With their seven-metre wingspans, giant manta rays are a captivating sight as they
glide through the water. “They are just majestic,” says Lima-based conservation
biologist Kerstin Forsberg of the iconic species she became determined to protect
after discovering the extent of their vulnerability.
The tropical marine ecosystems in northern Peru support the country’s greatest
marine biodiversity, giving life to more than 500 marine species. Taking advantage
of the nutrient-rich waters is one of the world’s largest regional populations of
giant mantas (Manta birostris), estimated to number over 650.
Giant mantas, which are plankton filterers, are classified as “vulnerable” by
the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with an “elevated
risk of extinction”. Thousands are caught each year across the world to satisfy
a lucrative market for their dried gills, which are used in traditional medicine.
In Peru, fishermen reported taking up to dozens of mantas in a season for fish
meat, putting the species under severe pressure, especially as they are slow
to reproduce. Giant mantas take from seven to 10 years to reach maturity and
produce just one pup every two to seven years.
“Giant mantas are extremely peaceful and completely harmless. They’re marvellous
flagships for all vulnerable marine species,” says Forsberg. Through her NGO,
Planeta Océano, Forsberg has been leading a project to change the way Peruvian
communities perceive mantas – not just in terms of their ecological importance,
but their potential value as high-profile tourist attractions that will make them
worth a great deal more alive to Peru’s many coastal fishing communities. Though
some tourists enjoy diving and whale-watching expeditions, marine tourism is still
developing in northern Peru. Forsberg’s giant manta project could be a turning
point in the perception of Peru’s ecotourism offer, particularly in its community based
Her long-term aim is to develop this giant manta project into a model that can
be used in sustainable community-based initiatives for many different types of
marine conservation projects worldwide.
The manta ray conservation initiative began in 2012, in collaboration with WildAid,
the Manta Trust, the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, Project AWARE and
the New England Aquarium. The project attracted additional support from local
government institutions, but Forsberg’s early attempts to lobby the Peruvian
government about the importance of conserving giant mantas did not go far. “Our
proposal to legally protect manta rays in Peru didn’t receive a response,” she
recalls, “but we kept knocking at doors.”
Then, in 2015, an extremely large manta weighing 900 kg was caught, and became
a local media sensation. “It was talked about as a monster,” recalls Forsberg.
“People had no idea of how vulnerable giant mantas are.” Building upon this
front-page news, Forsberg’s continued lobbying led to a government ban on giant
manta captures a few months later.
Forsberg works from an office in Lima but travels to Tumbes, a two-hour
flight, once every two months, staying for a week to monitor and implement
conservation activities. Other members of her project team visit once a month,
joining a field coordinator and local volunteers based there. Their fundamental aim
is to launch sustainable, locally operated manta tourism that will be commercially
valuable, and encourage fishermen and tourists to become citizen scientists who
will collect reliable data about giant manta distribution.
In addition, an educational outreach programme, organized with Planeta Océano’s
Marine Educators Network, is explaining giant manta conservation in more than
50 schools in northern Peru. “It’s about empowering local people to lead change,
and we expect thousands of children and youth to now receive information about
giant mantas from us,” says Forsberg. Talking about her work engaging coastal
communities, Forsberg says: “It’s about approaching people, and listening to
people. It has to be about what will work best for them. Solutions need to be
The conservation project has so far involved three groups of fishermen
collaborating with reports on giant manta sightings for Forsberg’s team; and,
so far, about 40 tourists have gone out with fishermen on pilot manta-spotting
The Rolex Award will allow Forsberg to strengthen community engagement,
expand the number of fishermen taking part in the project, create locally-driven
ecological monitoring of mantas, and help to establish a secure legal framework
for manta tourism linked to international tourism organizations.
Forsberg is in no doubt about the impact of her Rolex Award. “It’s definitely life-changing, and on so many levels,” she says. “It will allow us to take this project up
to the next scale, nationally and internationally. This recognition is very important.
Giant mantas are extremely vulnerable, and, in particular, marine environments are
severely threatened. We need to engage more people in conserving them. There’s
a lot of work to do.”