Map of KenyaIf you rank the countries in Africa by geographical area, Kenya is the 23rd country of 55, with an area of about 224,000 square miles, or slightly smaller than Texas. Kenya has a coastline of about 333 miles.* The coral reef in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Kenya, is the second longest in the world--the Great Barrier Reef is the first--extending from Somalia to Mozambique.
This map is a United Nations map and considered to be part of the public domain.
Here is a short profile of a Kenyan marine biologist dedicating his career to saving this coral reef.
Dr. David Obura is passionate about corals and their wellbeing. He oozed passion and knowledge about all matters related to coral during his interview.
Who is David Obura?
He is a Kenyan who grew up in Nairobi. He attended St Andrews Turi then Strathmore College before proceeding overseas for university and A-levels.
As a child, he loved nature and going on safaris and hikes. He liked biology at school and always knew he would be a biologist of some sort.
It was while attending an international school in Canada’s west coast that David experienced what it was like underwater. He got to be part of a school program that involved monitoring ecological reserves around an island off the Canadian west coast. The work included scuba diving, and he took to it like a fish.
People pay to go scuba diving, but Dr. Obura says he figured it would be better if he was the one getting paid to do it. Plus he loved studying life underwater, especially coral.
Dr. David Obura
Photo is used with permission from and courtesy of Keith Ellenbogen. ©2018, All Rights Reserved.
The reefs of home
So when choosing his graduate school, Dr. Obura opted for the University of Miami so it would be easier for him to study coral reefs.
Bucking the trend where top scholars emigrate from Kenya to work in higher-income countries whenever they get the opportunity, he wanted to use his knowledge in Kenya. “Even though I wanted to be abroad at the university, I always wanted to come back and work,” he says.
The shifting sands of time
Somewhere between 10 to 20 years ago and early in his career, Dr. Obura spent a lot of his time in the sea off the coasts of Kenya, Madagascar, Comoros Islands, and the rest of East Africa studying the reefs. He looked at the types of coral and their health, bleaching, and mortality. He would spend two to three weeks on an expedition diving to collect enough information and then a further six months to look at the data, create reports, and link the information with what other studies had collected or shown.
“I’m always learning. My early studies and career were very much on the biology of corals. And I studied the climate change impact on corals. Now a lot of my work intersects around how people see and perceive the reefs, understanding how to manage human impact and peoples’ relationship with nature because we're at such a critical stage for coral reefs.”
This is indeed true in East Africa where coral reef health is declining from major climate impacts in 1998 and 2016, and in between, there is the slow steady erosion of health and the ability of reefs to recover.
In 2002, the barrier reef off of Kenya appeared to be recovering from the El Nino Southern Oscillation of 1997-98 during which as much as 80% of Kenya's reefs suffered bleaching and mortality. Today, however, the recovery is offset by the changes in ocean temperature and acidity, pollution, and overfishing--a consequence of Kenya’s rapidly expanding population.
This explains why Obura has transitioned from being with his first love--studying coral underwater--to influencing policies and communities so that they do not harm coral. This involves a lot of workshops to create relationships and gain the trust of stakeholders when implementing projects that will promote the wellbeing of coral reefs.
Rather than join the local universities as an academic, in 2003 Dr. Obura set up CORDIO, a nonprofit that studies coral reef ecosystems and champions for the wellbeing of coral.
“We continue with finance just by research grants from abroad, or some contracts we get every year doing some technical work. Now we have about 12 staff and two directors, and we focus on coral reefs. We're a research and knowledge organization that focuses on coral reefs--but then we use that to talk and communicate about coastal zone management, sustainability on the coastal ecosystems, policy and governance, management.”
CORDIO’s work mainly focuses around the western Indian Ocean with some projects further afield like in Djibouti and the Myeik islands.
In one study co-authored by two CORDIO scientists, four Kenyan lagoons were studied. The genera most affected by bleaching and mortality were Pocillopora, Porites, and Acropora, with Porites demonstrating the most resilience and showing the least mortality despite bleaching. Shallower lagoons showed more resilience than deeper lagoons for reasons not completely understood.
