The fishermen have stopped fishing and turned to tourism, feeding whale sharks tiny amounts of krill to draw them closer to shore so tourists can snorkel or dive with them.
Oslob is the most reliable place in the world to swim with the massive fish. In calm waters, they come within 200m of the shore, and hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to see them. Former fishermen have gone from earning just a US$1.40 a day on average, to US$62 a day.
Our research involved investigating what effect the whale shark tourism has had on livelihoods and destructive fishing in the area. We found that Oslob is one of the world’s most surprising and successful alternative livelihood and conservation projects.
Illegal and destructive fishing, involving dynamite, cyanide, fish traps and drift gill nets, threatens endangered species and coral reefs throughout the Philippines.
Much of the rapidly growing population depend on fish as a key source of protein, and selling fish is an important part of many people’s income. As well as boats fishing illegally close to shore at night, fishermen use compressors and spears to dive for stingray, parrotfish and octopus. Even the smallest fish and crabs are taken. Catch is sold to tourist restaurants.
Despite legislation to protect whale sharks, they are still poached and finned alive, and caught as bycatch in trawl fisheries. “We have laws to protect whale sharks but they are still killed and slaughtered,” said the mayor of Oslob.
“Finning” is a particularly cruel practice: sharks’ fins are cut off and the shark is thrown back into the ocean, often alive, to die of suffocation. Fins are sold illegally to Taiwan for distribution in Southeast Asia. Big fins are highly prized for display outside shops and restaurants that sell shark fin products.
To protect the whale sharks on which people’s new tourism-based livelihoods depend, Oslob pays for sea patrols by volunteer sea wardens Bantay Dagat. Funding is also provided to manage five marine reserves and enforce fishery laws to stop destructive fishing along the 42km coastline. Villagers patrol the shore. “The enforcement of laws is very strict now,” said fisherman Bobong Lagaiho.
Destructive fishing has declined. Fish stocks and catch have increased and species such as mackerel are being caught for the first time in Tan-awan, the marine reserve where the whale sharks congregate.
The decline in destructive fishing, which in the Philippines can involve dynamite and cyanide, has also meant there are more non-endangered fish species for other fishers to catch.
Strong profits means strong conservation
The project in Oslob was designed by fishermen to provide an alternative to fishing at a time when they couldn’t catch enough to feed their families three meals a day, educate their children, or build houses strong enough to withstand typhoons.
“Now, our daughters go to school and we have concrete houses, so if there’s a typhoon we are no longer afraid. We are happy. We can treat our children to good food, unlike before,” said Carissa Jumaud, a fisherman’s wife.
Creating new forms of income is an essential part of reducing destructive fishing and overfishing in less developed countries. Conservation donors have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in various projects, however research has found they rarely work once funding and technical expertise are withdrawn and can even have negative effects. In one example, micro-loans to fishermen in Indonesia, designed to finance new businesses, were used instead to buy more fishing equipment.
In contrast, Oslob earned US$18.4 million from ticket sales between 2012 and 2016, with 751,046 visitors. Fishermen went from earning around US$512 a year to, on average, US$22,699 each.
Now, they only fish in their spare time. These incredible results are the driving force behind protecting whale sharks and coral reefs. “Once you protect our whale sharks, it follows that we an have obligation to protect our coral reefs because whale sharks are dependant on them,” said the mayor.
Feeding whale sharks is controversial, and some western environmentalists have lobbied to shut Oslob down. However, a recent review of various studies on Oslob found there is little robust evidence that feeding small amount of krill harms the whale sharks or significantly changes their behaviour.
Oslob is that rare thing that conservation donors strive to achieve – a sustainable livelihoods project that actually changes the behaviour of fishermen. Their work now protects whale sharks, reduces reliance on fishing for income, reduces destructive fishing, and increases fish stocks – all while lifting fishermen and their families out of poverty. Oslob is a win-win for fishermen, whale sharks and coral reefs.
For nine hours, my colleague Michael Shackleton and I held onto our scooters for dear life while being slapped in the face by spiked jungle plants in the mountains of Cambodia. We only disembarked either to help push a scooter up a slippery jungle path or to stop it from sliding down one.
