SUCCESS STORY: Wasini women protect a unique coral island

Posted: 5 February 2009

Author: Denis Gathanju

Just three years after the European Union joined with the Kenyan Government to open the coral rock gardens on the former slave island of Wasini, off the coast of Kenya, as an eco-tourist destination, the project has become a self sustaining success story which has served not only to protect the coral formations, but to save the mangrove forests which skirt the island and to bring many benefits to the islanders themselves.

Denis Gathanju visiting Wasini Island
Denis Gathanju visiting Wasini Island
The writer visiting Wasini Island. Photo © Denis Gathanju
The Wasini Coral Gardens are a remarkable feature of Wasini Island in the Kenya's south coast region, about 100 km south of Mombasa. Unusually, their care has been entrusted to the local women's group who help manage the extensive above ground coral gardens while generating revenue from gate collections and the sale of gift products.

The Wasini mangrove and coral garden conservation project was set up and funded by the Biodiversity Conservation Programme, a joint venture between the Kenyan government and the European Commission, as part of an income generating eco tourism experiment that would help preserve the giant coral rocks on the island and the mangrove forest while providing a livelihood for the village community.

For years, the fossil coral gardens had been a tourist attraction with local and foreign visitors intrigued by the mere presence of the giant rocks. However, there was no organized guide for visitors to the site, or pathways to get around the gardens.

The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the government agency mandated to manage and operate national parks and reserves and other protected sites in Kenya, came up with the idea of constructing a boardwalk around the site. It was constructed by KWS staff and villagers, with technical help from a an experienced construction engineer and financial support from the governments of the Netherlands and Germany. The 70-member women's group is directly responsible for its operation and management, collecting visitors' fees, and providing guiding services.

Slave outpost

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) helped organise various training courses for the women in book keeping and group dynamics, management skills, customer care, visitor handling, and basic natural history of mangroves to help them run the project with professional skills. It was officially put into their hands on March 30, 2006.

Located just a few kilometers across the Shimoni Channel, the former slave outpost is rich in history. Shimoni Village, on the mainland, was the last slave outpost where slaves were held before they were ferried across the channel to Wasini Island and loaded onto larger vessels and taken to the clove plantations in Zanzibar and Pemba islands in Tanzania under the orders of the Sultan of Zanzibar.

A prominent Omani Sultan and his son also lived in the village. They graves can be found at the entrance of Wasini Island. Shimoni is Swahili word for caves, as the slaves from the mainland were chained and locked in caves located under the Shimoni Village.

Giant coral rock on Wasini Island, Kenya
Giant coral rock on Wasini Island, Kenya
Giant coral rock on Wasini Island, Kenya. Photo © Denis Gathanju
The 1.5 km long boardwalk on the island extends from the village centre into the mangrove forest and coral gardens, meandering round the giant coral rocks, with rest sites where visitors can stop for a quick snack or cold beer as they take in the sights and sounds of the island.

Non-residents pay about US$1.25 while residents are charge US$0.75. The revenue generated is used to maintain the boardwalk, with any remainder going towards community development activities that are identified and prioritised by the group. Some funds also go towards the cost of drugs for the local health clinic, paying the local kindergarten teacher her salary and offering partial bursaries to bright but needy students from the village seeking a high school education. Since the inauguration of the boardwalk several thousand dollars have been generated, bringing considerable benefit to the local community, and encouraging them to support the marine protected area.

Precious mangroves

Access to the seven km long and two km wide-island is by small boats located at the Shimoni jetty on the mainland. This provides a useful employment for the men and boys from the village who operate boats and dhows to ferry visitors across the channel. They also provide tours to the Kisite and Mpunguti Marine Park just behind Wasini Island, and to the dolphin rich waters and recommend great sites for scuba diving and snorkeling. Green and hawksbill turtles, and up to seven species of dolphin have been found in these waters. Visitors coming in the months of October and November are treated to the sights of the Humpback whales that can be seen during their yearly migration. Some of the islanders are highly skilled deep waters fishermen, who can help less experienced anglers land marlin, broadbill or the sailfish.

According to Aisha Rama, a ticketing and tour guide official at the gardens, the establishment of the eco tourism venture has greatly helped not only to generate income for the local women, but to preserve and conserve the sensitive mangrove eco system within the grounds.

The thick mangrove forest that borders the sea shore has provided vital protection for the Wasini village, with some 3,600 residents, from the strong ocean winds and tidal waves that could destroy their homes. It was only by sensitizing the villagers to the benefits of conserving the mangroves that they had stopped indiscriminate tree cutting for roofing purposes, says Aisha.

Local people have also learnt about the importance of not destroying the coral rocks, which form the basis of the tourist revenue. Not all ecotourism lives up to tht name, but in this case the future remains bright for the women of Wasini Island and their families, and for the beautiful coral rocks on which they depend to please and amaze visitors landing on their shores.

Denis Gathanju is a freelance feature writer based in Nakuru, Kenya. He has written extensively on business and conservation matters. He can be reached via his website www.gathanju.com