We are pleased to present our next Master Divers Life contest blog by contestant Katie Woodroffe
‘No Man Is an Island’ – How to Protect Thailand’s Fragile Islands
Eighteen years ago, I first stepped out of Bangkok airport, hit by the dense humidity and bustle of Thailand’s capital. At eleven years old, I was completely oblivious to the tourism boom that Thailand was experiencing at the time and the pressure that this would eventually have on the pristine environment. I was also unaware that sixteen years later I would find myself back in the country, working to protect its coastlines that had originally drawn my family, and millions of others, to the ‘Land of a Thousand Smiles’.
Thailand is well known for its beautiful islands with clear turquoise waters, white sandy beaches and an amazing variety of marine life. They attract hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, tourists seeking to break away from the rat race of everyday life and experience a piece of paradise. However, most that visit these islands are unaware of the fragility and importance of their ecosystems. Islands worldwide make up only 5.3% of the earths landmass but hold the greatest concentrations of biodiversity. Providing us with flora and fauna that are genetically distinct thanks to the vast waters separating them from the mainland. It is in these locations that evolution can really show its ingenuity. Where mother nature can display her creative energy.
It’s a worrying thought that 75% of species extinctions take place on islands. A growth in development and tourism invariably places pressure on island ecosystems and this needs to be carefully managed to ensure the ecosystems, including those on land and in water, remain stable and productive. This is nowhere more true and immediately apparent than in Thailand, a country that survives on an ever-growing tourist industry and that has recently had to take drastic measures to protect its coastal environments from damage, something that I’ll mention later on…
Erupting from the sea, these islands that dot the coast are truly precious and ever so delicate.
Live like a Local
There are people that have lived on islands for thousands of years, that often know better than any scientists how the ecosystems function. They understand the importance of the islands health – healthy islands mean healthy inhabitants. These people cannot just pop to the supermarket for a tin of beans. The island provides their food, their medicine, their building materials and handicrafts.
One example are the Moken tribes of Southern Thailand, who traditionally spent much of their lives out at sea, settling on islands when the monsoon season hits. They continue to co-exist peacefully and sustainably on a few of the islands in the South, still putting much of their knowledge of the local biosphere to good use. They do not have a language and, believe it or not, no words for “want”, “take” or “mine”. They are a humble community who have complete respect for their environment.
A Moken child and his father look into the water that plays an important part in their lives.
In mid 2016, whilst working for an international volunteer organisation, I had the opportunity to visit a marine biologist working on an island a few hours north west of Phuket. Going by the name of Koh Prathong, this island is one of the few that have remained relatively untouched by tourism. Put simply, I felt a million miles from anything familiar. It had such a remote feel to it, with a landscape so varied, from savannah-like grasslands, to miles of uninterrupted golden sandy beaches, to the odd small patches of primary rainforest and beautiful mangroves. But it was the smaller, and extremely different, neighbouring island of Koh Rah that really caught my attention. Surrounded by lively coral reefs and clear water, Koh Rah was mountainous. Its sharp outlines spoke of hostility, but its dense covering of rainforest gave it an aura of mystery and invitation. Only a handful of people lived on this island.
It was here that I met a local man called Aet. He had great spoken English compared to the other people that I bumped into and he insisted on showing me around the island to give me some insight as to what life here was like. Of Moken ancestry, Aet clearly had great knowledge, passion and respect for the island that raised him. Aet acted as a much-needed translator, and I soon found myself looking through species ID guides with some of the other locals, hoping they could reveal what wildlife lived on and around these islands. For most of these individuals, it was the first time they had seen their wildlife in photos and they eagerly gathered around the books, pointing at pictures of dugongs, small and medium sized cats, binturongs, wild boar and deer. Drifting off to sleep that night, I remember thinking how lucky Thailand was to still have these remaining patches of undisturbed habitats, but how important it was to understand them, and the people that inhabit them, to successfully protect them.
The stunning savannah of Koh Prathong
The island paradise that is Koh Rah
The following day we were able to take a look at some of the coral reefs surrounding the islands. We hired boats from a local resort on Koh Prathong and paddled out the short distance. The reefs had been studied briefly after the Indian Ocean tsunami had hit in 2004, but data was lacking in recent years. I remember, on that first visit, we noticed a few areas that had obvious damage from the tsunami. Snorkelling over areas of broken coral, we also noticed small patches of regrowth which gave us all hope. We had recently developed a partnership with Greenfins Thailand, an organisation that encourages responsible diving practices and helps collate data collected in the region on the state of coral reefs. These reefs lining the seabed around Koh Prathong seemed perfect sites to collect data to submit to the Greenfins citizen science research project. Unfortunately, like many coral reefs, there was also evidence of plastic pollution and discarded fishing gear. Yet, we were sure that with a little manpower we could help the situation by removing any debris we see when we conducted surveys.
Kayaking out to the coral reefs
Just a small part of the beautiful reef off Koh Prathong
Realizing that these islands were hidden gems with huge conservation value, I soon returned to the mainland and, with my field staff, began writing up a project proposal to the organisation I was working for. Setting up camera traps and conducting incidental land and coral reef surveys seemed like an exciting and highly valuable project to pursue. After several meetings with the Head of the islands native community, Na Yok Poo, I contacted various international organisations already conducting research with some of the species that were pointed out, including the Zoological Society of London who have several ongoing projects in Thailand.
