For 20 years, Comoros had only 1 national park. It’s now creating 5 more
- Comoros, an archipelagic nation in the western Indian Ocean, is dramatically expanding its network of protected areas (PAs) from one to six, including three new marine protected areas (MPAs).
- The idea is to replicate the co-management approach at Mohéli National Park, the country’s first and currently only national park, created in 2001 as an MPA.
- However, Comoros’s experience with Mohéli provided no clear blueprint for supporting communities whose traditional rights are curtailed because of the protected areas, or for sustainably funding for such a vast PA network.
Before the inhabitants of Itsamia in Comoros decided to intervene, turtles arriving to nest on its beaches drew villagers from neighboring hamlets. Anywhere from 10 to 30 green sea turtles were captured every day for their meat. That was in 1991. Today, the village is famous for its annual turtle festival that attracts visitors from near and far.
No turtles get eaten. Instead, one of the big draws is thousands of hatchlings scrambling to be redeemed by the sea.
This community-led effort to protect turtles in the southeastern corner of Mohéli, one of the islands that make up the Indian Ocean nation of Comoros, became a stepping stone in establishing the country’s first protected area, Mohéli marine park, in 2001. Now, the island nation is dramatically expanding its protected area (PA) network, installing PAs on Ngazidja (or Grande Comore), Ndzuani (or Anjouan) and Mohéli.
The idea is to replicate what a U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) report called Mohéli’s “successful co-management approach.” However, the Mohéli experiment is far from a shining success story. It didn’t provide a clear blueprint for supporting communities whose traditional rights are curtailed by protected areas, or for sustainably funding such a network, according to U.N. reports and sources interviewed by Mongabay.
The Comoros archipelago lies off the eastern coast of Africa, at the mouth of the Mozambique Channel, and before independence from colonial power France included the island of Mayotte. Today, Mayotte is administered as an overseas French department, though Comoros still lays claim to it. Formally the Union of Comoros, the independent nation has three official languages — Comorian, Arabic and French — that reflect its rich confluence of cultures. But almost a century of colonial rule and post-independence political upheaval have bred devastating levels of deprivation. Every third child is stunted. Most health centers don’t have functioning toilets or even water access.
“We know that our country does not have enough funds,” Houssoyni Housseni, a Comoros National Parks Agency official, told Mongabay. “When we created Mohéli marine park, the ambition was to create all the protected areas, but we didn’t have the funds.”
Comoros waited nearly 15 years to push forward with its plans, which are coming to fruition thanks to a five-year Global Environment Facility (GEF) project implemented by the UNDP that ended in 2021. Under the project, the country enacted a protected areas law, created an agency to oversee national parks, and passed decrees to create new PAs, which are awaiting presidential approval.
International donors tend to gravitate toward its oceanic neighbor, Madagascar, the world’s oldest island and a cornucopia of biological diversity. The Comorian islands are millions of years younger, birthed from underwater volcanic activity. A startling reminder of this is Mount Karthala, a notoriously active volcano on Grande Comore, the largest and most heavily populated island in the cluster.
Mohéli, or Mwali, spans 211 square kilometers (81 square miles) and is the smallest and least crowded of the Comorian islands, home to only about 50,000 of the country’s 870,000 inhabitants. In 2001, Itsamia village became part of the marine park that tied together 10 community-managed marine reserves in Mohéli. A 404-km2 (155-mi2) swath of the ocean, half the size of New York City. In 2015, the government changed its designation from a marine park to Mohéli National Park.
“We existed before the park,” said Dhoihirdine Ahmada Bacar, who helped set up the Association for the Socio-Economic Development of Itsamia (ADSEI). “We stopped people outside our village from coming and poaching the turtles.”
Mohéli hosts one of the largest nesting sites for green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) in the Indian Ocean. The island’s fringing reef and underwater seagrass meadows form perfect feeding grounds for green turtles, critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) and dugongs (Dugong dugon). The turtles visit year-round, and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) frequent Comorian waters between July and November. These waters are also home to rare coelacanths, prehistoric fish long thought extinct.
The islands of Mohéli and Anjouan are also the last refuges of Livingstone’s fruit bats (Pteropus livingstonii), a large species whose wingspan can stretch to 137 centimeters (4.5 feet). The fate of this critically endangered bat species hangs on the survival of around 1,200 individuals who favor the islands’ montane forests. Two years ago, the entire island of Mohéli became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Bacar said the expansion of protection on Mohéli had an important upside. There was greater awareness of the need to protect wildlife that went beyond Itsamia. “The park is a state institution, so the measures are generalized,” he said. “Till now, the protection of turtles was considered a community issue, not a national issue.”
