By Jithendri Gomes
The Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) lecture for the month of February featuring Nishan Perera, a marine biologist with a focus on coral ecology and fisheries and marine protected area management as well as an underwater photographer, took place on 20 February at the Jasmine Hall of BMICH.
“My primary objective today is not to give you a lecture or educate you, but mostly to make you think about things you already know. But I want you to look at it more holistically,” he began. He then spoke of the southern elephant seal that was spotted along our coastline and created much hype with a lot of media attention in November last year. “It got me thinking about how much effort we put into potentially conserving this seal. And at no point am I saying that to conserve the seal is a bad thing, or any conservation effort or initiative is wrong.”
Perera’s question was why we couldn’t take that level of action for issues persisting on a daily basis. “I dive a lot in Colombo and know there are lots of illegal activities going on. The constant answer is that we don’t have enough resources, the personnel to patrol, or capacity to enforce the law. But here we had four Navy officers providing 24-hour protection for one seal – a species that is not endangered and is a vagrant in Sri Lanka. The amount of effort we put into one animal against the same effort to put into the species that matters. We have so many endangered species in our waters like turtles. Why does it happen this way?”
Perera shared that with marine conservation, the perceptions we have are a huge challenge. “We don’t react badly to seeing a fish dead, but would feel very differently if it was a goat, cow, or chicken. We are programmed that way; seeing a whole fish being chopped up does not affect us. And these perceptions are what we work with as marine conservationists.”
According to Perera, they use these charismatic animals even in conservation. For example, with the logos. And most efforts are focused on protecting a particular species and not animals as a whole. “There is a reason why we use it that way. And there is a reason why conservation also looks at species in isolation.”
“We have limited resources (even in the developed world) and an unlimited amount of issues to deal with. So, we must use these resources correctly on the most pressing issues,” shared Perera, adding that the significance of the threat on the species must also be verified with data. The chances of success of intervention are another factor that must be considered, especially with regard to particular projects. Is it about us feeling good or making the change we really want to make? “It has to be a very scientific approach to maximise the benefits and returns by using the limited resources available. This is known as the ‘triage approach’ and we promote it with all conservation management efforts.”
In a Sri Lankan context, according to Perera, one of the things he feels is important but does not get much attention is agricultural runoff. “We have really bad agricultural practices and use extensive amounts of fertiliser and pesticides, and all of these chemicals end up in our coastal ecosystems. Once they get to the sea, they kill the smaller animals or the larvae, and sometimes it also makes algae growth faster, which then creates an imbalance.”
Another major concern is deforestation and poor land reserving practices that lead to sedimentation. “Every time there earth slips or mudslides occur, everything ends up in the ocean via rivers. And they smother coral reefs and seagrass beds. It also impacts the light penetration in the water – sunlight is essential. And then oil run off; the majority of the oil in the oceans across the world comes from land-based run offs.”
Accordingly, the oil that gets on our roads from vehicles that have leaks enters the canals and rivers and eventually ends up in the oceans. It is much more of a problem of one-off oil spillage as the media promotes it to be.
He also highlighted the by-catch of marine mammals. We don’t really talk about dolphins and turtles being entangled in fishing nets, he noted.
He went on to say: “The human nature we affiliate to animals gives us a sort of moral duty to care about these animals. It is a positive thing as it drives us to do something – to engage with these animals and conserve them. But the negative thing is that we think the behavioural or ecological needs of these animals are similar to humans. They are not. How we perceive they interact with us may actually be very different. The problems lie with our decisions being based on our emotions rather than scientific facts.
“What is the solution? There isn’t a perfect one. And we don’t live in a perfect world. We have altered the natural landscape and we have impacted wildlife in so many diffused ways that it is not a national ecosystem anymore. Firstly, we need to change our perceptions. We see the ocean as a place where we catch food to eat and send our garbage to, which in itself is a huge contradiction. We also need to have more public advocacy and engage with them more. We have to bring the issues that matter for public concern. As much as we think there is little influence politicians do, listen when there is enough noise.
“We also cannot conserve animals in isolation. It’s not only the charismatic animals, but all the other animals too that exist in the same ecosystem from which we benefit. So you can use the dolphins, sharks, whales, manta rays, etc. as vehicles of driving conservation,” he stressed.
With this, he mentioned three success stories from abroad where conserving charismatic animals benefitted the whole ecosystem. The manta rays in Hanifaru Bay Baa Atoll in Maldives, a tourist-oriented conservation project; tiger sharks in Beqa Lagoon in Fiji, a community-initiated conservation project; and whale shark tourism in Saigon Bay, Philippines are some of the noteworthy projects. What’s common in these three examples is that these areas were declared as marine sanctuaries.
Perera finally mentioned an example from Sri Lanka as well – the turtles fed in the southern coast of Sri Lanka, predominantly in Hikkaduwa. “The local communities make money by selling the algae to tourists. Sometimes, these tourists touch them or get in their personal space. But we have also had a problem of these turtles being hunted or getting caught in nets. And are these turtles stressed because they are not leaving the area? Personally, I see more turtles there now than I did 20 years ago. It is not an ideal situation, but at least they are surviving and breeding. It is not managed as well as the previous examples, as we lack experience in that area, but the local communities fiercely protect the turtles – the positives outweigh the negatives,” he concluded.