“You’re spending your summer where?” This was the question I usually received after explaining that I was taking a summer internship in Africa. Not many people outside of the realm of international relations understand why moving to Zanzibar, Tanzania for three months would be one of the highlights of my twenty-six years. I worked for The Happy Africa Foundation (THAF), a non-governmental organization that has development projects in Tanzania, as well as Zambia and South Africa. They work in partnership with African Impact, another NGO that implements the development projects in each location with the help of international volunteers. In Zanzibar specifically, there are two projects working to improve the lives of the local people. The first is an education initiative focused on improving English language skills and community development in the town of Jambiani. The second is a marine conservation and education project, focusing on sustainable tourism and dolphin monitoring.
In the last ten years, Zanzibar has become a popular vacation destination known for its coral reefs, dolphin tours, and overall paradise. Unfortunately, this industry is buying up all the beach front property, contributing to deforestation, beach erosion, and fresh water scarcity. However, it also supplies hotel and transportation jobs for people in the area, including boat drivers. Drivers in Kizimkazi, a small fishing village known for its dolphin sightings, are attempting to capitalize on dolphin tours. However, in the past couple of years, these tours have become harmful for the dolphin population in the Menai Bay area, operating in such an unethical manner that they are forcing the animals to live elsewhere. High speed driving, loud splashes from tourists, and engine revving are a few of the practices that occur on these tours that endanger the dolphin population in the area. Boat drivers can only concern themselves with earning a wage for the present, lacking the means to inform their customers about proper tour practices and the general knowledge to know how they are operating is harmful.
Currently, there are about 70 Bottlenose Dolphins living in the Menai Bay area. This number is dwindling every year because the Zanzibari government does not have any regulations in place regarding the treatment of these animals. The population will continue to decrease, or leave the island ecosystem entirely, if the community and tourists do not act. While the number of boats and tourists are much greater, sightings are fewer. In order to protect the marine wildlife while allowing the local community to provide for themselves, African Impact has started ethical dolphin tour workshops. These workshops teach the drivers about the dolphins and their impact on them, as well as business management skills and environmental conservation. After preparing and leading these workshops, I can see the change in perception of marine life these drivers have. They went from believing dolphins were fish to knowing how to communicate to customers about proper dolphin interaction. African Impact will be graduating four drivers from this workshop in the next couple of weeks. The positive impact these drivers will have on the future of the Menai Bay and environmental conservation will be incredibly important, especially as more drivers participate in the program. Change is slow, but it is happening in this small village.
The next step for African Impact is to target the hotels throughout the island. Some of the local hotels are aware of the harsh reality of the dolphin tours, but many in the main city are too far removed from the situation. They guarantee their guests an experience of a lifetime swimming with, and even riding, the dolphins, and blindly book tours with any drivers they may have connections to. Neither the hotels, nor the tourists know the difference between an ethical and unethical tour, therefore, contributing to the situation. As long as the ethical training workshop continues to draw in boat drivers, African Impact will be able to market those drivers, allowing tourists to choose the type of tour they want.
Along with time, the challenge will be the moving dolphin population. The dolphin monitoring I participated in every morning shows that the populations are moving North, away from their original habitats. Soon, Kizimkazi will no longer be the main village for dolphin tours, opening up the industry to a whole new group of people needing to be informed.
After talking with many locals, I now understand how large of a part the ocean plays in their overall survival. It is important to them that they know how to protect it and the resources it gives. More and more countries are realizing the value of marine conservation, adding more regulations regarding swimming, touching, and driving around dolphins. Sustainable ecotourism initiatives like the one in Zanzibar are starting to gain traction, but are slow moving and easier to implement on the small island scale. As tourists and communities become more informed, I think these programs will have a greater impact. It is this type of positive development that African Impact is aiming to achieve that makes me inspired to work in this field and gets me excited for projects to come.
Sarah Dymecki is a second year graduate student at the Pardee School of Global Studies, pursuing a degree in Environmental Policy and International Relations Her focus is on water policy in Africa.