“This is something that is especially important for resorts in the outer atolls,” Wiesbauer said, observing that in her experience many local teachers lacked enthusiasm for the field work and expeditions needed to bring the subject alive for young students.

“Mostly it is taught [in the Maldives] as a scientific, book-based subject, and the kids say it is not being made clear to them. Things like the nature expeditions for schools organised by Soneva are very successful.”

However resorts, she acknowledged, were very different from each other and not all had the scope for an in-house marine biologist – some relied on visiting consultants, others disregarded the concept altogether.

“Some resorts focus on diving and snorkelling, while at others guests hardly ever go in the water,” Wiesbauer said.

Nonetheless, she suggested, while there was a balance to be struck between sustainability and providing the five star luxuries such as monsoon showerheads that many guests expected, it was important to provide visitors a choice when it came to simple things – such as reusing towels. Far from feeling inconvenienced, guests were usually very supportive of such measures, she said: “across all the resorts I’ve worked, I haven’t once had a guest come up and say to me ‘I’ve paid thousands to be here, I can do what I like.’”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Verena Wiesbauer Ali was presently completing her Masters. She has completed her Masters and is now working on her PhD.


Jellyfish sting inspires first book on dangerous Maldives marine life

The waters surrounding the Maldives have an international reputation for spectacular diving that entices hordes of visitors to the country every year.

Much of the credit for this goes to the prolific marine life, which ensures even the sharks are friendly – a flailing tourist is a difficult meal when all a shark has to do is open its mouth for the fish to swim inside.

But when injuries at the fins, spines, teeth and tentacles of marine life do occur, local medical facilities have proven ill-prepared to deal with them.

When local marine biologist Verena Wiesbauer Ali visited an island doctor following a nasty sting from a Pelagia panopyra (Purple Jellyfish), he asked her why she had eaten one.

“I had swam through a soup of jellyfish and the itching was so bad I couldn’t sleep,” she recalls.

The doctor treated the symptoms with an IV and some anti-histamines, but later told her there was little literature available on the country’s dangerous or toxic marine life.

“His diagnosis was ‘fish stinger’,” she says. “I felt sympathetic so I took in a photo of the jellyfish the next day and the doctor began to ask a lot of other questions.”

Much of the literature Verena found was in German, and the treatments were varied. Conventional wisdom, such as applying vinegar to a jellyfish wound to deactivate the poison, was not always the case: “If you apply vinegar to the sting of a Portugese Man o’ War, it can have the opposite effect,” Verena discovered.

Researching further she did find a great many local stories along the lines of “‘there’s an animal this shape and this wide, and if you touch it your arm will fall off.'”

Assembling a team of doctors and marine biologists, including Dr Jens Lindner and Dr Reinhard Kilinger, she decided to write the Maldives’ first reference to dangerous, venomous and poisonous marine animals.

“We felt the need for a doctor’s reference that gives a detailed description of symptoms and recommendations for medical treatment,” she says, adding that one important inclusion was a Dhivehi reference dictionary for the local names of different species and dangerous seafood, such as sea urchins.

Beyond medical applications, Verena says the authors tried to make the book accessible “for anyone coming into contact with the sea, from snorkelers and divers to tourists and marine biologists.”

It includes information and treatment instructions for creatures like lion fish (“from a group known as scorpion fish that have quite strong venom – the display they make by spreading their fins is to show prey ‘I’m poisonous'”), sharks (“there are 35 species in the Maldives, including tiger sharks which can be more aggressive”,) and sting rays.

“Sting rays lie on the sea floor feeding on mollusks,” Verena explains. “They will move away from a person, but if stepped on they have venomous spines in their tail that can be fatal, as with [Australian TV personality] Steve Irwin. Most people are hit in the shin, but the spine is serrated and it normally has to be pushed through the limb; you can’t pull it, although now we can operate it out.”

Even seemingly-harmless surgeon fish can cause painful injuries: “They have a blade at the base of their tail fin.”

At a presentation on the book to doctors and nurses at Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH) today, president of the Maldivian Medical Association Dr Azeez Yoosuf noted that while Male’s roads caused more injuries than the country’s waters, “there is a lot of inappropriate treatment of injuries caused by marine creatures.”

“We come across island hospitals where wounds caused by sting rays have been nicely stitched up, but because of the toxins the wound becomes necrotic. It’s better to keep the wound open, but the tendency is to stitch it,” he explains.

Surgeon fish injuries were surprisingly common, he added. “You can safely swim through a school of surgeon fish. But curious tourists sometimes try to pat them and get a big cut on their hand, which can become a problem because the [tail] can be covered in a lot of slime.”

As for the tremendously poisonous stonefish, “we don’t have the anti-venom, it’s only available in Australia. We just treat the pain.”

Despite their fearsome reputation, shark attacks were very rare, he said.

“The only shark bite I’ve seen was on someone who caught one and tried to get the fishhook out by putting his hand in the [live] shark’s mouth.”

The traditional treatment for jellyfish stings, he noted, was “hot urine or alcohol.”

Inspired by a jellyfish sting
Inspired by a jellyfish sting

“Dangerous Marine Animals – Biology, Injuries & Medical Treatment” (Kikinger, Lindner, Wiesbauer-Ali 2009) is printed and published in the Maldives and is available directly from the publisher Atoll Images, Ma. Shah, Dhidhi Goalhi, Male’ (3341643).