With our gear loaded up on nine scooters – 200 metres of fishing nets, two inflatable kayaks, food for five days, hammocks, preservation gear for collection of DNA, and other assorted scientific instruments – we at last arrived at one of the few remaining sites known to harbour the critically endangered Siamese crocodiles.
The Siamese crocodile once lived in Southeast Asian freshwater rivers from Indonesia to Myanmar. But now, fewer than 1000 breeding individuals remain.
In fact, during the 1990s the species was thought to be completely extinct in the wild. Then, in 2000, scientists from Fauna and Flora International found a tiny population in the remote Cardamom Mountains region of Cambodia.
We travelled to this remote wilderness in 2017 to determine habitat suitability for the reintroduction of captive-bred juvenile Siamese crocodiles. We wanted to understand the food web there to see whether it contains enough fish to sustain the young crocs.
Our journey would not have been possible without the help of Community Crocodile Wardens – local community members who patrol the jungle sanctuaries for threats and record crocodile presence. Wardens also conduct crocodile surveys further afield to discover new populations or to identify new areas of potential suitable crocodile habitat for juvenile releases.
Our recent study found to ensure the species survives, reintroduction locations must be protected from fishing pressure – both from a food supply perspective, but also from risk of entanglement in nets.
A species in decline
When we arrived at our site, northwest of the village of Thmor Bang, our day was capped by what we came to know as the standard evening downpour, despite assurances that we had, in fact, timed our trip for the dry season.
Kayaks were inflated, nets set, and sampling was underway. This proved laborious – to ensure crocodiles didn’t drown, we couldn’t leave nets unattended in the water overnight, but instead checked them every hour until morning.
Siamese crocodiles are generally not aggressive to humans, but they come into conflict with people when caught in fishing nets.
This often leads to the crocodile drowning and the fishing net being ruined. It’s a disaster on both counts, because fish is the only source of protein for many local communities in Cambodia.
Like many other apex predators around the world, the Siamese crocodile is also in decline because of habitat destruction and poaching for their skins.
Their potential large size and generally placid nature means they are highly prized by crocodile farmers who use the skins for handbags and footwear. Crocodile farmers also often hybridise the Siamese crocodiles with other non-native crocodile species.
This means programs for Siamese crocodile reintroduction and breeding must carefully genetically screen all young crocodiles bred in captivity to make sure they’re not actually hybrids, so the “genetically pure” wild populations can remain.
Finding fish bones in croc poo
Despite a pretty good understanding of captive Siamese crocodile behaviour and biology, very little is known about Siamese crocodiles in the wild, such as what they eat or how much food they need to raise an egg to adulthood.
Our only reliable indication of diet comes from scats (crocodile poo or “shit of croc” as we came to call it) collected along the river banks inhabited by remnant populations.
Carefully collected poo samples containing scales and bones tell us fish and snakes make up a significant proportion of the Siamese crocodile diet.
But the shrouded, mystical, extremely remote and virtually inaccessible jungle in the Cardamom Mountains has ensured we know next to nothing about fish communities within habitats set for the release of captive crocodile. And this information is particularly important for prioritising release locations for captive bred juveniles.
We spent four days sampling fish communities and then repeated the process at two other equally remote locations within the Cardamoms, requiring two days travel between each.
We saw groups of gibbons moving through the forest and macaques climbing down from trees to drink at the river. But at last we spotted a wild Siamese crocodile after dark, swimming in our morning bathing pool, on our second-last day.
Ultimately, we distinguished 13 species of fish from the Cardamom Mountains, confirming the presence of two previously unconfirmed species groups for the region.
What’s more, we found fish density was highest in areas with more Siamese crocodiles, and lowest in areas with more human fishing pressure.
Understanding the food web of crocodile reintroduction sites is important, because conservation managers need to understand the ecological carrying capacity of the system – the number of individual crocodiles that can be supported in a given habitat. Learning this is especially important when historical information does not exist.
Preservation of fish stocks within Siamese crocodile habitats is critical for survival of the species. But a key challenge for natural resource managers of the Cardamom Mountains is balancing crocodile density with local fishing necessity, and to do this, we need more information on Siamese crocodile biology.