Within a few months we began training up our small team of international volunteers on reef monitoring methods, biological survey skills and soon took them on three-day visits to the islands. We stayed in homestay accommodation in one of the smaller villages and spent much of our time walking through savannah and rainforests with Aet and a few of his friends, gradually learning first-hand about the land, its inhabitants and its natural resources which the islanders rely heavily on. Camera traps were set up in various locations, miles of mountainous rainforest and mangroves were explored, and many hours were spent within the local community, talking in broken English and Thai, and eating some amazing food.
The best jungle food ever!
(Here I have to mention my favourite meal, a tasty vegan dish, sourced from the forest containing banana flower, coconut milk and garlic. The rest of the recipe will forever remain a mystery; our ‘Jungle Mom’ would not tell us any more of her secrets!)
Meet our beautiful Jungle Mom
Selfie time with Aet
Following Aet through the rainforest to find remote locations for our camera traps
Sometimes we would hike 4 hours to get to locations not visited by people, just to set up a camera trap
There was always time for a munch on forest fruits! This one was one of my favourites, known as Snake Fruit, it is extremely sour but is so addictive!
Just one part of Koh Rah’s coastline. It has an almost prehistoric feel, a feeling that is very apparent when you see the Hornbills flying over the treetops.
Moken communities live in such a sustainable manner and have done for hundreds of years. They rely on the health of the ocean greatly and understand the importance of protecting at-risk areas. On one visit they asked for our help in building and placing large signs in the sand bank when the tide was out. The signs marked a community-initiated Marine Protected Area – showing that sometimes all you need is the power of the local community to ensure that areas are not exploited. If these islands are to be protected, these communities need to be well informed (if they’re not already!) of the changing pressures they may face in a modernising world and be empowered to take steps that will benefit themselves and their island home. Community engagement projects like these means there’s a meeting of minds and that we all learn from each other.
Helping the locals protect their waters
As an interesting aside, before the first wave of the tsunami hit in 2004, the Moken communities on the islands in this area knew that something was wrong. Their close relationship to the sea and several old tales of large waves hitting islands centuries before meant every single Moken person survived the event. They evacuated to higher locations shortly before the first wave arrived to devastate their villages and remained on the islands to help tourists and other Thais evacuate safely to the nearby mainland town of Kurabhuri. Their intimate relationship with, and respect for, the ocean continues to amaze me to this day.
During the first year of the project, we gained some amazing photos of some of the wildlife living on the islands, including Sambar deer, Long tailed macaque, wild boar, along with a few other species which are listed as Critically Endangered.
One of the many cheeky macaques that we caught on camera
A couple of water monitor lizards. Quite an interesting shot showing two individuals together.
Sambar deer are protected by law on the islands. It is because of this that the population is extremely healthy.
Showing the local children who they shared the island with.
Our homestay parents were always interested in what we saw on the camera traps
Aside from seeing the animals on camera traps placed about Koh Rah, we got to see a lot of deer on night surveys and Oriental pied hornbills and Great hornbills during our day surveys, amongst many other reptiles, amphibians and primates. And of course, the beautiful little critters we shared our beds with, like this guy, who posed perfectly for a photo!
A cute little grasshopper that became my roommate one night
The biodiversity surveys, camera trapping and coral reef surveys and clean ups on these islands still continue to this day, with progress and new discoveries being made on every visit. The volunteers also now visit the school on Koh Prathong and hold regular workshops there ranging from teaching English to conservation topics. Although these are small steps towards understanding and protecting these islands, they are small steps in the right direction. Volunteers are experiencing the beauty of the islands and the species richness found on them, whilst also having the opportunity to integrate into an amazing community that understand the land and ocean like no one else. The native community of both islands are gaining an insight into the value of their home from a different angle, an angle that will allow them to combine their ancestral knowledge with modern-day conservation involving scientists and government bodies.
No Man Is An Island
So what’s with the title of this blog, ‘No Man is an Island’? A 17th century poet once wrote this, and it eventually became a much used proverb and a concept that is also shared in Buddhism. As with all poetry I’m sure it can be interpreted in many ways, but in the proverbial sense, it means no person thrives in isolation and shouldn’t be considered in insolation from the rest of mankind. The very same poet wrote of how the loss of one man, was therefore his own loss as he was, at his core, the very same ‘mankind’. Apart from being poetic, there’s also some little nuggets of wisdom and practical advice here!
Protecting these islands will always be a collective and collaborative effort – the educators, the scientists, the local communities, the Thai government, the tourist, conservation organisations and eco-tourist business. A single group can’t do it alone and we can all be conservationists.
Thailand has recently taken the big step to close some of its most visited beaches across the country, either permanently or temporarily, so that they have the chance to recover from the negative effects excessive tourism has. Last year, an island known as Tachai, part of the Similans National Park, was closed until further notice by the Thai government and the Department of National Parks. More recently, and probably more well known, the legendary Maya Bay, part of Koh Phi Phi National Park was closed, and will remain closed for several months per year. Four thousand tourists a day would pull into this bay on boats that would carelessly smash into the reefs. Less than four weeks into its closure, there is already a visible improvement in the quality of water within the bay and the degraded coral reefs in front of the bay now have a safe chance of recovering.
Protecting these islands is a collective responsibility. It’s my hope that I can help people see these islands and the life they hold with the same eyes as this poet saw himself, a part of a bigger, richer whole. What’s at risk is a loss for us all.
The next frontier for me (hopefully with the help of Master Divers!) will be the sea. Bringing people into the water and through experiential learning, give them a chance to see what life lies below the surface and why ‘out of sight’ should not mean ‘out of mind’!
I look forward to taking you on this journey of discovery with me in future blog posts!
Sunset over Koh Rah