Small but resilient
It is evening on Chumbe Island, and the smell of dinner cooking mingles with the salt breeze coming in off the water. Soon, as darkness settles, enormous terrestrial coconut crabs will come shuffling along the ancient crushed coral that makes up this little island, their claws clicking against palm trunks. But now, while the late light lingers, Ali Chagga leans toward his computer screen and smiles at me—a big white-toothed grin. “I’ve worked here as a ranger for almost 9 years,” he tells me. This place “helps me renew my brain power.”
Chagga is speaking to me from Chumbe Island Coral Park, a small marine protected area (MPA) off the coast of Tanzania and one of Marine Conservation Institute’s 21 Blue Parks. It is a crumb of craggy rock and green vegetation with one weathered white lighthouse that shines out across the shallow teal sea. Rare roseate terns skim over the surface with tail streamers like kites. Underwater, fingers of coral reach up among darting fish and slow-moving sharks. In the early 1990s Sibylle Riedmiller, a former overseas development worker, negotiated with the semi-autonomous government of Zanzibar to protect the island and surrounding coral reef as an MPA—a place where wildlife could thrive without the pressures of fishing and other destructive practices. Under Riedmiller’s leadership, the new protected area became the first managed marine park in Tanzania and the first private MPA in the world. Riedmiller’s company, Chumbe Island Coral Park Limited (CHICOP), still manages the park under a sustainable model of MPA management through revenue generated from ecotourism, and for nearly a decade Chagga has patrolled the park as an educator and ranger.
Chagga has the comforting ability to make eye contact with me even through the screen. This evening, talking with me from thousands of miles away, he describes the island the way someone might describe a long friendship: the long years of familiarity, the changes that are inevitable over time. In 2016, record ocean temperatures led to coral bleaching events around the world, and Chumbe Island was no exception. The scars are still there, Chagga tells me.
But something extraordinary happened afterward: where other reefs along the coast of Tanzania are still struggling to rebound, a 2017 study showed that the corals inside the Chumbe MPA were recovering much more quickly than their neighbors. It’s a truth that scientists are also arriving at in other MPAs: marine protected areas appear to offer far greater resilience to stressed corals. Compared to nearby areas, Chumbe’s protected waters are abuzz with new life. Ben Taylor, CHICOP Project Manager, tells me that local experts attribute Chumbe’s resilience to healthy fish populations helping revitalize the coral ecosystem.
Behind Taylor and Chagga, a turquoise wall glows with a mural of painted fish. It embodies a colorful symbiosis: over 60 protected species of East African corals in Chumbe are providing a vital habitat for these fish to flourish, and in turn the fish are responsible for breathing life back into the damaged reefs.
A common language
Chagga loves taking visitors snorkeling off the coast of Chumbe where “there are hundreds of things that cannot easily be seen. I say to guests ‘can you see this?’ and they say no and I say look closer.” His favorite discoveries are camouflaged creatures—stonefish on the seafloor, and shy hawksbill turtles snoozing under reefy ledges.
Even onshore, you can never be farther than 300 meters from the sea—Chagga shows me the map of the island painted on the wall behind him: only around 1.1 kilometers long and 300 meters wide at its widest point.
When he’s not guiding visitors, sometimes he lies down in the coastal forest and listens to birds. He whistles their songs to me. Early in the morning, Chagga’s favorite bird says, “I woke up, I’m happy, I’m going to look for the nectar.” Chagga replicates the song perfectly. Later at midday, a new song: “Happy sunny day,” Chagga chirps through the gap left behind by a missing tooth. And late in the evening, a longer, slower song: “Looking for a branch to sleep.” Chagga trills the bedtime tune for me, alluring and lovely, like a Tanzanian pied piper.
We all speak different languages—Chagga’s own accent is melodic as he chats with me in well-practiced English. But, he tells me, if we can learn the language of nature, then animals can be like friends to us.
This is something that Chagga loves sharing with the local community near Chumbe Island. The MPA lies only six kilometers from the nearest fishing community, and the high level of protection in the surrounding water would not be possible without their camaraderie and cooperation—in fact, most park rangers are former fishermen from nearby villages. Community members are invited to Chumbe to learn about the marine ecosystem free of charge, and in 2000, CHICOP began the only regular large-scale environmental education program in Tanzania to provide hands-on experiences in marine ecology.
“You can’t complain about people doing bad unless you teach them first. I used to step on live coral before,” he admits, bringing his fingers together and touching his chest. But he believes that learning about the life around you helps you to make gentler decisions.
His favorite memory in his nine years as a ranger was the day his home community came to visit him at work. His eyes shine as he describes his friends’ excitement: “They respect me now, they ask me for advice.”
Together, the communities surrounding Chumbe Island Coral Park are learning to speak a common language.
A model for sustainability
Chagga and Taylor rise and Chagga leads us outdoors, extending an arm like a master of ceremonies presenting the main act. The water is silver-blue in the late day, and coral outcroppings silhouette against it like black castles.
Chagga describes the sound of the ocean: “Wha, wha.” It’s a quiet place—no streets, no traffic, no radio stations dialed high. “No music… The coconut crabs cannot sing.” The three of us chuckle, listening to the cool wind come in off the sea.
The two men move past the staff mosque, which shines white in the evening light. They pass by a little red pot for washing feet. Nearby are several pairs of shoes laid out neatly on the stones. A handful of guests are currently on Chumbe, though visitation has largely shut down since the onset of Covid-19.
As a small private MPA, the park relies on income from sustainable tourism, and managers have struggled to find ways to continue running patrols and to support staff and their families as the pandemic drags on. To help fund management efforts, CHICOP is running a crowdfunding campaign in the hope that ocean lovers around the world will be inspired to contribute to the project from afar. Although the quiet is pleasant, this little Blue Park depends on a little bit of noise to safeguard marine life and to keep rangers employed.
Chagga and Taylor turn back toward the main building on Chumbe, a fusion of sustainable architecture and traditional Tanzanian design. Brightly colored local batik fabrics adorn the chairs and tables. The island powers its electricity with solar energy, and composting toilets help manage waste. Six elegantly curved roofs harvest rainwater. The poles holding the building together are connected by fibrous coconut rope, and the wood is untreated to prevent toxins from leaching into the sea. Every year, they replace a third of the roof because insects eat it.
It’s a lot of labor for the sake of sustainability, yet as I watch Chagga and Taylor wander together under the curved latticework of the roof, I can’t help but imagine how this tiny island mirrors the larger world. Here, the managers do their best to use only local resources, while charting a careful plan for how to manage organic waste or eliminate chemical waste entirely. Though the planet may not need an annual roof replacement, it does call for similar mindful presence from us, if we hope to live harmoniously with Earth’s systems.
Harmony even in hard times
Tonight, Chagga will lead his handful of guests to search for coconut crabs under the night’s blanket of darkness. Tomorrow, at low tide, he’ll bring his visitors to the edge of the sea to look for sponges, shrimp, octopuses, and other marine treasures. “Different, different, different,” he says of the new discoveries he makes every time he explores. For now, though, as evening settles and as we prepare to sign off from our computers, he speaks to me not as a teacher or a guide, but with plain, unfiltered love for this place.
“Peace,” he tells me when I ask what this marine reserve means to him. In the waning light, with the soft sea breeze whispering across his ears and mine, I sit for a moment with him, and I can feel it, too.