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Kuruwitu: Between a Rock and a Hard Place



“Kuruwitu: Between a Rock and a Hard Place” is one of the two marine films we are currently producing under our Inspiration series. If you would like to catch up on previous progress reports about this project, you can read my earlier updates here and here.

To follow is Simon Trevor’s latest field report, describing progress on the Kuruwitu project (don’t miss the photo-story which follows his account, showing the extraordinary success of the No Fishing Zone in rehabilitating Kuruwitu’s marine environment):

Our film work at Kuruwitu could go on forever, for there are so many exciting changes taking place, and I have no doubt this will carry on for years. However, we shall obviously have to close the first chapter of this story soon. We can’t go on forever - even if we would like to!

We are waiting for it to stop raining at the coast so that Lesley [Kenyan camerawoman working with AEFF] can record the latest increase in fish numbers. This will enabe us to show the great changes that have taken place since we first started filming here, just after the local fishing community had declared this area a No Fishing Zone in order to provide a safe fish breeding ground and to allow the fish stocks to recover.

Lesley Hannah, cold and exhausted after another successful dive.
Lesley is holding one of AEFF's cameras in a special underwater housing
which has enabled her to get such amazing footage of the changes taking
place beneath the waves at Kuruwitu.

Before we sign off on this film, we also feel we should include the arrival of the glass bottomed boats, which have been financed by a grant from the Community Environment Facility (under the Community Development Trust Fund, a joint EU-Kenya Government initiative). This will be such a momentous occasion, for it signals the beginning of new lives for the fishermen who will no longer have to rely on fishing for their livelihoods. We just hope that the tourist trade in Kenya will remain stable.

To our delight, another community very close to Kuruwitu has already declared another No Fishing Zone in their area, and we were there to film the official opening. This time the coastal Director of Fisheries presided over the event and there has been great support from other government officials, especially the local government chiefs. In fact, the local officials were so excited that they were being filmed and their good intentions recorded, that they have since been imploring us to return to film their fish.

Although this area, known as Bureni, is only a couple of kilometres from Kuruwitu, upon seeing Lesley’s latest underwater footage from there, I immediately noticed that the corals were of a different type and even the fish species were different. Of course both the coral and the fish were badly depleted but we now know that it will only be a matter of time before this area too will recover, just like Kuruwitu – provided the community can keep destructive elements at bay. This diversity within the marine ecosystem from one area to another shows how important it is to conserve more than just one or two isolated patches in order to benefit fully.

In addition to Boreni, yet another community expressed interest in the Kuruwitu model, this time from the Lamu area, a considerable distance up the coast towards Somalia. The community members even came down to talk to the Kuruwitu fishermen and again we were there to record their wonderment at the fish at Kuruwitu.

So it looks like AEFF shall have a camera team on the coast for a long time (as long as we can raise enough funding to make all these films!) What is interesting to note is that this need for films on the coast is repeated time and time again across the country, and indeed across the region. I have been struck many times by how many parallels there are between the forests and savannahs and the marine environment. Now there’s another idea for a film…

In my previous accounts of this film project, I had promised to post some images...so here we have it at last: The Kuruwitu story in pictures…


This is Kuruwitu in 2006, but it resembles much of Kenya’s underwater landscape beyond the Marine Parks these days. Huge areas have been denuded by irresponsible tourism (people breaking the coral heads with their feet while snorkelling), by over-utilisation of fish and all other marine life has removed the creatures which keep the sea urchins in check, and by the effects of El Nino over ten years ago.

This was a typical sight before Kuruwitu was formed. Sea Urchins have completely destroyed this coral head, which has probably been living here for four hundred years. This area used to be one of the finest coral gardens on the East African coast but it was decimated by people’s feet trampling the coral while snorkeling and by the rough waters stirred up by the El Nino weather system in 2006. Most of the fish were caught and taken away for the aquarium trade. Some of the coral would also have been sold as living specimens across the world.

A new emerging coral head is fed upon by a sea urchin. “Urchin” is an old word for a spiny hedgehog. The urchins feed on the algae, which coat the coral and, as they do this, they undermine the coral heads, which then collapse. As a result of the removal of the creatures which feed on urchins, their numbers had risen so that new coral like this one could never grow to maturity.

Sea Urchins have completely devastated this area – scientists now term it “urchin barren”.

This man is searching for “the last” baby octopus. Local traditional fishermen have seen their stocks of fish plummet as more and more people arrive at the coast to concentrate on removing anything edible from the shallow waters along the reefs. Additionally more efficient fishing nets, scuba diving equipment, and motorised boats have increased the catches to such an extent that today, there is hardly anything left. So now there is little hope for a better life from fishing for most of the population along the coast, and other alternatives need to be found.

Tidal pools like this one are completely devoid of fish and no longer hold breeding fish stocks at low tide. These pools have been denuded of all life by over-exploitation, including by the international aquarium trade.

