Crocodile Island has become quite a conservation hotspot

Cayman Brac’s environmentalist, educator and author Martin Keeley spent time in China this holiday season. Here is the third missive he sent Weekender from across the planet. 


Crocodile Island: Xiang District, Xiamen – It lies in the middle of the Taiwan Strait, about three miles from the city of Xiamen whose skyscraper skyline is clearly visible – especially when the omnipresent smog clears for a while. In the rapidly developing shoreline its densely treed existence comes as a surprise. Crocodile Island is on the horizon. 

We leave an industrialized city shoreline on a chilly December morning and approach in a beat-up fishing boat captained by Mr. Lin Beishui who has been the island’s sole inhabitant for over 20 years – though his wife and oldest son joined him in 2000. 

I made two trips to the island during my recent visit to Xiamen where I conducted a three-day mangrove education workshop for some three-dozen Chinese educators – teachers, Nongovernmental Organisation workers and mangrove reserve directors. The first visit was to observe a group of volunteers in a replanting exercise, the second to bring the educators for a follow-up field trip after two days of hands-on activities in the classroom. 

My colleagues who helped in organising the workshop were from the Chinese Mangrove Conservation Network which for the past four years has been helping Lin to save the island from erosion by planting mangroves. 

Once upon a time the island was shaped like a crocodile (hence its name) but government extraction of sandstone for fill in the 1950s coupled with a serious erosion problem have led to the loss of the crocodile’s tail. Erosion takes about six feet of shoreline a year. 

The island itself is small – it’s more of an islet, really, about the size of ten soccer pitches, its shoreline filled with the dramatically shaped rocks the Chinese love and sandy beaches. The uplands are well forested, but they weren’t that way when Lin arrived in 1990. “There were only six banyan trees left here,” he told me through a translator. “I watched as the waves took the earth away every day, turning the place into a desert.” 

Since that time he has been planting trees and cleaning the island’s beaches of the garbage which constantly washes ashore. In fact, he gave up his fishing job in order to save the island, and lives very simply in a tiny three-roomed house he shares with members of Chinese Mangrove Conservation Network when they come ashore to replant. 


Salty soil  

Mr. Lin, who last year was awarded the Ford Foundation’s prize for Leadership in Environmental Conservation in the foundation’s Conservation and Environmental Grants China programme, first tried farming when he moved to the island in 1990, but his initial crop of peanuts failed because of the high salinity content of the soil. At about the same time he noticed that the island was shrinking, and that’s when he started planting trees. 

At first he tried Casurinas, but although he planted some 20,000 seedlings, none survived the summer heat. Then, in 1999, the island was hit by a fierce typhoon which uprooted 2,000 of his trees and drove masses of garbage onto the shore. When he saw the devastation, Lin burst into tears. 

After Lin’s wife and son joined him, they slowly fitted into his simple and frugal way of life. Most of their income today comes from some 400 chickens they keep on their island “farm” selling the 100 or so eggs the birds lay every day. They subsist on the ocean’s bounty of marine life, whether it be crabs, fish or oysters. 

But even though it’s a tough life Lin has turned down many offers to develop the island – one of which would have brought him 2.2 million yuan ($350,000), a fortune for a man like Lin. The developers wanted to turn the island into a tourism centre. He was not interested. 

“They just wanted to make money,” he said. “They don’t care about the island’s future.” 

The island used to be covered with mangroves but they were destroyed for fishing and by dredging. Both activities still remain a threat as the ocean current patterns around the island are being shifted by the recent re-establishment of dredging, and fishnets surround the island as aquaculture also threatens the ecosystem. The nets were removed several years when local villagers were paid by the government to get rid of them but re-appeared last year and continue to increase in number. 

According to Chinese Mangrove Conservation Network, 90 per cent of Xiamen’s mangroves have been destroyed through pollution, coastal real estate development and land reclamation. Something the NGO is fighting to rectify. 

The network’s executive director, Liu Yi, explains: “Crocodile Island is just a small piece of land, but for Lin’s family and the life-forms that live there, it’s the whole world. Our world is also an island but it’s too big for people to realise that we are losing it.” 

And so, in 2008, Mr. Yi began to supply Lin with mangrove seedlings and showed him how to plant them. Since then Chinese Mangrove Conservation Network, which obtains the seedlings from another (federally protected) island in the Straits called Egret Island, has organized volunteers for the planting of thousands of mangrove seedlings. 

The network’s partnership with the Mangrove Action Project, of which I am Global Education Director, led me to Crocodile Island to observe the replanting and carry out the teacher-training. I found that for the teachers it was a mind-expanding experience. All were amazed at Lin’s work and the biodiversity of Crocodile Island. 

Together with Mr. Yi and Mr. Lin’s son, Lin Dasheng, we examined how the island would benefit from a well thought out eco-tourism programme, one that would protect this delicate ecosystem as well as bring extra yuan into Lin’s family coffers. The diversity of bird species alone would attract many bird watchers. 

In Mr. Yi’s words: “Everyone will be shocked when they hear such a beautiful island and its wildlife are disappearing,” he said. “The island will only be saved when more people participate in protecting it, especially the Xiamen government.” 

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