A story of conservation, preservation and a never-ending love saga with the island of Farukolhu in Shaviyani Atoll
Nearly a decade ago, whilst gazing out of a seaplane window one languid April morning, I happened upon an island which even at 3000ft above ground, was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
While a ‘typical’ stretch of white and green on a cerulean canvas may not seem impressive on its own (to the average jaded Maldivian at least), the unusual topography of Farukolhu is only the beginning of what makes it special.
Presenting as a winding path leading in from the island’s massive northern mangrove entrance, the lagoon flows like a ‘river’ of turquoise gently meandering along pearly perimeters before spilling out into the deep blue ocean.
Now, this was long before my forays into environment and conservation work, so I didn’t have a clue what I was looking at – but an insatiable curiosity had already taken over.
Any assumptions that a mere glimpse of this mysterious island would just as quickly slip through my mind though plausible, would soon prove to be quite wrong.
In 2017, on a trip to Shaviyani Atoll where I was mapping a dive site, it was a moment of pure serendipity when, in exchange for our work, my long-time mentor offered to take us to an island called “Farukolhu”.
Then, he showed me a picture of the island that I had been dreaming about for so many years.
I remember sitting on the launch nonplussed, twiddling my fingers as we headed to the island, wondering if I had blown the island out of proportion in my head. Does fantasy ever really measure up to reality?
Yet as our journey into the lagoon began, on a little unassuming boat ‘of dreams’, all of my apprehension just washed away.
Stepping into the water, after passing seemingly endless (and endlessly inviting) aquamarine pools, curious little fevers of baby stingrays and eagle rays encircled our nervous feet, causing ripples to disrupt an otherwise clear periscope to a submerged world.
Even the vegetation was unique. Common on their own, bushes of Kuredi (Pemphis acidula) intertwined with Burevi (Lumnitzera racemose) were as magnificent as they are rare. As we shuffled closer, hundreds of baby Lemon Sharks, White-Tip Sharks and Black-Tip Sharks emerged to say hello!
Kuredi, for those who don’t know, is a protected species and Farukolhu features the tree in abundance. In fact, Fahumy, the man who was the owner of the island between 1971 till as recent as 2014, was instrumental in the plant attaining conservation status. Kuredi timber is particularly strong and used for making ‘dhoni’s (boats), used as the ‘mudi’ (cradle) on which the ‘fashan’ (keel) is laid, supporting the skeleton as it is built. However, the wood has to be removed in a certain way as methods such as sawing off branches often lead to the death of the entire tree.
Wading on to the island, we discovered that the northern mangrove only connects to the ocean during high tide, and was home to a host of new critters from rainbow-coloured crabs, shrimps and molluscs, all graced by beautiful tropical birds flying in and out to feed and care for their hatchlings.
The sun set over a belt of mangrove trees, an astonishing 8 species of which are found in Farukolhu, adding vivid colour to an already enchanting sight.
At every turn, Farukolhu is somewhere in between taking your breath away and being so beautiful that you forget to breathe.
Above all, the island is a place of nurturing that year after year, welcomes thousands of creatures seeking to hatch, birth and raise their young.
Mangroves in general, especially those connected to the ocean, provide invaluable benefits to its neighbouring islands and their communities.
UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) describes Mangroves as a multiple use ecosystem that is the best form of ‘bioshield’ as it reduces the impact of hazardous weather (tsunamis, cyclones, hurricanes) as well as soil erosion, in addition to enhancing fish populations by acting as a nursery to various wildlife.
According to Senior Lecturer at Faculty of Marine Sciences at Maldives National University, Dr. Abdulla Naseer (PhD in Biology, Integrated Growth Response of Coral Reefs to Environmental Forcing), “These semi-enclosed mangroves and wetlands in particular, are important not just in terms of stabilizing the coastline but they are intertwined with the health of the entire reef as well."
"These are rare and unique locations, even in the Maldives, and contain many as-yet-undiscovered elements within them. Numerous marine species, especially their young, spend much time in the early stages of their lives exploring these shallows. In fact, we're only just discovering about the types of migratory birds and other creatures that are also drawn to such areas”.
Distractingly beautiful though it may be, Farukolhu is better known as a site that was heavily shrouded in controversy in 2013 – 2014, following attempts for development that were successfully thwarted by the Environment Protection Agency.
At 88 hectares, Farukolhu is the 10th largest uninhabited island in the Maldives, of which 7.1 hectares are wetland areas, as per the Fifth National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), prepared by the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MEE) in 2015.
On a document found on the Milandhunmadulu Uthuruburi (or administratively, Shaviyani) Atoll Council website, the administration advocates for the development of Farukolhu as an extension of Funadhoo airport, claiming that it would greatly enhance tourism opportunities for the region, in spite of the fact that only 16 of the atoll’s 51 islands are inhabited.
The same document also lists litter and marine debris as an “aesthetic problem” to be solved.
For many years, areas of Farukolhu were only listed on EPA’s list of ‘environmentally sensitive’ locations owing to the nesting bird population, and the island was not added to the protected list (a selection of areas that have recently been granted extended rights in an umbrella law passed in August 2018, as published on gazette 2018/R-78).
In fact, former owner Fahumy and his relatives tasked as caretakers for the island, affirmed that discussions regarding the development of Farukolhu had been raised several times, “at least thrice in their memory”, before the island’s eventual seizure by former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb, himself currently serving a 33-year jail sentence over corruption and terrorism charges.
