In a post last year I pointed to the action by the Indonesian government to make its entire 6 million square kilometer exclusive economic zone a sanctuary for manta rays as an example of growing recognition by governments of the ecosystem service value of natural capital.
The threat to mantas through hunting was highlighted in a haunting new documentary, Racing Extinction, which debuted worldwide on Discovery Channel earlier this month. The film followed the efforts of photojournalist/ marine conservationist Shawn Heinrichs to document the manta hunts in Lamakera, in a remote region of Indonesia. Heinrich learned that the hunts have a long tradition in this area, but until recently the number of mantas taken each year was relatively small. It was only in the last decade that the traditional hunting was transformed into a large-scale commercial fishery, fueled by the demand for manta gill rakers as an ingredient in Chinese medicine.
When the first images of a giant manta lit up the screen, a hush fell over the stunned crowd…Even the most hardened of the manta hunters were transfixed by beauty of a world they had only witnessed from the other end of a harpoon shaft. I noticed a row of small children, their wide eyes soaking up the images on the screen. For these children, a seed was planted and a brilliant transformation was already taking place.
Suddenly their futures presented exciting new opportunities — not as hunters, but as guides, researchers and maybe even photographers. For the first time since witnessing the mass killing of mantas on the beach of Lamakera, I felt hope return and I saw a path to end the slaughter and transform the livelihoods of this remote community. -Shawn Heinrichs
I noted in my post that a key to successful enforcement of the new manta sanctuary will be to ensure that fisher communities like Lamakera are able to see and share in the benefits of protection, as it means little to a local fisher, who is barely able to sustain his/her family, that protecting a manta will generate more in tourism dollars than what he/she will get from the gill rakers. Whether through involving these communities in ecotourism, or committing to use tax revenues from ecotourism to improve their housing, education and healthcare, it is critical to look not only at the “big picture” of valuing natural capital, but also to ensure that it results in improving lives.
A recent blog by Heinrichs offers hope in this direction. It documents his efforts, with support from the Oceanic Preservation Society and Wild Aid, to show the manta hunters of Lamakera, and even more importantly, their children, the beauty of living mantas and of their underwater habitat, offering a glimpse of an alternative future.