Righting Wrongs on the Reef: Stretching across the Indian Ocean, the Low-Lying Islands of the Maldives Are Locked in a Never-Ending Battle to Preserve Their Coral Reefs and the Marine Wildlife That Depends on Them. Nick Smith Reports on an Initiative That's Helping to Secure the Future of This Fragile Ecosystem

By Smith, Nick | Geographical, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Righting Wrongs on the Reef: Stretching across the Indian Ocean, the Low-Lying Islands of the Maldives Are Locked in a Never-Ending Battle to Preserve Their Coral Reefs and the Marine Wildlife That Depends on Them. Nick Smith Reports on an Initiative That's Helping to Secure the Future of This Fragile Ecosystem


Smith, Nick, Geographical


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It may not be how Ibn Battuta arrived, but as your plane descends through the banks of equatorial cloud, you can see why the legendary 14th-century geographer was moved to call the Maldives 'one of the wonders of the world'. Not to be outdone, Marco Polo called this equatorial archipelago the 'flower of the Indies'. And he was right: seemingly countless tiny emerald-green islands with aquamarine lagoons festoon an indigo sea. It's a sight of such incredible natural beauty that the early Indian traders in the region didn't have much choice but to name the country Maladiv, from the Sanskrit meaning 'garland of islands.'

The Republic of the Maldives is made up of almost 1,200 islets, extending from 7[degrees]N to just south of the equator. They are, in fact, the summits of a vast submarine mountain range grouped into 26 atolls, each encircled by a coral reef and covered with lush vegetation that includes coconut palm, heliotrope, hibiscus and banyans. About 200 are home to indigenous people, while the remainder are uninhabited, or increasingly given over to luxury tourism, where operators provide desert island getaways for wealthy Westerners.

What little land there is barely rises above the sea. The maximum natural elevation of these islands is 2.3 metres and, with a rise in sea level in the past century of 20 centimetres, it's clear that climate change could have tragic consequences for the world's flattest country. Coral is the archipelago's only line of defence against surges of wind and tide, and although it's highly effective at diffusing the sea's energy, it can't stop islands being simply washed away when there are exceptional weather events.

And the islands have certainly weathered their fair share. In 1812 and 1955, storms devastated many of the northern islands. In 1964, the island of Hagngnaameedhoo was inundated by high seas, while in 1987, the capital, Male, was flooded. In 1998, a global bleaching event caused by El Nino wiped out 16 per cent of the world's coral, wreaking disaster among the reefs of the Maldives, while in December 2004, the tsunami caused by the Indian Ocean earthquake killed more than 100 people and caused widespread damage with an estimated repair bill of more than US$400million.

FUNDING PROJECTS

Protection of the marine environment is one of the key challenges facing the islands today. A recent UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report has called for the creation of a 'green state' in which sound environmental management practices would benefit local communities while helping to market tourism in the Maldives.

Tourism on any scale is relatively new to the region, and while it's often thought that increased activity puts more pressure on fragile marine ecosystems, the Maldives tourism boom is, in certain areas, making a positive contribution. Several local hotel chains currently fund environmental and community development programmes through their corporate social responsibility (CSR) portfolios.

Alexandra Barron is manager of the marine laboratory at Vabbinfaru Island, owned by Banyan Tree, an eco-resort business that funds research on green sea turtles, blacktip reef sharks and coral, as well as conservation initiatives, in the Maldives via its Green Imperative Fund. She explains: 'The fund provides financial support for environmental projects in places where Banyan Tree has a presence.' Guests make their financial contribution under an 'opt-out' arrangement for each night they spend at the resort, and their donations are matched, dollar for dollar, by Banyan Tree to develop the fund.

Barron, a shark specialist, is nothing if not passionate about marine conservation. In 2004, prior to taking up her position at the Banyan Tree marine laboratory, she won the Earthwatch Institute/Amerada Hess award for educators and has worked with the Marine Conservation Society and the Wildlife Trust. …

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Righting Wrongs on the Reef: Stretching across the Indian Ocean, the Low-Lying Islands of the Maldives Are Locked in a Never-Ending Battle to Preserve Their Coral Reefs and the Marine Wildlife That Depends on Them. Nick Smith Reports on an Initiative That's Helping to Secure the Future of This Fragile Ecosystem
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