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C3 Internship Review – Megan Hall – Madagascar and Comoros 2010

June 28, 2011

Inside Community-Centered Conservation:The experience within coastal villages of the Comoros and Madagascar

by Duke University Marine Lab on Thursday, October 21, 2010 at 3:21pm

Check out the amazing experience that Marine Science Conservation Intern, Megan Hall, had in Comoros and Madagascar this fall.

The morning broke clear and cool as we waded out into the aquamarine water, loaded down with 20 kilo rucksacks containing our lives for the next three months.  The port at Shindini was bustling, with all of 30 people crowding the shore—most were fishermen, preparing bobbing wooden pirogues and vedettes for a second daily fishing trip. Some women with brightly floral printed head scarves disinterestedly watched from the shore, looking up occasionally from their work cleaning the first glittering catch of the day. Our destination, Mohèli, the smallest of the three islands comprising the Union of the Comoros, could be seen as a charcoal outline against the horizon. As the boat departed and ploughed through crystalline waves, I began to imagine what I would encounter once we reached our distant destination. I had read all the background material on the creation and problematic maintenance of the Mohèli Marine Park; I had learned about C-3’s initiatives with bycatch surveys and sea-turtle monitoring; I had studied the nesting habits and track patterns of green sea turtles, the primary species which nests on the beaches of Mohèli. But none of this could have truly prepared me for the unique understanding of Comorian culture I developed by living within Hoani’s community for a month, and the consequent ability to appreciate the environmental issues facing the island in an entirely different context.

As the weeks passed on this rugged island, we not only became immersed in local community life, but also were able to develop an insider’s perspective on the fate of the island’s marine resources, specifically Green sea turtles. Moreover, monitoring and tagging the turtles every other night while on constant guard for poachers, still a prevalent presence on many of Mohèli’s beaches, was truly an eye-opening experience. Despite a widely-felt sentiment among Mohèli’s population that Green turtles are a threatened species, worthy and in need of protection, many locals still poached turtles for their eggs and meat on a regular basis, as the practice remained marginally culturally acceptable. Even those who didn’t hunt or eat turtle themselves were often hesitant to turn over known poachers to local authorities, as such a betrayal within the island’s tight-knit village structure could have grave consequences.  My experience with sea turtles and local conservation groups on Mohèli provided what was for me novel insight into the problems encountered when a culture wants to conserve marine species but lacks the resources to do so.

After six weeks, I left for Diego Suarez, an increasingly popular tourist destination in the far north of Madagascar, which surprisingly felt like a different world. Unlike the hardly developed cities and pristine beaches of the Comoros, Diego was a hotbed of Western-world influences, with an almost ubiquitous presence of running water, electricity, tourism agencies, and other forms of larger-scale development.  I spent most of my work time analyzing fisherman surveys, specifically concerning dugongs and shark bycatch.  The dugong surveys sought to fill in gaps in baseline information about the status of Madagascar’s dugong population; and the bycatch surveys about the extent of shark-targeted fisheries, and shark bycatch, along Madagascar’s northern coastline.  Surveys indicated that many fishermen were hardly aware of problems facing these threatened marine species, let alone the role of fisheries in creating problems.

During my analysis of the surveys, I increasingly realized that one of the greatest threats to Madagascar’s marine life was simply a lack of public awareness of the factors that are detrimental to marine ecosystems, and moreover, the mere existence of certain species, such as the dugong. Many people don’t have any exposure to this information, although they are quite keen to get involved once informed. As part of C-3’s public outreach component, I organized an “Ocean Day” street festival, with a focus on the dugong, to increase awareness and excitement about Madagascar’s marine life. C-3 members at the event provided information on easy ways that the local community could contribute to marine conservation.

By working with C-3 in the Comoros and Madagascar, every day became a learning experience, both in and out of the direct “workplace”, per se. The absolute cultural immersion brought new levels of understanding about many issues facing each nation, and a more complete vision of the steps that are necessary to accomplish conservation goals in a multi-cultural context. The experience has definitely strengthened my interests in working with marine studies that integrate cultural and anthropological aspects with conventional biological information.  As I go on to graduate school, hopefully focusing on multi-faceted studies of marine fisheries and their management, I will surely draw on lessons learned while I lived on these Indian Ocean Islands.



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