The (Accidentally) Responsible Tourist

It doesn’t only take eco-warriors to protect the environment. Karoline Hanks ventures to one of Southern Africa’s most protected, but sadly not unspoilt beaches, and explains how even holidaymakers can make a difference.

It is difficult venturing to wild places – locally and abroad – when one is tuned in to some of the planet’s more pressing environmental ills. I sometimes wish I could just go on holiday and set my “green-heat-seeking goggles” aside. I have tried, but I just cannot do it.

By travelling to one of the more remote corners of South Africa’s coastline earlier this year, I had thought it would be a chance to get away from many, if not all of humanity’s bruising habits. Astoundingly, I was wrong.

From the north-eastern border with Mozambique down to just south of the town of St Lucia, lies the most splendid 220km stretch of wild and relatively undeveloped coastline. It is soul food at its delicious best.

One gets to gobble up great swathes of crunchy sand, the indigenous coastal dune forest heaving with cicadas and birdsong, and ghost crabs scuttling frenetically in the frothing, churning warm Indian Ocean. It is also where one gets the chance to get eye to eye with one of the most intriguing, ancient and endangered marine reptiles – given that this is the southernmost nesting ground for both the loggerhead and leatherback turtles.

Leatherback TurtleMy boyfriend and I have stayed at the high end Thonga Beach Lodge once before in mid-January – ideal nesting season. We have come up with a brilliant formula for ensuring encounters with both turtle species – we set our alarm for 3am and head off up the beach at a steady jog, with muted torchlight. This year we were not disappointed. We had up to five spectacular pre-dawn encounters with laying loggerheads and two with leatherbacks. These experiences make for another tale altogether …

During the day, we hiked the beaches flat (in both directions) and went birding in the forests near Wilderness Safari’s Rocktail Bay Lodge. It didn’t take too long for my heat-seeking goggles to come out though, and, on my first walk, I was stooping down to pick up small bits of plastic. My attention was drawn to plastic bottle tops in particular – and I made it my mission to collect as many as possible in the four full days we were there. It became addictive, and I was unable to walk past a bottle top without gathering it up and shoveling it into my pack. In the end, I shook close on 600 sandy bottle tops out of my backpack.

plastic on the beachWhat was perhaps more alarming were the miniscule chips and particles of colourful plastic – bigger items that had become brittle and broken down over the years – becoming one with the sand and shells. In an average “harvest” – if one were not to be fixated with bottle tops – it would not be impossible to find cigarette lighters, drinking straws, shoes, plastic crates, a filing cabinet, fishing rope, nets and plastic bottles with Chinese writing thereon.

There are no rivers that drain into the sea here and very few communities living close to the coast, so whatever one does find strewn across the sand is almost certainly from the ocean.

plastic is dangerous to turtles and whales who mistake it for jellyfish, a tasty part of their diet

iSimangaliso’s CEO Andrew Zaloumis says that “it’s an ugly reality that this coastal strip has become a huge repository for much of the world’s garbage. Last year a humpback whale washed up dead at iSimangaliso’s Cape Vidal. It was found to have plastic in its jaw which may have played a role in its demise.”

This plastic is not only unsightly, but is also particularly dangerous to turtles and whales who mistake it for jellyfish, a tasty part of their diet.

“Protecting and cleaning up our sea and beaches is not only about improving visitor experience, it is also vital for species conservation,” explains Zaloumis.

Plastic in the oceanTurtle expert, George Hughes has a profound knowledge and understanding of this particular coastline, having spent decades researching these animals in the area and abroad. He says that plastic waste is a massive threat to turtles globally. Hatchlings tend to ingest anything that looks edible (the small plastic pellets for example) and adults have also been known to ingest large sheets of plastic and plastic bags. These block the gut and lead to tragic fatalities. Hughes has come across many examples of plastic ingestion in his five decades working with turtles. In one particularly severe case, he came across an adult leatherback which had been caught in the shark nets off the KZN coast. It died shortly after being brought to the research institute where he was based at the time. When dissected, Hughes’s team unraveled a solid 3×4 metre sheet of heavy plastic.

Plastics have become an indispensable part of daily life. Sadly, its versatility is having serious economic and environmental consequences. Plastic’s linear value chain comes with significant environmental drawbacks.

As a guest at Thonga Beach Lodge, I was alarmed to see that they were dishing out plastic straws at the bar as well as water in plastic bottles upon arrival at the pick-up point, on drives and activities and on departure. This seemed completely incongruous, given the lodge’s positioning and the fact that I had been finding so much plastic washed up on the beach.

I challenged management on the matter while I was there. I explained to them that in my home town of Noordhoek, Cape Town, a group of us (under the banner of the Turning the Tide campaign) have managed to persuade many of the eating establishments to ditch plastic straws and replace them with paper straws. This has been done with very little effort. Many are now also moving away from polystyrene take-away packaging. Plastic drinking straws are essentially the poster child for the single-use plastic scourge – the obvious “low-hanging fruit”.

While disposable cutlery, plastic shopping bags, and ear bud sticks are the obvious baddies in this context, by getting people talking about straws and their impact on the marine environment, the seed is sown. It generates much-needed awareness around the bigger issue of plastic pollution and how each one of us can help reduce our footprint.

For me, it is all about connecting the dots.

no more plastic initiativeSo it was with delight that I heard from the Operations Manager at Thonga quite recently that they have launched a “Take Trash, Leave Tracks” initiative, with a view to having this rolled out at all their other Isibindi lodges. Signs are being made to inform guests that there will no longer be plastic straws (only paper for those who insist), and getting paper-wrapped toothpicks as well instead of plastic wrapped toothpicks. There is also a commitment to move to aluminum water bottles to present to guests on arrival at the lodges with water refill stations rather than using plastic 500ml bottles.

This experience proved to me that it is possible to initiate change – if one rattles cages and shouts loudly enough – even when on holiday, and sporting large green specs.


Article courtesy of Karoline Hanks

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