Marine conservation depends on public awareness and mobilisation, with environmental responsibility beginning at a young age. On 5th February 2011 MantaWatch visited Sahabat Anak to discuss marine conservation with the next generation of Indonesians.

Deep in downtown Jakarta, my taxi turned out of the traffic jam and into a narrow street. Makeshift market stalls lined the road, crowding the taxi on either side. We slowed to a crawl as the sea of people parted to let us pass, eventually pulling over next to a crowd of children sitting, playing and laughing by the side of the road. As I stepped from the taxi they jumped up and ran over to say hello in a mixture of broken English and Indonesian.

These were children from Sahabat Anak, a volunteer group that is working to provide education and opportunities to street children living in Jakarta. I had come with [intlink id=”24″ type=”page”]Taman Bacaan Pelangi[/intlink] to meet the children, learn English, and talk about marine conservation.

Together we entered the small house that has become a makeshift school, walls covered in bright, cheerful murals. The children led the way to a small classroom, and we gathered around the low tables, sitting on the floor.

We began by watching some underwater videos on the laptop: ghost pipefish, rhinopius, coral reefs, mola mola and schools of pelagics. The children crowded around the screen, fascinated by these strange creatures that live beneath the waves.

Then I posed a question, “Why are marine habitats important to Indonesia?”

The responses were wide:

“They allow us to build and sail boats.”

“They provide us with fish to eat.”

“Tourists like them.”

We discussed the 1 billion people in Asia who rely on fish as their major source of protein. And we compared the diversity of Indonesia’s oceans with that of other places around the world. The children were amazed that the huge Caribbean Sea, at almost 3,000,000 km2, contains only 450 species of fish, whereas small areas of Indonesia such as Komodo National Park, at under 1,000 km2, contain over 1,000 species.

I asked who had seen a manta ray, and not a single hand went up! So we gathered around the laptop again. One young girl was startled by the size and shape of the mantas on the screen, and hid behind her friend. But as we sat together and watched their graceful dance she changed her mind, and everyone agreed they these are majestic and beautiful creatures.

Together we talked about divers, many of who travel around the world for a chance to see a manta underwater. We discussed the shortage of scientific information about manta rays. And we talked about the growing manta ray fisheries that supply the Chinese medicine trade, the jobs and livelihoods this creates, and the impacts that declining manta populations have on local communities and businesses.

“Why doesn’t our government protect them?”, asked one boy.

A shortage of information, I replied. We don’t know enough to fully protect or manage mantas, but by reporting their sightings to MantaWatch, divers are helping to provide governments and conservationists with the tools that they need.

Eventually I said goodbye to these smiling children, who are now keen to find out more about the ocean realm. Big changes begin with a small step, and today’s children will be the architects of tomorrow’s changes. I was impressed by the ability of these young, underprivileged children to discuss complex issues and to share ideas. Their enthusiasm to learn was inspirational.

I’m looking forward to our next excursion with Taman Bacaan Pelangi, and to continuing to work together to support literacy and environmental education.

Andrew Harvey

Andrew Harvey

CEO & Founder

Andrew Harvey is a marine conservation scientist specialising in biodiversity monitoring, marine protected areas and community conservation. He is the founder of MantaWatch, an organisation that is applying emerging social technologies to raise awareness and develop tools for manta ray conservation.