Protecting coral ecosystems – the Wakatobi experience


Lorenz Mäder’s decades of work is evident through the abundance of unspoiled, healthy coral reefs surrounding the island, including on the house reef just steps from the beach.

Lorenz Mäder, whose years of investment is testament to how sustainable ecotourism can work

With unique and vital coral reef ecosystem around the world facing threats from human activity, the need to protect them is ever more urgent. Traditional responses to do this have been through regulation and top-down enforcement. But lately conservation leaders have shown there’s another way, one which inspires and incentivizes local communities and user groups to willingly engage in grassroots conservation efforts A Swiss diver, Lorenz Mäder, was an early proponent of this approach, and the programme he created is now one of the world’s most successful community-based, privately funded marine conservation initiatives.

By Karen Stearn

In the beginnings

The genesis for what would come to be known as the Wakatobi Collaborative Reef Conservation Programme took shape in the 1990s. Mäder had spent years searching for the ideal place to create a small dive resort, eventually coming to the remote Indonesian island of Pulau Tolandona in the Tukang Besi archipelago of Indonesia’s Banda Sea. From the outset, Lorenz understood the importance of protecting and preserving the magnificent coral formations he found there. At that time, dynamite fishing, reef gleaning and netting were becoming wide spread, and there were few if any restrictions on fishing and harvesting practices. But rather than lobby for governmental intervention and largely unenforceable regulations, Lorenz reached out to local fishermen and communities.

A site known as The Zoo sports a pristine, hard coral slope that can be seen from the surface.

Despite language barriers and initial skepticism, he eventually won them over. Drawing on his marine biology background he convinced them to set aside 40% of their traditional fishing areas as no-take replenishment zones. In the years that followed they saw significant increases in their catch, and became the replenishment zones’ staunchest defenders.

On coral reefs free of harmful fishing activities you will likely see large green sea turtles gliding majestically, as here on the house reef just steps from the resort beach on Tolandano.

But preservation for the future isn’t an easy concept for people living hand-to-mouth, Lorenz says. “You have to build trust, and there also has to be demonstrative material benefits.” Benefits were created when a six km section of reef with seagrass meadows surrounding the new resort was designated a permanent no-take zone. In exchange for this Lorenz pledged to make direct lease payments to 17 local villages using revenue generated by resort guests. The programme has since expanded to cover 20 km of reef, and has become an international model for private-sector conservation.

Changing the map

Lorenz named his resort Wakatobi, a word created by taking the first two letters of the four largest islands in the archipelago: Wangi- Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia, and Binongko. Then in 2002, the Indonesian government expanded the area created by the resort’s conservation program to create the Wakatobi National Park which now encompassed nearly 1.4 million hectares, which has been designated an autonomous region with a new name: Wakatobi Regency. In 2005 UNESCO listed the Wakatobi National Park as a tentative World Heritage Site and added it in 2012 to the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

More than money

Today, the Collaborative Reef Conservation Programme installs and maintains a network of moorings in the reserve and in-area harbors thereby eliminating anchor damage to the reefs. Other initiatives include reef monitoring and cleaning, sponsorship of marine biology and ecology education, daily reef cleaning, and sponsoring reef and fishing area patrols by local communities, police, military, and rangers.

Drop beneath the waves on a healthy vibrant reef with thousands of species of coral, sponges, fish and invertebrates and you can see good reef management is possible.

Wakatobi’s commitment to the local community has expanded beyond the marine preserve too. The resort uses traditional labor and materials to build and maintain it’s infrastructure providing full-time employment for 150 locals. It provides electricity for the nearby 500-person village and sponsors waste management in the area. Educational materials are provided to schools while the resort’s micro-credit programme assists small-scale entrepreneurs seeking alternatives to unsustainable fishing practices.

Since the Collaborative Reef Conservation Programme was initiated, healthy corals and sponges now stretch across the reserve’s 20 km of prime habitat.

Real rewards

Wakatobi’s conservation and social initiatives have yielded substantial benefits. Now reefs in the marine preserve are in near-pristine condition, and overall fish populations have rebounded allowing for sustainable harvests in selected areas.

For a resort to be on such a remote island without causing harm to it is not easy. One way to reduce its carbon footprint was when Lorenz Mäder convinced the government to establish the region’s first solar power plant on the adjacent island of Tomia tying the resort into a local solar cooperative to supply most of its needs during daylight hours.

Many people see Lorenz as a visionary who initiated one of the world’s largest privately-funded and managed marine protected areas. But he says his motives are more pragmatic: “You can’t pack up and move your resort when the diving is no longer good,” he says. “So it’s better to do what you can to protect it, to enjoy it now and in the future.”

Hard coral formations such as this can take several decades (or more) to develop but can be destroyed in mere seconds by destructive fishing practices like explosives or nets.

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