Additional rumours were fuelled by recent comments made by Anca Verma, the Romanian wife of Indian billionaire Abhishek Verma, who during a press trip hosting local media, suggested that their company Olialia had been eyeing an island matching the description of Farukolhu for the possible construction of a ‘waterpark’.
According to local media Mihaaru, Verma was awarded a contract in 2017, sans any bidding process, to construct and own an international airport in the country, with an investment of US$500 million for a period of 50 years. Meanwhile, earlier this year Olialia signed a strategic alliance with the SIMDI Group that covers five strategic investments in the Maldives, including the construction of hotels, a theme park, a bridge and monorail between the islands of the northern atolls and several other projects. Verma, reportedly known in close circles as the ‘Lord of War’, is an international arms dealer, previously arrested on charges of corruption and money laundering, before being acquitted in April 2017. The management is also credited as the ‘masterminds' behind the controversial proposal to open a resort staffed entirely by blondes in the Maldives.
However, the turning point came as recently as 7th October 2018, when a gazette released by the Ministry of Environment and Energy declared the addition of three areas to the protected list under the Environment Protection and Preservation Act of Maldives (Law 4/93) that includes Sh. Farukolhu. While this is a commendable and necessary step, given all that we know, it is a wonder in itself that the act of protecting the island took quite so long.
As per the regulation (R-78/2018), all forms of fishing in the core area illustrated above is banned, with allowances made for traditional bait fishing only. Fishing for reef fish and shallow trolling are allowed in the lagoon area. All forms of fishing are banned for tourists, which to a mild extent, seemingly serves to regulate overexposure. While diving, snorkelling and picnics are allowed, littering is banned. Locals may collect dry palm leaves, coconut husks and timber.
That said, it is not uncommon for islands like Farukolhu that boast vast wetlands, to be eyed by ambitious tourism developers, as it requires far less reclamation work and is unlikely to be ideal (as is) for human settlement. However, as clarified by environmental experts like Dr.Naseer, such areas form an integral part of the atoll-wide ecosystem.
“My opinion is that there is simply no point in destroying an island as sensitive as this [Farukolhu],” confirmed Dr. Naseer.
A source from Funadhoo’s Council described the state of the island as existing in a sort of limbo, owned by the government yet unassigned a caretaker and thus frequented by pillagers seeking to cut trees or excavate sand and sometimes even to collect the highly prized ambergris.
While ambergris sightings are likely a rare occurrence, virgin white sands from uninhabited islands like Farukolhu are frequently removed by locals for construction or beautification purposes, usually at great cost to the surrounding ecosystems. At the time of publishing, the rules concerning mining and utilization of coral, sand and coral aggregate (as defined by the Ministry of Fishing and Agriculture) only outlaw unauthorized removal of the aforementioned from government leased islands, provoking only nominal fines.
As it stands, despite there being laws in place to protect these habitats from such actions, enforcement is a matter that lies largely unaddressed, with the responsibility falling to government-led institutions severely lacking in resources required to put a stop to these 'illegal' activities.
In a statement given to The Edition confirming that the island is protected, Director General Naeem urged the public to make their voice heard in favour of protecting other such fragile and rare habitats.
Former owners added to the statement declaring that the island had already suffered at the hands of those eager to pillage its natural resources.
According to Fahumy, the fairly large island had been initially acquired for a monthly sum of less than MVR 1500, as it was considered impossible for agricultural use owing to vast populations of crab, birds, and surprisingly - indigenous rabbits! Although there had been records of rabbits since the mid-sixties, no indication as to how the particular species had initially made it onto the island could be found. He recounted the rather sad bunny tale leading up to its eventual disappearance between 2004 - 2005, following the introduction of predatory cats by visitors from neighbouring areas.
It is a small, but significant example of how a small, unknowingly inconsiderate, human act can directly lead to a complete wipe out of the existence of another, smaller and more helpless creature. It is a lesson in how people should strive to stay connected to nature and engage in a broader understanding of the intricacies that offer balance to the ever-changing tides of life.
Thus, it stands to reason that if people knew more, they could learn more, and may hopefully generate solutions that compliment the coexistence of various lifeforms, as opposed to a senseless destruction wreaked for a momentary human benefit.
Farukolhu, a nesting ground and breeding site for hundreds of endangered species, home to diverse vegetation, an array of avifauna, untouched coral reefs and more than just a couple of mangroves, is a marvel of natural beauty that locals should strive to experience. Hopefully, readers will agree, it is also an island that deserves protection from all Maldivians, at any cost, and not just in the form of a document.
Still running rampant, I’m afraid.
Frankly, the Maldives is brimful of sublime beauty, be it island-scape or submerged underwater.
Consider this - the entire country is made up of atolls consisting of ring-shaped coral reefs that support numerous islands, like pillars of strength and sustenance.
The corals that form these magnificent reefs are sessile creatures that feed, reproduce and have relationships with other organisms, much like any other animal.
This means that the whole of Maldives is alive and breathing, from ocean to above, full of more beauty and wonder than a human mind could fully comprehend.
The Archipelago of Maldives is, thus, fairly close to magical. And as a nursery that gives life to the amazing creatures that share our home, Farukolhu, is definitely a special part of it.