Balancing the scales
Dr. Obura does a great job explaining why he wakes up every day to go to work with a passion. He also explains some of the obstacles he encounters when trying to sell and implement initiatives that help preserve the African coral reef ecosystem.
“It is about talking with partners, governments, and representatives to agree on the way forward on how the different countries can reduce the impact on the sea, and also not harm each other's interests, and maintain sustainable resources, especially in controlled environments. That's the sort of thing--there's a lot of meetings and quite a lot of travel as well--but you have to do that to set up the relationships.”
An initiative that perhaps exemplifies this is the Northern Mozambique Channel Initiative championed by WWF and CORDIO. The area between Madagascar and the Mozambique coast has a rich coral reef ecosystem and supplies a lot of fish to the region. It also boasts rich gas deposits, and about 30% of global tanker traffic goes through the region.
The initiative seeks to find ways of ensuring that the ecosystem remains sustainable in the face of the various activities spawned by these economic resources.
Not always smooth sailing
Scientists face several challenges whether in studying the sea or getting stakeholders to join in initiatives that will preserve the coral reef ecosystems.
Dr. Obura says that the most destructive economic activity in Kenya is overfishing. But pollution is a close second. The doctor mentioned the higher number of plastics visible in the water and on the beaches.
“There’s a lot of mess around the beaches, so we can see the plastic pollution easily. For the last two or three years, there is a huge amount of increase from local dumping. And that's just a symbol of all of the nutrients and chemicals that we don't see that is also in the water.”
The population of Kenya is about 51 million and increasing at a rate of about five percent per year, in line with other African countries. While the Kenyan population increase has been accompanied by similar increases in GDP, the increase in pollution is hard to quantify because it includes the physical detritus, chemicals, and increased turbidity.
Hopefully, today's increased national and international attention to the coral reef of Africa's east coast will continue to address the pollution problems in meaningful ways.
People can study aquatic science inland- well kind of
Dr. Obura says it is possible to study aquatic sciences inland. How? Most of the Kenyan universities have such programs, and they take their students on trips to the coast for practical classes.
“Part of the reason I set up CORDIO is to provide a platform for career development like that. So other Kenyans could have a chance to get some experience if they like it,” he adds.
Dr. David Obura
Photo is courtesy of Dr. David Obura. ©2018, All Rights Reserved.
Dr. Obura likes dolphins, not because they are cute (which they are) but because they are intelligent and social, almost like humans! He adds that diving is not as adventurous as some would think. He hasn’t had any near-death experiences or spine-chilling encounters with sharks to report.
In Europe, North America, and Japan, laws and standards help ensure that the coral and fish in the marine aquarium trade is harvested in a way that does not harm the ecosystem. Still, more needs to be done to enforce these laws to ensure sustainable practices.
In Kenya, the industry is quite young so there’s little both in terms of regulation and enforcement.
Dr. Obura notes that climate change is a big threat to coral because while some types of coral adapt, others die off and reef ecosystems as a whole are pushed towards collapse. The aquaria community is in touch with the rich beauty of the sea and can help pressure governments and society, in general, into more responsible and environment-friendly policies.
Obura, David O. “Resilience and Climate Change: Lessons from Coral Reefs and Bleaching in the Western Indian Ocean.” Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 63.3 (2005): 353–372. Web.
Obura, David. (2002). Status Of Coral Reefs In Eastern Africa: Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique And South Africa.
Grimsditch, G., Mwaura, J. M., Kilonzo, J., & Amiyo, N. (2010). The effects of habitat on coral bleaching responses in Kenya. Ambio, 39(4), 295-304.
*Note from the Editor: I found several different numbers for the length of Kenya's coastline, so, consider 333 miles an approximation.
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Author Profile: David Kimutai
David loves visiting the ocean, and his favorite saltwater aquarium fish is the dwarf angel, genus Centropyge in the family, Pomacanthidae. He is a freelance writer and digital marketer living in Nairobi, Kenya.
His love for aquariums started when he was young, when together with his brothers, they fished a trout from a local stream and kept it alive at home for days before releasing it.
His forum name is Davidangelfish