Protecting a dwindling species, increasing income for a poor community and raising awareness for environmental issues – these are the ambitious objectives of a proposed Indian Ocean Sea Park near Mombasa, Kenya. Will a marine enclosure designed to keep whale sharks inside attract tourists and benefit this endangered species?
Measuring up to 12 meters in length, whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean. They are carnivore species, but feed mostly on plankton and small fish. Inhabiting mostly the tropical seas, they are are regarded as highly migratory.
In recent years, the number of whale sharks counted in Kenya may have decreased. According to the Kenyan Ministry of Fisheries Development, only 12 sharks have been sighted over a period of 30 days in 2010. In 2005, the sightings still amounted to 58 animals in 12 days. The decrease of whale shark sightings was attributed to 'local fishing practices'. Other sources maintain however that the whale shark sightings have been stable in the last few years.
Volker Bassen, founder of the East African Whale Shark Trust, believes to have found a way to generate funds for whale shark conservation. Two whale sharks will be kept in a large enclosure so that tourists can swim with the animals during snorkeling trips. This will make sure the whale sharks can be observed in the coastal region of Kenya any time of the year.
A polyethylene net with a breaking strength of 570 kg will be used in a circular area having a radius of 600 meters. The open water enclosure is designed to tie the whale sharks to the region and prevent them from migrating. The whale sharks will not be able to escape the area and will thus be easy to watch by tourist groups.
People from all over the world come to see elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, leopards and lions in Kenya. Now they will be able to add the whale shark to their lists. According to Volker Bassen, whale shark safaris would not only increase local income in the region, it would also raise awareness about the plight of the whale shark.
Part of the revenues would be used to abolish harmful fishing practices and conduct more research on the ocean's habitat.
But will whale sharks in captivity really help save their wild conspecies? There is a heated debate going on.
Ecologists perceive the concern for the decline of the whale shark as a clever marketing strategy. They argue that holding the sharks captive will be cruel and not the right way to increase local and international awareness.
It is questionable if exposing the captive animals to hordes of tourists will truly increase consciousness about the necessity to protect them. According to Raabia Hawa, a Kenyan conservationist and honorary warden with the Kenya Wildlife Service, there is no need to see a captive whale shark in order to become aware of the animal's beauty and rarity. Swimming with the sharks can also be realized in an open water environment. Through tracking devices, it would be possible to locate the animals and lead interested tourist groups to see them in the open sea.
The local communities state that there have been no cases of whale sharks killed in the past 5 years. Raabia Hawa explained: "The whale shark is too big a fish for these fishermen to cut up on their little wooden dhows and fishing boats. They would have to haul the entire fish back to shore".
The benefits of improved tourism revenue generation do not seem to outweigh the concerns of holding whale sharks in an environment that is not suitable for their nature. "It should also be noted that divers follow PADI rules, and ethical divers would never seriously consider swimming with caged whale sharks", Raabia Hawa said.
Keeping animals as large as the whale sharks in an enclosure for tourism purposes may also be harmful for Kenya's reputation as one of Africa's premiere wildlife destinations.
By Belinda Grasnick & Arend de Haas