The perilous 1,000-mile journey to save Africa’s endangered black rhinos
28 Oct 2022
Imagine one hundred kilometres of deserted beach, seeing both elephants and whales in a single glance, and spotting endangered leatherback and loggerhead turtles silently nesting under cover of night. It’s not unusual in the southern Mozambique section of Africa’s first marine transfrontier conservation area – the Ponta do Ouro-Kosi Bay Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA) in the Lubombo TFCA.
We’re standing on a deserted golden sand beach at Dobela, watching humpback whales breach and belly-flop just behind the breakers. Tonight, endangered loggerhead and leatherback turtles will lumber onto these same beaches to lay their precious eggs – it’s what they do each summer. In the ocean are also flying manta rays and snow white dugongs that feed on seagrasses, apparently in slow motion. Yet this stretch of coastline wasn’t always this idyllic.
Eight years ago when Miguel Gonçalves took over as marine manager of the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve – with just two staff members – there was plenty of illegal fishing and beach driving happening in the reserve. He says the beach was a highway because it was a shortcut. Today there is nobody driving on the beach, except Miguel and his marine guards who monitor the coastline.
As we drive down the deserted beach along the neap tide high water mark, Miguel speaks passionately about his job. ‘I believe in my work and I have a dedicated team of 10. We are busy because we have 100 km of coastline to monitor every day – which means a lot of beach driving. Our patrols also check that fishermen don’t use nets or jigs, and we measure and record their catches.’
The marine reserve extends three nautical miles (6 km) out to sea, except on the Maputo Bay side of the reserve where it only extends one nautical mile (2 km) out to sea. On land the reserve is from the base of the dunes to the ocean – the sand dunes are not included in the reserve. There are three zones in the park: for 30 km north of Ponta it’s classified ‘multi-use’, then from Techobanine to Dobela is a ‘sanctuary’, from Dobela to Mucombo there’s ‘restricted use’ and from Mucombo to the Maputo River mouth, around Inhaca and Portuguese Islands, again it’s a ‘multi-use’ area.
Summertime is uber chaotic in the reserve. This is prime loggerhead and leatherback turtle nesting territory in Mozambique, and they are monitored through the night every night from October to March. Forty-two community members have been trained as turtle monitors, and numbered poles have been planted along the beach 500m apart. So monitors log turtle information from their tags, take measurements and give the pole number as the location.
When it comes to turtles, it’s all good news with loggerhead numbers increasing and leatherback numbers stable – and turtle poaching has been stopped completely. However, turtle eggs are still predated by bush pigs and last season 16% of turtle eggs were lost in this way. Ghost crabs predate on turtle hatchlings as they run the gauntlet from their hatch site down to the sea.
As we continue driving the 100 km stretch of beach from Ponta to Santa Maria, Miguel calls out GPS coordinates whenever he sees any beach activity. The two marine guards sitting right behind him log it all for later analyses. This ongoing and accurate data collection has built a valuable body of research for this coastline, and serves to keep it impeccably managed and conserved.
‘We are not here just to police, but to help the community,’ adds Miguel, as we stop momentarily at Santa Maria and look across the water to Inhaca island. ‘We set up a school at Millibangalala for the community that lives in Maputo Special Reserve, and the local children who can now write in Portuguese. Then we also drive the doctor to the community regularly, buy food on their behalf and deliver it, and help them with medical emergencies. This has, of course completely changed our relationship with the community for the better.’
What will completely change the fortune of the reserve, however, is if it’s given World Heritage Status. ‘That’s my big wish for the future,’ smiles Miguel, as he does a U-turn on the beach and points the Land Cruiser back towards Ponta do Ouro. There is no time to waste. The tide is coming in.
Story by Keri Harvey