THE VOICES OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES & LOCAL COMMUNITIES
WCS Conservation Hero: Shabani Mkwavila/Tanzania
December 2, 2022
Shabani Mkwavila is a personable person. Fittingly, he landed a tourism job at Mafia Island Marine Park right out of college. At the time, a staff shortage in the Tanzanian marine protected area allowed Shabani to work as an honorary park ranger. This was his first opportunity to get his feet wet in marine conservation.
“Slowly, I started learning how to conserve coral…[and] understanding the marine species,” he says. After being assigned to several research projects and leading community workshops on marine protection, Shabani decided it was time for him to master underwater monitoring — which requires skilled swimming. Only, he did not know how to swim.
Following three years at Mafia Island, Shabani shifted north to Tanga in 2017, determined to learn more about marine conservation. During this transition, he met Dr. Jennifer O’Leary, now a marine scientist at WCS.
“Dr. Jennifer encouraged me a lot,” says Shabani. “[She] told me, ‘one day you will become the champion of this ocean.’” Her philosophy was learning by doing, which motivated Shabani. He told himself, “Okay, you need to continue, you need to learn, and you need to do it” — and he did just that.
With perseverance and Dr. O’Leary’s help, Shabani learned first how to swim and then to dive. Along the way, he practiced identifying coral, fish, and seagrass. His dedication was evident: “I took my time, and I mean, I took extra time training myself.”
With perseverance and Dr. O’Leary’s help, Shabani learned first how to swim and then to dive. Along the way, he practiced identifying coral, fish, and seagrass.
WCS Tanzania’s Marine Program welcomed Shabani in 2020. From the start, he was asked to share his knowledge and expertise: “Based on my motivation, creativity, and effort, I was leading other staff on marine ecology.” He trained new marine team members in underwater monitoring and even taught some how to swim — sharing the ‘learning by doing’ ideology he adopted from Dr. O’Leary.
Shabani is currently a field officer for the WCS Tanzania Marine Program and is based out of Tanga. He is in charge of conducting most local social surveys, continues to teach and mentor fellow staff, and is a crucial part of many of the program’s marine conservation projects. “WCS, they told me, ‘You are the champion. You know a lot about marine conservation’…They rely on me,” says Shabani.
WCS Tanzania and Kenyan authorities co-facilitate marine protected areas all along coastal East Africa. As part of this initiative, Shabani closely communicates with Tanga Coelacanth Marine Park, named after the coelacanth, an iconic and nearly extinct prehistoric fish.
Shabani collaborates with Tanga Marine Reserves Systems and three Tanga communities — Jasini, Ndumbani, and Moa — helping local families learn how to monitor their underwater ecosystems and steward their resources.
He also collaborates with Tanga Marine Reserves Systems and three Tanga communities — Jasini, Ndumbani, and Moa — helping local families learn how to monitor their underwater ecosystems and steward their resources.
In such a short period of time, Shabani has excelled in all things marine conservation. He pours passion into every one of his efforts to preserve the marine biodiversity of Tanga and, as Dr. O’Leary’s predicted, has become a champion of the ocean.
Shabani pours passion into every one of his efforts to preserve the marine biodiversity of Tanga and, as Dr. O’Leary’s predicted, has become a champion of the ocean.
The Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association certified Shabani as a marine field professional in July 2022. However, his positive impact on Tanga’s coastal communities and marine environment speaks louder than any certificate could.
Just like when he was learning to swim, Shabani plans on pushing forward with his marine science studies. He hopes to one day pursue a master’s in marine conservation. “Shifting from tourism [to] research and conservation has motivated me to study a lot about the ocean… I’m very proud to be one of [the] marine team’,” says Shabani.
All photos courtesy of Shabani Mkwavila.