Mapping one of the world’s oldest Marine Protected Areas

Although Watamu Marine National Park, Kenya has been protected for 50 years, there has never been a comprehensive inventory of species or a map documenting the range of habitats found within its boundaries. And so a team from A Rocha Kenya embarked on a four year study (*) to collate all the historical information available and establish baseline data on the biodiversity and habitats that exist within the park. Lead author Dr Benjamin Cowburn completed his doctorate at Oxford University based on his work while in residence at Mwamba, A Rocha Kenya’s field study centre. Eight of the coauthors were interns at Mwamba, gaining real-world conservation training with their projects contributing significantly to this important project with many completing or currently working on PhDs.

Dr Robert Sluka, Lead Scientist of A Rocha International’s Marine and Coastal Conservation Programme, outlined the key findings: ‘The data showed that there are 13 species classified as Threatened according to the IUCN Red List, as well as five that are Near Threatened. Six of these species are elasmobranchs (sharks, rays and guitarfish), six are bony fish (Teleosts), four sea cucumbers (Holothuroidea), one seagrass and one coral species. We also found a species of sweeper fish Pempheris sp. (pictured in thumbnail by Dawn Goebbels) that experts suspect is new to science.

‘Most published references relating to the park focus on coral reef ecology, with less attention to biodiversity, socio-economics, or the ecology of non-coral reef habitats. The habitat map produced is the first to show this level of detail and the only habitat map of a Kenyan Marine Protected Area. It also indicates that there are nine habitat types within the park, the most dominant being seagrass and the least common coral reef. This emphasises the importance of non-coral habitats and the need for more research into the ecology and conservation importance of these habitats.’

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*Cowburn, B., Musembi, P.M., Sindorf, V., Kohlmeier, D., Raker, C., Nussbaumer, A., Hereward, H.F.R., Van Baelenberghe, B., Goebbels, D., Kamire, J., Horions, M., Sluka, R.D., Taylor, M.L. & Rogers, A.D. (2018). The habitats and biodiversity of Watamu Marine National Park: evaluating our knowledge of one of East Africa’s oldest marine protected areas. Atoll Research Bulletin 618: 1-45

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