‘I hadn’t seen them for so long I’d forgotten all about them’ the fisherman told me. ‘Then about eight years ago, I saw one. I knew then that we had brought the otters home’.
Sitting in the hall with the local fishers and some of their families, it was hard to disagree – the sea-otters were home. They were the topic of conversation, framed by a pride they had returned, pride that the community was absolutely crucial to their return and a sense of creative energy that manifested itself when the fishers talked about how the sea-otters had become a symbol of what is possible in mangrove conservation.
They hadn’t been seen in this part of Phuket for something like 30 years according to the fishers. But their return, those seven or eight years ago, wasn’t just some kind of fluke. The fact that they returned, and the fact that they have stayed, is a direct result of the conservation efforts of the fishers, and others in their community, to protect their mangroves and to use wisely the resources their livelihoods depend on.
The conservation story started probably three generations ago, when some fishers from this village noticed a number of things: their catch was declining; many of the mangrove forests were disappearing, cleared for resorts and tourist-related developments; and the tenure rights to the forests were even more problematic than they previously had been.
These fishers formed a community group to protect the remaining mangroves on their part of the coast, a job that has succeeded very well, but which remains part completed because of the enormous tourism pressures that are currently occurring – everything from resorts to condominiums to harbours for super-yachts.
In amongst these pressures, a community continues to protect its mangroves and continues to reach out to Government departments for legislative support and to other villages to show what can be done, a new generation learns about the importance of mangroves, of conservation and of the coastal ecosystems of the area and fishers know that their catch is secured. And, of course, the otters remain at home.
We should all be very thankful that communities such as these take this kind of responsibility. We should also be aware about who pays the costs of this kind of protection and this conservation work. And we should be very careful what kinds of tourism we want.