East Africa's Largest Mangrove Forest Wins Protection

GLAND, Switzerland, January 28, 2005 (ENS) - The East African country of Tanzania has named its fourth Wetland of International Importance for expanded protection under the international Ramsar Convention, the Secretariat announced today. Known as the Rufiji-Mafia-Kilwa Marine Ramsar site, it is a complex of coastal and marine habitats that as recently as four years ago was approved by the government for a giant prawn farm.

The newly protected site covers the delta of the Rufiji River; the Mafia Island about 25 kilometers offshore and surrounding smaller islands, sandbars, and coral reefs; the Songo-Songo Archipelago to the south and adjacent waters, including the Mafia Channel and waters between Mafia and Songo-Songo.


The Rufigi River Delta (Photo courtesy Africaventure)
Located about 250 miles south of the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam, the Rufiji River Delta is by far the largest delta in Eastern Africa and contains the largest estuarine mangrove forest on the eastern seaboard of the African continent.

About a tenth of the area of the new Ramsar site is covered with these salt tolerant mangrove forests - extending an estimated 55,000 hectares. The Rufiji Delta mangroves shelter migratory wetland birds such as curlew sandpipers, crab plovers, roseate terns and Caspian terns.

Nile crocodiles share the Rufiji Delta with hippopotamus, otters, and Sykes monkeys.


Sykes monkeys like this one live in the Rufiji River Delta (Photo courtesy Colobus Trust)
The site covers extensive intertidal flats, seagrass beds, and sandbars, all ecologically interlinked with the flow of the Rufiji river. Yellowfin, wahoo, kingfish, dorado, and red cod swim these waters.

Five species of globally threatened marine turtles have been recorded, including green and hawksbill turtles, as well as a small population of endangered dugongs, herbivorous mammals that live in shallow sheltered waters.

A count in the delta alone in 2001 recorded 40,160 waterbirds of at least 62 species.

The delta's artisanal fishery of about 7,000 fisherman produces about 4,500 metric tons of finfish each year, as well as wild prawns, and thousands of families in Songo-Songo and on Mafia also make their living from fishing.

Fishing and extraction of mangrove resources, as well as cultivation of rice, cassava and fruits, seaweed farming, and tourism are the major activities within the site.

In the mid-1990s plans by the African Fishing Company (AFC) to build the world's largest shrimp aquaculture facility in the Rufiji Delta ran afoul of strong opposition from local people. AFC proposed to cut 1,200 hectares of mangroves to build the prawn ponds.

The National Environmental Management Council (NEMC) - the environmental advisory body of the Tanzanian government - urged the government to reject the project because it would negatively impact forests, fish and the marine environment, land use, water resources, as well as agriculture and wildlife, and threaten habitats of a variety of endangered species.

The prawn export business was supposed to produce US$500 million a year in profits, but experts said the damage to the environment would outweigh the profit.

Still, in spite of NEMC's recommendation and over the objections of Tanzanian and international nongovernmental and agencies, the Tanzanian Cabinet approved the project.

But resistance to the aquaculture development persisted, and on August 15, 2001, it was announced that the AFC fishing vessels would be sold through a tender team supervised by the High Court of Tanzania to offset part of the company's huge debt, accumulated over the years due to the resistance of local people to the prawn farming project.

The liquidation of the company put an end to the project, ensuring the survival of Tanzanian mangroves. The liquidation of the company put an end to the project, ensuring the survival of Tanzanian mangroves.


Rufiji River Delta will now be protected (Photo courtesy IUCN)
At the same time, the IUCN-World Conservation Union has been working with the Rufiji District Council since 1997 to develop and implement an environmental management plan for the delta.

The management plan aims to secure the natural resources of the area for the use of local people and for posterity, IUCN says. Based in Utete, Rufiji District, the Rufiji Environment Management Project promotes the long-term conservation of the forests, woodlands and wetlands, so that biodiversity is conserved, critical ecological functions are maintained, renewable natural resources are used sustainably, and the livelihoods of the area's inhabitants are protected and enhanced.

"A true sign of success has been the change in attitude towards environmental management," the IUCN says in its assessment of the project. "Villagers have participated in workshops, training seminars and various other interactive exercises to plan for and raise awareness about the natural resources which sustain them."

Tanzania has a legal framework in place that supports local communities to manage their own resources, a system the IUCN has used to put into practice mechanisms that allow villagers to take control of the resources around them, to manage them and to derive benefit from their wise use.

Also part of the new Ramsar site, Songo-Songo Island has a diverse and extensive coral assemblage with records of 49 genera of hard and 12 genera of soft corals.

Last January, a natural gas processing plant opened on the island. Songas gathers gas from around and on the island of Songo-Songo and transports via a 225 km pipeline to Dar es Salaam where it provides fuel for electricity generation. Songas has provided the island residents with clean drinking water facilities, an upgraded dispensary, and a jetty.


Diving in Tanzanian waters (Photo courtesy Edexcel)
Mafia Island, known locally as Chole Shamba, attracts tourists with its exceptional scuba, snorkeling and fishing opportunities. The name derives not from mob families but from the Arabic "morfiyeh," meaning group or archipelago, or from the Ki-Swahili “mahali pa afya,” meaning a healthy dwelling-place.

The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.

Under the Convention there is a general obligation for the Parties to include wetland conservation considerations in their national land use planning.

Parties have also undertaken to establish nature reserves in wetlands, and they also are expected to promote training in the fields of wetland research, management and wardening.