We have Finally seen hippos on Mafia Island!

After spending some time on Mafia Island you’ll quickly learn that this is a hotspot for many forms of wildlife: fish, birds, crabs, insects, but you would hardly expect the biggest animal of them all to be the hardest one to find. Being a small island off the coast of Tanzania, few of Africa’s larger mammals have made it here, with one exception: the hippopotamus. Only one publication mentions hippos on Mafia Island, with the last verifiable record dating all the way back to 1915. Since then, the presence of hippos on Mafia Island has been pure speculation and rumour.  What has happened since then? Perhaps they were exterminated, or simply stuggled to survive on such a small island. But if you ask any Mafia Island local they will tell you with extreme confidence that there are hippos here. Some say they are pygmy hippos, some say normal hippos. Surely there must be some truth to this rumour, right? The forest team here decided to have a look for them.

The difficulty with spotting hippos is they spend their days underwater, then come out at night to feed. So if you want to see them you have to catch them at twilight. We first set out on day trips, but no luck, the hippos were either sleeping or weren’t there at all. After the first two trips I was convinced that hippos on Mafia Island existed only in the imagination of the locals. How could such a big creature be so hard to find? Then we decided to camp, to catch the hippos when it was too cold for them to hide in the water… during the night.

I spoke to the head of the Mafia Island Marine Park (Musa), who assured me that he had grown up near a lake where he saw hippos every day, and that we should stay with his brother (Juma) in the house where he grew up. Okay. So we departed during the day with two tents, a hammock, a packet of pasta, half a loaf of bread and low expectations. After a rough journey on what the locals call a road, we finally arrived. We quickly set up camp and Juma took us to the lake. The time was 4:30pm. Once we reached the lake Juma climbed a tall tree and began to whistle louder than any man with a whistle could whistle. Last, I’d heard hippos don’t whistle so I wasn’t sure if this would be an effective communication method. Until I heard laughter and Juma shouting boko (hippo), so we all began to climb trees, and there, in the lake, we could see two giant hippo heads, each with a set of waggling ears. Immediately all doubt vanished. These were hippos, big hippos, Hippopotamus amphibious.

After admiring the hippos we made dinner and tried to sleep among the pervasive rumbling of the river horse. Much of the night was spent peaking out of the zip of our tents in curiosity and fear at the surrounding moonlit grasslands. But now we know.

By Edmond

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Volunteer blog: Mange Reef and Sandbank

After a 7am early morning start to account for the two hour journey, the entire camp boarded Yanga (our boat) as Mussa (our captain) set sail for Mange reef and Sandbank.  The Mariners, joined by the newly trained terrestrials, hoping to see white tip reef sharks, were eagerly anticipating their first dive as they set across the glistening waters of the Indian Ocean.

As the divers descended 15m towards the majestic reef, they encountered countless species of Parrotfish, Angelfish and Stingrays amongst many others including the favourite Red-tooth Trigger fish, never previously been seen inside the bay.  With jet streams of Fusiliers crossing our paths, we ventured onwards across the sandy bottom in search of the elusive white-tip reef sharks but to no avail. The second dive followed after a surface interval, again to encounter the breathtaking surroundings and marine life that Mange has to offer.  Upon resurfacing, the two dive teams swapped stories, with one team seeing dolphins and the others coming back with comical stories of certain members of the newly trained terrestrial divers sneezing snottily in masks. 

As the boat headed back to collect the Teachers and for a brief relax on the Sandbank, the sun's intensity was visible from hundreds of metres away…   As the divers disembarked the boat, food bags were swapped between the two groups to much delight.  After a relaxing break, and photo-shoot, Mussa called “All aboard” and our tired crew waded through the crystal clear waters back to the boat.  As we sailed off into the setting sun, we were briefly stalled by Dave as he accidently jettisoned his water bottle off the boat causing a quick salvage mission for his beloved bottle. Ten hours after beginning our adventure, the tired voyagers returned to camp for a quick refresher before dancing the night away in style at our favourite local watering hole.

By Dave Pearson, Marine Research Assistant Volunteer, Brendan Boylan, Teaching Volunteer and Jamie Lawson, Marine Assitant Research Volunteer

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Staff blog: Giants of the Reef

Epinephelus lanceolatus also known as the Giant Grouper is classified as the largest bony fish currently found on coral reefs around the world. This huge fish is in fact found on Mafia Island, Tanzania, and I have had the chance of seeing it a few times whilst diving. Spanning to a length of up to 2.8m and to the incredible weight of 400 kg, this fish provides a humbling sight underwater, especially as it is usually followed by an array of other species including remoras and golden trevally.