These coral reef fish represent the desperation that coastal people now face in their struggle for survival, for these are not traditional food species. Due to over-exploitation of fish all along Kenya’s 500km coastline, there are no larger fish here any more. These reef fish have far more value attracting and being seen by tourists who will pay time and time again to come and see them, but faced with hunger and no other options, people have no choice but to eat them.


These men are members of the Kuruwitu Conservation and Welfare Association. They are not wealthy in material terms but they have the most extraordinary asset right on their doorstep. The No Fishing Zone that they have voluntarily created is recovering and will soon provide the foundation for a better standard of living for this coastal community. Supported now by the Kenya Government and with funding from a European Union/Kenya Government financial grant, the local people will have the means to conduct snorkelling and glass bottom boat tours to their coral gardens. They now have the opportunity to change their way of life from fishing to tourism. This is only possible because of the astonishing recovery of the Kuruwitu area, for which they must take much of the credit. (Additionally, those people who are fishing in the areas surrounding the No Fishing Zone are already seeing increased numbers of fish as a result of the safe breeding grounds within the No Fishing Zone.)

There are thousands of different types of coral across the world. You may find this hard to believe but a coral is an animal. Thousands of free-swimming larvae drift across the oceans before attaching themselves to rocks where they develop into billions of living polyps, which secrete calcium carbonate skeletons. Over thousands of years whole reefs are formed in this way. People benefit from healthy reefs in many diverse ways.
The protection of this reef by the Kuruwitu Conservation and Welfare Association is probably one of the most far reaching and important events in Kenya’s recent marine history.
After seeing our film there is no telling how many more communities will also see the wisdom of their actions and emulate the model in their own areas, in order to secure healthy fish stocks for themselves and for future generations.

Prior to the formation of the No Fishing Zone by the Conservation Association, the aquarium trade had removed nearly all the fish but here is living proof of the Association’s success and their determination and courage in the face of opposition from many sides. They have to contend not only with the professional aquarium traders in Kenya, who remove an uncontrolled number of fish and even living coral (on which fish rely for safe refuges and breeding places), but also with some other local fishing communities alongside the Kuruwitu area who have yet to see the benefits to all brought about by a No Fishing Zone and say they have sold the sea.

Here’s another urchin killer. This large ferocious Black Barred or Picasso Trigger fish is responsible for keeping those coral wreckers in check. But this fish is in great demand as an aquarium fish. It was aquarium suppliers who denuded the original Kuruwitu coral gardens and if it were not for the Conservation Association members, they would still be carrying out their destructive trade.


Beautiful Helmet Shells like this one have been removed from the coastal waters in their hundreds of thousands to sell to tourists. These creatures feed on sea urchins, and so the end result is that sea urchins proliferate uncontrollably. It is not the only creature that kills urchins and keeps their population in check but their almost total removal from the underwater environment has had a significant effect.

It has been calculated that the international seashell trade removes 2,200 tons of shells per year from the ocean. Why is it that we humans must remove everything we can from our environment when it looks so much more beautiful and natural in its rightful place? How many parents still encourage their children to collect shells during a stroll along the beach? In today’s world, there are just not enough shells left for that luxury.

Would you buy one of these cowrie shell necklaces after learning and seeing the effect of removing marine creatures from their natural home on Kenya’s coral reefs?

Please help us complete this educational film!

AEFF requires a further $5,000 to complete the filming and postproduction work on this film
. This will cover the cost of the editing, the writing, translating and recording of the narration (in English and Kiswahili, and hopefully in Giriama too - the tribal language of this coastal area) and all other finishing costs.

In addition, we need to raise $3,750 to produce 500 multi-language DVD copies of the film for free distribution across Africa via our network of distribution partners including mobile cinemas, conservation organizations, educational institutions, terrestrial and satellite TV. This includes the cost of creating a DVD master, producing the covers, replicating the DVDs, packaging each DVD into a cover, freight of the DVDs from UK to Kenya (there are no reliable replication facilities in East Africa at present) and the significant cost of distributing each DVD to remote places across the continent.

Once completed, this film will be seen by millions of people in its first year alone, and will forever endure as an important educational and historical document, charting the progress at Kuruwitu, and setting an example for others to follow in order to create a better life for themselves, without destroying the environment. Please help if you can.

Thank you.

Catch up on previous tales of Kuruwitu through our earlier posts:
17th March 2008: Leaking Canoes but no dampening of spirits...
13th March 2008: Filming and Progress Report on two marine film projects...


Recommended Comments

Game Warden


Tanya, thanks for bringing this issue up, of over utilization of Kenya's seas. It brings to mind the work being achieved at Chumbe Island, close to Zanzibar, of which more detail can be read in this interview. Whilst many come to Africa to enjoy a safari, it is sometimes followed by a beach itinerary, where it is clear from your report, little thought is given to the impact of irresponsible tourism. I look forward to seeing the completed film, and hope that it succeeds in bringing to the table the plight of those who rely on the sea for their food etc.

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You're right Matt - so much attention is given to the terrestrial environment, whereas the marine environment is equally important, and so often overlooked...
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