March on Koh Ra, with Our Eyes Wide Open
March has been a month of discovery on the mysterious island of Koh Ra. Naucrates volunteers have spent precious time exploring the pristine habitats of Koh Ra and learning about the broad diversity of organisms that make up the interconnected ecosystems of the island. Regular bird watching surveys in the savannah have been clocking up the species list, with over 80 different species recorded in the local area so far.
Kayaking trips along the East coast of the island have revealed an extensive seagrass meadow and two fringing coral reefs - not previously mapped in any detail. The Naucrates team set to work on the first coral reef, south of the Moken Village of Koh Ra. Staff and volunteers completed a 100m long transect using reef check methodology to estimate the abundance of various indicator species. Using GPS coordinates we are currently pin-pointing these important habitats onto a satellite map of Koh Ra.
In terms of seagrass monitoring we have identified 9 of the 12 species that are known to exist in the coastal waters of Thailand. This knowledge helps to put Koh Ra on the map as a valuable marine habitat. The next stage is to use Seagrass Watch methodology to assess the abundance and density of the various species present. The monitoring is carried out by Naucrates staff and volunteers under the supervision and guidance of Barry Bendel, who is currently studying seagrass beds in the region. Our aim is to involve local communities in their conservation via education and a network of marine protected areas.
Coral reefs and seagrass beds make up two of the most important marine ecosystems, providing a multitude of benefits to human, animal and plant populations along the coastline. Coral reefs act as buffer zones to strong wave action that would otherwise erode and damage the coast; and they also provide food and habitat niches for a quarter of all marine species on the planet. Needless to say they are absolutely vital to the survival of coastal communities in tropical regions.
Seagrass beds can generally be found in calm and sheltered areas, often provided by reefs and bays. They are closely connected to the coral reefs, providing a nursery for juvenile reef fish, shrimp and other marine critters. Likewise the mangroves make up another cornerstone of marine ecosystems, providing all the basic essentials for life in the tropical oceans.
Regular beach monitoring on the West coast of Koh Ra has kept the coastline under close inspection but we have failed to find any evidence of the once great sea turtles populations coming back to nest. During our boat expeditions we have been recording a detailed beach description and profile to determine the size and gradient of each beach. This data gives us an idea of the suitability of these beaches for sea turtle nesting. It is also important to highlight beaches that may be at risk of flooding; such beaches may require that future sea turtle nests be relocated to a safer beach. Our fingers are crossed that we catch a late nester in the last leg of the season.
Other news comes in the form of a beautiful elongated tortoise, which is known to be an endangered species in Thailand. Our resident naturalist and experienced guide at the Eco Lodge, Sii, spotted this ancient reptile in the jungle and brought it to our attention. Naucrates volunteers were delighted to encounter this wonderful creature in its natural habitat. We took some photos and measurements before releasing the tortoise safely back where it was found.
Apart from the conservation work, Naucrates volunteers have recently had the opportunity to participate in Permaculture and sustainability activities with the help of two experienced horticulturists staying at the Eco Lodge. An organic garden and "food forest" is under development, which have the potential to supply the lodge with locally grown, organic food with a low carbon footprint. I have personally been amazed to discover the potential of this eco system enhancing style of growing food, and believe it could be part of the answer to many of the questions about sustainability that humanity faces today.
Encounters with exciting and cryptic species can be rare even in an animal metropolis such as Koh Ra. The jungle is deep and can be difficult to navigate with few permanent trails. It is possible that some rare species may be hiding in the depths and this adds to the air of mystery surrounding the island. During a recent kayak trip with Barry, we encountered a species of hornbill that we did not recognize. On consulting the bird ID books we decided that it was most likely to be a species not previously recorded in the area: the Wreathed Hornbill. What further suprises will this island hold for us? We will have to wait, listen and look with our eyes wide open.