Image courtesy of Steve Harwood

One of the local dive sites within the Marine Park which Frontier TZM occasionally visits, named Kinassi Pass, is the prime location for spotting large marine species such as giant groupers, giant reef rays, barracudas, cobias and turtles. Each dive there is as exciting as the next one, simply due to the shear size and number of species present on the reef. Schools of hundreds of eyestripe surgeonfish can be spotted there as well other large groupers such as the Malabar grouper and Potato grouper. Kinassi Pass is located at the entrance of the bay, meaning there are strong tidal currents that regularly occur there. The dives I have done there have mostly been drift dives, rendering the experience even more exciting and heart-pumping. Once whilst reaching a depth of 26m, I managed to spot a school of pickhandle barracuda, a huge honeycomb moray eel, two hawksbill turtles and a pair of giant reef rays gliding above the reef all within the first 20 minutes of the dive! The giant groupers found on Kinassi Pass are notorious amongst the dive centres across the island, one individual has even been aptly named “Jesus” due to the fact that his sheer size induces underwater swearing when spotted by tourists…


Image courtesy of NOAA

Large individuals such as the giant grouper found at these dive sites are an important indicator that the coral reef is in good health and not currently threatened by fishing. This in turn provides strong support for the importance of local marine parks and regulated fishing.

By Margaux Steyaert, Dive Officer

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Staff blog: Eid al Fitr

Eid al Fitr is the Islamic holiday celebrating the end of Ramadhan and is also known as the ‘Sweet Feast’ or ‘The Feast of breaking the fast’.  After thirty days of fasting Eid is a celebration which is met with a two day party and an excess of eating to the point where it is actually forbidden to fast during Eid. In Utende village families and friends gathered together to eat pilau rice a dish cooked with spices and meat which teaching volunteer Claire and I were lucky enough to be taught to cook with Mama Fatuma from the village- although I think our culinary skills may still need some work in order to perfect them!

In the ‘western world’ Eid is probably most comparable to the December holidays in the sense that much like Christmas gifts are given to loved ones, a traditional meal is eaten (the pilau I mentioned previously) and it is a time to be spent with family and friends. Rather than comparing the celebration to Christmas I have said the December Holidays, this may seem an odd phrase but one that is carefully chosen as also Eid is associated with new beginnings similar to the New Year celebrations. This is not only a theoretical new beginning but it is noticeable around the village the new clothes, hairstyles and possessions as this renaissance shows itself in material possessions.

Unlike Christmas and New Year, Eid falls on a different date every year as the lunar Hijri calander is dependent on the moon’s cycle and Eid marks the first day of Shwwal month. Even within one year the date is not certain as the month lasts for either 29 or 30 days and cannot be confirmed until the penultimate day of Ramadhan.
Frontier were included in celebrations this year as one of the local lodges, Beach House invited staff and volunteers to join them on their boat for a daytrip , a beach party and barbeque.

By Becca Court, Field Communitations Officer

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Volunteer blog: Alex

It was only three days into my project and I was already trying to breathe underwater it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life and one I will never forget. Doing my open water Padi course has made me find a love of diving. Diving the confined water dives we had to complete many skills, one of which was to fill our masks with water. This is something I hated so much and when I first tried it. It made me very panicky. But with lots of practise and support from our lovely dive officer – Louise- I now don’t mind doing it so much!

One of the most amazing things I saw on my first Open Water dive was a flathead crocodile fish and a Moorish idol – like Gill from ‘Finding Nemo’!

Away from the diving, you may think it odd but here in Tanzania we have chipsi and chipsi mayai as a treat, which makes a nice change from the daily rice and beans every once in a while! Chipsi is simply just chips and the chipsi with the mayai is basically an egg omelette with chip!
Coming on this trip has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life – I’ve met some brilliant people. I would recommend to anyone that they should come and experience a similar trip!

By Alex, Marine Conservation Volunteer

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Staff blog: Sea turtles on Juani Island

Last week me and the marine team went on a camping trip to Juani Island where we watched new hatched green sea turtles run back into the sea. Such a special and amazing thing to experience, watching 124 young animals enter their new habitat full dangers and threats, and knowing only one in thousand will make it into an adult sea turtle.

Tanzania has five species of sea turtles of which two, the green turtle and hawksbill turtle, nest in Tanzania. The green turtle is the most common one and these are known to nest frequently on Juani Island. Once a turtle reaches sexual maternity, between 20 and 50 years old, females will migrate up to thousands of kilometres to a nesting beach on which they themselves were born. After 3 to 4 hours of hard work of laying her eggs she will move back into the sea, and it takes another 55 days before the turtles will start hatching.

In Tanzania sea turtles are under threat due to the result of human exploitation for food, oil, leather and ornaments, in the last centuries. Mortalities are also associated with incidental capture in fishing nets, the degradation of feeding habitats and marine and land-based pollution. While we were on Juani we could experience this latter threat. The beaches were covered with rubbish, and even though I was there the week before after having cleared the whole beach with my companions, the rubbish was just as bad this time. This was a good example and representation of the anthropogenic effects on marine habitats and species. Most trash is brought to the sea via rivers and 80% of this originates from landfills and other urban sources. And hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales, and other marine mammals, and more than 1 million seabirds die each year due to ocean pollution and ingestion or entanglement in rubbish. Sea turtles often mistake plastics and other garbage as food, like jellyfish, which causes blockages in their digestive system and eventually causes death. And due to the direction of the current around Juani island, all rubbish from surrounding islands, even far away, is washed on to shore here. And as these turtles do not have another place to go because they will always nest at the same beach that they are born, they are trapped within these beaches and waters filled with rubbish.

So next time you are attempting to litter or when you see rubbish on the floor, please consider what impact this might have on these special creatures, as to other marine species.

By Becca Court, Field Communications Officer.

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