Poisonous toads, bleached coral, sloppy tourists, debt forgiveness and two new marine parks — this has been the past week in enviro-news.
An invasion of toxic toads from Asia is threatening what’s left of Madagascar’s already fragile ecosystem, according to a report in Sunday’s Observer by The Guardian global environment editor Jonathan Watts. The numbers are frightening, and the speed with which it’s happened has taken even most pessimistic conservation estimates by surprise.
In slightly more positive news, the Seychelles has established a pair of vast marine preserves in a world first. The proposal, as reported by Guardian environment editor David Carrington, would enshrine marine protection in exchange for debt forgiveness. It’s an innovative scheme backed by the likes of ardent conservationist and enviro-crusader Leonardo DiCaprio, and if the calculations are right it could conceivably show the way to saving large expanses of the world’s oceans.
And in another Sunday Observer report, Guardian culture editor Hannah Ellis-Petersen asks whether a temporary ban on tourists can help save the Thailand beach made famous in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie — yes, DiCaprio again — The Beach.
Much like the ecosystem itself, the three stories are different and yet connected in important ways. Tourism — too many people, treading on fragile coral and smashing their way through previously pristine wilderness areas — climate change and invasive species all play their part.
The crisis facing Madagascar seems especially poignant, because it mirrors what has already happened in one island paradise — Hawaii — and could conceivably be a harbinger of things to come in the Galapagos Islands.
Much as rats arrived in Hawaii, the Asian common toad, Duttaphrynus melanostictus, is believed to have been a stowaway aboard a ship from far away, in this case a container ship from Vietnam unloaded at a Madagascar port and then accidentally opened a nickel processing plant. (Nickel, used in smartphones and other handheld devices, is a huge driver of Madagascar’s otherwise rocky economy.) The toads are large, nondescript looking and poisonous. They lack the bright markings and vibrant colours that would otherwise warn predators like snakes and birds to stay away. They’re bigger and tougher than the local toads, and they breed, well, like rats, only more so. Frogs local to Madagascar lay roughly 10 eggs at a time; the Asian toad spawns an estimated 10,000 to 40,000 at a time. The Asian toad was first spotted, so to speak, in Madagascar in 2008. Today, it’s believed there may be as many as 7 million of them — by conservative estimates. More liberal estimates put the number closer to 21 million.
It matters because, in the short term, biologists worry the toad will spread to the Betampona Nature Reserve, home to Madagascar’s famous ring-tailed lemurs. The toads do not pose a direct threat to the lemurs, which are critically endangered as it is, but could prove deadly to the forest the lemurs depend on to survive. It’s the story of the world’s ecosystems in microcosm: The smallest player in the circle of life plays a major role in the big picture, regardless of size. Once again, humankind has interfered in the natural order of things. Even a casual reading of the situation suggests it may already be too late.
All power, then, to the Seychelles scheme, which — if it pans out, and even if it doesn’t — is at least trying to address the problem, rather than add to the already growing litany of environmental woes.
Dubbed tongue-in-cheek as “Debt for Dolphins,” the Indian Ocean nation of Seychelles will establish two large marine parks in exchange for much of its national debit to be written off.
If enacted, the legislation will throw a lifeline to tuna, dolphins, sharks and turtles caught in fishing nets, as create a barrier against overfishing. Seychelles relies on tourism for a large portion of its foreign exchange, but tourists are unlikely to come to dive if there is nothing to see underwater. That’s especially true of the coral reefs, which sustain marine life and are under threat from “bleaching” — the whitening that results when ocean temperatures rise precipitously and the living coral dies — throughout the world’s tropical seas.
Again, why care about the Seychelles?
Simply, the Aldabra archipelago, Seychelles’ jewel in the crown of biodiversity, rivals the Galapagos in ecological importance, marine scientists say. It’s not just manta rays, humpback whales, tiger sharks and clownfish, or ‘nemos’ as some call them, either. Aldabra is home to the dugong, or sea cow, said to be the single most endangered species in the entire Indian Ocean. Some 100,000 rare giant tortoises roam the tropical beaches and swim the local waters. The protected marine reserve at Aldabra will encompass some 74,000 square kilometres (28,500 square miles), roughly the size of Scotland.
A second, even larger marine reserve, 134,000 square km in all (52,000 square miles) is centred on the main Seychelles island of Mahe.
The parks are the indirect result of the first-ever debt swap for marine protection, and involve some $22 million owed to the UK, France and Belgium. (The swap was facilitated through the NGO The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which raised some $5 million from donors to pay off part of the debt and help cut the interest rate charged by lenders.)
Enforcement may no longer be the bugaboo it once was, either: New satellite programs are being designed to monitor fishing boats from space and detect erratic or illegal fishing patterns.
Another potential solution — albeit temporary — to the crisis facing the world’s surviving coral reefs is about to tried in Thailand, on the sands of Maya Bay, the cove on the small island of Koh Phi Phi Leh made famous in Danny Boyle’s 2000 cult film The Beach, starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio as a disaffected backpacker who tries to find paradise — and encounters greed, lust and murder instead — on an idyllic, untrammelled beach in Thailand.
Maya Bay is no longer untrammelled. The tiny, white-sand cove is now so choked with so many tourists that 80% of the coral has been destroyed. The despoiling of Maya Bay mirrors the destruction of once-pristine coves and beaches throughout Southeast Asia.
Money trumps the environment every time, even though it’s the environment that attracts tourist dollars in the first place.
Now, recent announcements from Thailand’s government suggest Maya Bay could be closed to visitors for as long as six months, to give the fragile marine environment time to recover. The Philippines is reportedly considering a similar action for its equally famous — and equally troubled — island of Boracay. More than 2 million tourists descend on the eight km-long (5 miles) every year. It’s not hard to imagine raw sewage and detritus from construction sites will destroy what’s left of the coral — and this after a massive die-off in 2015 sounded an alarm in conservation circles, though not among the developers themselves, it would appear.
It may already be too late, of course.
Jojo Rodriguez, an NGO marine conservationist who has been monitoring Boracay’s coral reefs since 2012, told the Sunday Observer that it will take more than six months to solve the problem.
“Maybe 60 years, if we are lucky,” Rodriguez told the paper.
As campaigners point out, though, Southeast Asia’s coral reefs continue to die. A six-month ban on tourism may not seem like much — and it isn’t — but it’s a start.