Paper Parks?

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The text message came in about 9 AM a few Sundays ago. It was too early in the day to receive bad news, and just early enough to ruin my day.  Essentially it was a call for help issued by one of the day boat operators in Komodo National Park.  It seems that despite the area’s status as a national park (and a World Heritage Site), nearly two decades of conservation work were being challenged by  fishermen who had cast nets on two of Komodo’s most prolific reefs. Where were the authorities, where were the patrol boats that were supposed to stop illegal fishing within park boundaries? No one seemed to know.

A little background on Komodo and how it came to be one of the world’s premier dive destinations:   I believe Valerie and Ron Taylor had already dived Komodo, but few other western photojournalists had been there when we went on our  first exploratory dive trip  in 1992.   Back then Komodo was hard to access and the facilities were far below basic. The main reason we endured the first trip (and eagerly came back for more) was that Komodo  is one of the few places in the world where divers can experience two very different marine environments. The northern part of the park borders the Pacific with it’s clear, warm waters and lush reefs. Southern Komodo abuts the Indian Ocean.  The water is cooler, richer, and so packed with invertebrates and fish life it still amazes us even after more than 1000 dives in south Komodo.

During our initial survey we wanted to photograph the difference between the two habitats, and so we motored toward the southern border of the park. The wind was raging in the channel between Komodo and Rinca, the park’s two largest islands, but the current was with us and we persevered, finally reaching the large horseshoe-shaped bay that forms the southern end of Rinca Island. As the crew dropped anchor in the bay between Rinca and Nusa Kode, the smaller island that protects the bay on the south, we stood on deck staring at a magnificent primeval scene: Beneath a sheer cliff cloaked in green, three humongous Komodo Dragons strolled on the beach halfheartedly chasing macaques while wild pigs rolled in the soft sand near the surf line and a trio of  majestic sea eagles soared above it all.

We took the dinghy to shore and followed a 2-meter-long dragon up a small hill on the western side of the cove.  By the time we reached the top of the hill, our dragon had a smaller dragon halfway down his throat .  We missed that shot, but did take a good look at the bit of reef that stuck out from the rock, already named “Cannibal Rock” in our minds, and decided to dive there first.  For those of you who have dived in Komodo or follow polls of the world’s top sites, the rest of the story is history.  Cannibal Rock is always at the top of anyone’s wish list. Komodo’s other sites are  just as stellar: manta cleaning stations, fantastic critters, masses of fish, and stunning top side scenery.

Preserving Komodo’s underwater wonders has always been a bit of a struggle.  The park is remote and has a very sparse local population so actually seeing fish poachers in operation is extremely difficult. Still, environmental NGOs and the Indonesian government persevered during the 1990s, and it seemed like a sizable dent was made in illegal fishing within park boundaries.  Sites like Crystal Rock, once robbed of life, are now smothered in fish; packs of dolphins hunting  around the Rock are frequently sighted by divers. Nearby is a site we call the Fish Bowl, where you can whoosh through a narrow canyon propelled by an untamable current passed uncountable species. If you hit it right, Fish Bowl is one of the most fun dives ever!

Nevertheless, illegal fishing still plagues several Komodo reefs, and everyone who loves this wild place is greatly concerned.   For now, Komodo’s diving remains as spectacular as any place on earth, but this won’t last long if the authorities lessen their vigilant watch.

Keep booking trips to Komodo National Park, the diving and overall experience is off the scale, and your tourism dollars help fund ranger salaries and patrol boats. But please let park management know you are upset that even one fish poacher got away on their watch.  The easiest way to protest illegal activities in Komodo National Park is to log on to the official site, www.putrinagakomodo.com.  Then go to the contacts page and send an email of protest to everyone who is charged with protecting this treasure.

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2 comments for “Paper Parks?

  1. A Komodo Diver
    February 19, 2010 at 11:36 am

    Dear Readers,

    I want to give a positive plug to the Park management (before slamming them) because without them the situation would surely be far worse. Dynamite fishing mostly has been stopped, with only the occasional report of an incursion into the park. The situation in Komodo overall is quite good, there are not a lot of fishermen, and we do have good fish stocks on most of the dive sites. On the land things are quite good with improved facilities, good rangers, and overall a good experience for visitor. But it is a far cry from what it CAN BE!

    In recent months we have had two serious incidence of destructive fishing. In November I was in south Komodo on a hard to find and dive pinnacle called TNC rock. I found Hundreds of large surgeon fish, and Trevally, dead, littering the bottom of the ocean.

    Another operator reported exactly the same scene on a dive site in North Komodo in January.

    He also reported having heard from locals that the fishermen are employing a new technique of potassium cyanide fishing, something along the lines of using baits to attract fish that are either releasing poison or bringing the fish into the range of someone to spray them with poison. Regardless of the technique the results have been the same…A disaster for the large fish populations.

    AS for the Answer to Burt and Maurine’s question, where are the patrols?
    well……..i am sorry to say THERE ARE NO PATROLS!
    Well there are, but they are not running…!

    Why they are not running needs the introduction of the two organisations that have responsibility for the parks management and protection. They are both responsible.

    PNK, Putri Naga Komodo, the organisation setup to assist with the management. They were tasked with collecting the park entry fees and amongst other things running the patrol boats namely two Floating Ranger Stations that should be on permanent rotations in the Park.

    Balai Taman Nasional Komodo, the Indonesian governments authority responsible for the park management are supposed to provide the rangers to the patrols who have the Authority to enforce the park rules.

    In a surprisingly significant reduction of their operations responsibility PNK now advise that the patrol boats are in process of being handed over to the responsibility of BTNK. AND that they are not operating at the moment….Until they can finalise the details of the transfer in Jakarta!

    IT seems that none took the time to think about the ONGOING protection of the park in the process… So it seems that no-one cares! Or at least no one cares enough to find a way to keep the patrols running. I hope PNK, and or BTNK can come up with a solution soon.

    If they don’t the fishermen will continue to risk and enjoy to get away with massive catches from a protected area, at least for a short while, and then they will have to look elsewhere too…

    PS. If anyone likes fishing …I know some great places….. No Worries…. just be Quick one way or another it wont last long!

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  2. Dimitri Skoularakos
    May 3, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    We were in Komodo in Feb and witnessed a dive site (south side of Manta Alley) were fish laid dead on the sea floor. There was also a a brain coral head split open, so obviously this was due to dynamite fishing. The north side reefs(in between the channel) seemed to be in good shape. We did not see any damage in South Komodo but did see some local fishermen here and there(small boats).

    Komodo is indeed a special place. Despite not seeing any patrol boats or any sign of policing the place(this is a huge area to accomplish this), I hope that local authorities will step up with this practice and protect the park.

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