Turtles were not always central to life in Itsamia, but over the years, residents perceived their appeal to tourists and researchers. Itsamia’s inhabitants are adherents of the shafeite school of Islam, which considers the consumption of animals that live in two worlds (land and water, in this case) forbidden or haram. They usually don’t target turtles, which spend most of their life in the sea but lay eggs onshore. There are different Islamic sects in the country, and not everybody abides by this interdiction.
“In the beginning, the officials thought we would create a park, put barriers, make people from outside pay for entering,” said Hachime Abdéremane, who runs a Comorian NGO, Ulanga-Ngazidja, and was involved in the park’s creation. “Whereas for us, it was a park at the community level, which means we would work with the villagers.”
In Mohéli, fishing, agriculture and livestock breeding are the main activities, and in coastal villages, fishing dominates. One fishing method, a modern invention, has particularly alarmed conservationists: blast fishing. Crude dynamite bombs are lobbed into the water to stun and kill fish en masse. The underwater blast waves can also level coral reefs.
The creation of the marine reserve put an end, at least on paper, to dynamite fishing and other harmful fishing practices like using plant toxins and fine-mesh nets. “It was difficult to convince people, especially those impacted by the park’s creation,” Abdéremane said. The new park’s engagement with fishers involved raising funds to buy them boats, dissuading them from using destructive fishing techniques, and persuading them to fish further away from coral reefs.
Traditional fishing is allowed but subject to restrictions like seasonal closures and no-take zones. The bouquet of measures is specific to each reserve within the park and decided by the co-management committee. The committee, along with eco-guards who earn sporadically paid wages, take care of day-to-day operations. In Itsamia, eco-guards and community members also conduct beach patrols. They first bring violations to the notice of the village chief; only in some instances does the committee involve the local police.
The surveillance appears to be working. Surveys showed a tenfold increase in turtle egg clutches between 2009-10 and 2016. Mangrove cover remained stable, and coral reef health improved, a UNDP evaluation report from 2019 said. However, it’s difficult to assess how wildlife in the marine protected area is faring. Apart from Livingstone fruit bats and turtles, there isn’t enough funding to continuously monitor any other species.
Soilihi Abdou, a Comorian researcher who studied the impacts of conservation actions on communities, said the restrictions are often “a source of conflict.” While the patrolling deters some from illegal activities like poaching, others are ready to take the risk. “Some people are afraid of going to jail, but others don’t consider this risk because they don’t have a choice,” Abdou said. “If they don’t do it, they are leaving their family to die of hunger.”
In many parts of Comoros, including on Mohéli, eating turtle meat is believed to be fortifying. Sea turtle meat was also cheaper than fish or beef before the restrictions came into force. Local people could capture turtles whenever they wanted because they had traditional rights, Abdou said. “An outside system of protection was imposed on them, so many of them end up committing infractions,” he said. “Despite that, their human needs are still there.”
In the years following the creation of the PA, researchers recorded a fivefold spike in sea turtle poaching on beaches outside the park. An evaluation carried out six years after the park came into being found that some residents were frustrated because they didn’t see the benefits promised by the park.
“Maybe the population can say: we don’t get anything. But when you go fishing, you have better fish catches in Mohéli than in the other islands,” Housseni said. There are no official studies documenting this increase, he acknowledged. “We are waiting for the researchers to come and do the studies,” he said.
Efforts to reshape livelihoods have also met with limited success. The UNDP’s assessments repeatedly highlighted how programs to provide alternatives to residents have fallen short. A 2021 report pointed out that “giving 5 fruit trees and ten banana plants to a farmer is largely insufficient to impact the livelihood.” The number of people benefiting from such programs isn’t enough to curb dependence on natural resources, the assessment found.
“Co-management is the strength of the park. It is not 100 % perfect, but generally, the principle of co-management works,” Ben Anthony Moussa, executive director of the national park, told Mongabay. Moussa said the park was financing 10 community projects this year, with an outlay of 100,000 euros ($107,700). “It is far from enough, but we are trying to do our best,” he said.
