Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Way Forward

Last week I spent at the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA) conference in Mombasa. The north part of Mombasa is certainly posh. There are supermarkets bigger than anything in the UK, cinemas, posh bars, flower-lined tarmac roads and impressive houses for about 10-miles stretching north of the city. Whereas in Kasiyani, water is carried for miles to thirsty homes, there it is sprinkled on lawns and golf courses. Going from one extreme to the other was a bit crazy. Its just confusing knowing what your normal point of reference is.
The conference was hosted in the poshest 5* hotel on the Kenyan coast although I stayed in a backpackers a couple of miles away I ate lunch there. There were things I just never see in Kenya like olives, pesto and chocolate cake! It was very cool.
Most importantly though, the conference had 500 delegates from Kenya to South Africa and east to Madagascar, Seychelles, Reunion, Comoros etc. all conveniently meeting effectively on my doorstep to talk about a wide range of fascinating marine ideas. I heard some great talks and got excited by a bunch of new ideas of how to move forward with research e.g. Locally Managed Marine Reserves by local fishermen to coral genetic marks and connectivity between reefs. It was stimulating and great fun to be really nerdy for a week.
A big debate raged in my head all week though, about an issue that I've been aware for a while, but was really brought to a point. I've always been suspicious of academia, e.g. how someone can be paid to look at the social interactions of crabs on a mud flat I do not know. How these people study the crabs next to hungry kids fishing for little silverfish boggles my mind. However, most of the talks at the conference did have practical implications, like plenty of socio-economic studies of poverty and marine resources to understanding the impacts of global warming on coral survival. Nevertheless as I have seen in the Isles of Scilly and with Kenya Wildlife Services, very little of this information reaches conservation on the ground. The actual impact of studies is minimal, so how are they any more important than to read about how crabs make friends?
I have spent the last four years studying and pursuing a career in conservation biology because I wanted to conserve nature, in this case saving coral. To consider that any study I did would be largely irrelevant to this goal was a bit shocking really and that week I even considered forgetting being a scientist and trying a career where I could have more impact. Of course data are a truth which is hard to argue with, so you can prove to people what is happening and demonstrate how it works, but it feels like that truth is not reaching the people who need it to change things. Maybe we need less information collection in the world and more information dissemination. For example, plenty of people understand the dynamics of coral fish ecology and how susceptible they are to overfishing, but none of those people actually are involved with fishing. The people fishing think there are less fish than 20 years ago because they are hiding or Allah wills it so.
There are plenty of great NGOs in the world, including A Rocha who are relaying conservation to people. Somewhere like A Rocha research and practical impact are rolled together in many projects, under one organisation on a local level. At the moment this is the best model I can see. Hopefully in a few years time I will have a great PhD, but also leave healthy coral behind as well.
In other news my permits are through, but I really don't want to celebrate yet it feels too premature! There's certainly a big weight off my heart though. I've had a blissful weekend before reporting to the KWS early Monday morning. On Saturday Heidi and I walked into Watamu for our traditional Saturday morning ice-cream. In the afternoon we played on the beach with Ivy, Belinda's eldest daughter and friends. We jumped waves, dug holes and pretended to be sea monsters. It really reminded me of beach holidays when I was a kid. I don't think I've had fun on a beach like that for ages. To top off a fantastic day we had a bonfire and nyama choma (grilled meat) for Heidi's birthday. Lots of people came, there was a guitar and even night swimming under a bright moon. It was a really perfect day

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