In July, August and September this year we took a break from doing our Ilha Das Cobras overnight camping tours and focused more attention on our popular whale watching activities instead. Partly this is because we have limited resources and don’t want to stretch ourselves too thin, but there’s another, more pressing reason.
When we first started our Ilha Das Cobras tours in 2013 we were the only operator visiting the island. That changed in 2014 when local dhow boat operators responded to the demand we had created and began offering cheaper alternative tours. At first we took a philosophical approach, after all our aim is to grow, not limit, income-generating opportunities for locals so why should we object. But over time we began to realize that these alternative tours brought with them a range of complications in terms of environmental degradation, visitor satisfaction and visitor safety. As the ones encouraging people to visit Ilha Das cobras we must accept some responsibility if there are negative consequences.
One way that environmental degradation can occur is when tour operators encourage their clients to engage in inappropriate activities. An obvious example, and one we’ve observed on Cobras, is operators creating fires on the beaches above the high water mark. These fires are unnecessary; they leave unsightly scars and quite possibly degrade the few turtle nesting sites left on the island. Furthermore, the wood for these fires is invariably scavenged from the area around the campsite in a destructive and totally unsustainable way.
At first sight Ilha das Cobras is the least attractive of the islands close to Ilha de Mozambique; unlike the other two it is rocky and rugged and lacks the broad sandy beaches that have come to typify island paradise. To gain an appreciation visitors need to immerse themselves deep into Cobras ‘ wilderness aspects by exploring the hidden network of lagoons, first on foot and then ideally by kayak. After that there are coves and beaches to discover, plus rock shelters, tidal pools, blowholes, unusual flora and fauna and signs of occasional human occupation, including witchcraft sites. There’s another aspect too. Visits must be timed to coincide with the best tides; to go at any old time simply doesn’t work.
We have no way to measure visitor enjoyment so won’t attempt to quantify it, but we do know that the alternative tours do not provide visitors with the opportunity to enjoy all these features, the ones for which Cobras has now become famous.
It takes time to unlock Cobras’ secrets, time combined with the knowledge that our guides have built up over the years and are skilled at sharing with visitors. It’s these factors that give us unbroken 5 star reviews.
As for visitor safety there are local authorities charged with this. All three of these islands are difficult to get to and wind, wave and tidal considerations are extremely important. The Port Captain has plans to restrict tourism transport to licensed boats with qualified crew. This will still include locally owned and operated transportation dhows but will exclude the less well-maintained and poorly equipped fishing dhows.
We are currently working on a strategy to ensure the positive impacts far outweigh any negative impacts of tourism on Ilha Das Cobras. This may well result in a new look tour in 2016, possibly focusing on ready-made groups rather than individuals, perhaps with conservation activities built-in and definitely with stronger links with stakeholders.
We will post regular updates on how this is progressing, but now that the whale-watching season is drawing to a close we are excited to once again return to the magical wilderness of Ilha das Cobras. Why not come with us?