The hoped-for tourist boom with foreigners bringing in much-needed revenue hasn’t happened either. For Comoros as a whole, between 2000 and 2015, the number of foreign visitors remained stagnant. Despite an increase in recent years, community-led eco-tourist initiatives are flailing in Mohéli. Very few community-managed tourism camps “are operational, most are not used,” the 2021 UNDP assessment found.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, tourists weren’t flocking to the island. In 2018, Itsamia, one of the most popular sites on Mohéli, received 240 visitors. “Since the beginning of the crisis, we don’t have any visitors,” Bacar said of pandemic-induced challenges.” We reached a point where we closed the tourist bungalows.”
The failure of Comoros’s tourism sector contrasts sharply with neighboring Seychelles, another archipelagic nation of more than 100 islands in the western Indian Ocean. It’s famed for its beaches and wildlife, especially giant tortoises, attracting everyone from Hollywood stars to British royalty.
Seychelles, one of the region’s more prosperous countries, also recently expanded its marine PA network to encompass almost a third of its territorial waters. It entered into a debt-for-nature swap with The Nature Conservancy to finance this extension.
The GEF and the UNDP also helped Seychelles to increase its protected area estate. “The plan to expand while at the same time not having effective management or financing of the existing system reflected a key challenge,” a UNDP evaluation report on Seychelles noted.
The funding woes are likely to be more acute in Comoros if Mohéli is any indicator. The GEF bankrolled the creation of the Mohéli park through a project that wrapped up in 2003. Once the project ended, there were no funds, Moussa said, describing it as a “dark period” in the park’s history. “We had a big financial rupture which weakened the park’s management and functioning,” he said.
A fresh injection of money in 2012 through the World Bank-supported SWIOFish initiative and later by the French Development Agency (known by its French acronym, AfD) revived Mohéli National Park. This financing is due to end in 2023. “We still don’t know where we will find the money to pursue the different activities of the park,” Moussa said. “There was a lot of learning; people were engaged, the personnel were trained. We risk losing all this.”
Supporters of the PA network expansion say it will allow Comoros to tap into other funding streams. The country recently joined the regional Great Blue Wall initiative, which includes Madagascar and Seychelles. Countries in the Western Indian Ocean are banding together under this banner to enlarge the marine area under protection and collectively seek financing from international donors.
There are other challenges too. “There is a problem of social acceptability of the projects on the other islands,” Moussa said. “In Mohéli, they have accepted it even if it took a long time.” Yet, on Mohéli, too, the pressures are going to intensify in the coming years. According to Moussa, the island’s population has doubled over the past three decades and is likely to reach 100,000 by 2040.
A new project expected to start this June and funded largely by the Comorian government, the GEF and the NGO Dahari, will guide the management of the enlarged PA network. According to the proposal, there will be a focus on planting of cash crops like ylang-ylang, improving agricultural yields for staple crops, and sustainably managing fisheries. It seeks a bigger role for international NGOs in the management of parks and for private sector players in ecotourism.
However, the number of Comorians who will directly benefit from the project that will close in 2027 is low: 8,000.
An early review of this project by the GEF’s independent advisory panel (STAP) described a “minor” flaw in its design, saying that the proposal didn’t provide any specifics about how community rights would be strengthened, or pay enough attention to an emerging threat: climate change.
For Mohéli and Comoros, the question still looms: how to meet the needs of its growing population and the demands of expanding conservation?
The window for resolving this dilemma is narrowing as the effects of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels begin to manifest — from coral bleaching to coastal erosion. Comoros has contributed very little to global warming. In 2019, a Comorian was responsible, on average, for 0.35 tons of carbon emissions, as opposed to 4.85 tons for the average person in France, or 15.3 tons for someone in the U.S. Yet, it will have to contend with its impacts.
Climate change can erode the island nation’s biological diversity and dim the promise of better livelihoods. Visitors, mostly from Francophone countries, come to Comoros for its unspoiled beaches, nesting turtles and vibrant corals. All are at risk: a recent assessment warned that coral reefs in the western Indian Ocean, including in Comoros, could collapse within the next 50 years due to the effects of warming. Persistently warmer temperatures can prove deadly to unborn turtle hatchlings, research shows. While Itsamia’s residents are lauded for sheltering their nesting turtles, their patrols could prove futile in warding off this insidious threat.
Banner image: Comoros’ fringing reef and underwater seagrass meadows form perfect feeding grounds for green turtles and critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles. Image courtesy of ADSEI.