Protecting Nature's Hotspots for people and prosperity

Developing Ecotourism to Conserve Biodiversity in Tunisia

Tab 1

Sebkhet Soliman, an important bird area and key site for conservation of biodiversity in Tunisia
Sebkhet Soliman, an important bird area and key site for conservation of biodiversity in Tunisia. © Hichem Azafzaf

The theme of this year’s International Day for Biological Diversity, which took place on May 22, is “Biodiversity for sustainable development.” This theme reflects the importance of biodiversity ― the variety of life on Earth ― for sustainable development and human well-being.

Honey buzzard flying over Jebel El Haouaria IBA
Honey buzzard flying over Jebel El Haouaria IBA. © Hichem Azafzaf

Ecotourism, defined by the International Ecotourism Society as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people, is one example of sustainable development that can benefit communities.

In Tunisia, much of the tourism industry, including ecotourism, is still developing in the wake of the Tunisian Revolution that took place from 2010 to 2011. But data from the World Bank shows that tourism in Tunisia brought in more than 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2013, with $2.86 billion in revenue from international visitors.

With support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) through its investment in the Mediterranean Basin biodiversity hotspot, the Association Les Amis des Oiseaux (AAO) has been developing ecotourism activities for the conservation of key biodiversity areas (KBAs) in northern Tunisia since July 2013. AAO is supporting local communities to manage five of the most important bird areas (IBAs) in Tunisia: Jebel El Haouaria Bird Migration Bottleneck Site, Korba Lagoon, Maâmoura Lagoon, Sebkhet Soliman and Lake Tunis. These five sites are organized as a network, with each of them benefiting from support to rehabilitate tourism infrastructure and train birding guides.

Claudia Feltrup-Azafzaf
Claudia Feltrup-Azafzaf. © Hichem Azafzaf​

Claudia Feltrup-Azafzaf, AAO’s executive director, answers questions about her background and her organization’s work on ecotourism in Tunisia over the past few years.

How did your interest in biodiversity conservation start?

My parents definitely helped pave the way. Growing up we spent our weekends taking long hikes and on holiday we would often take camping trips into the wilderness. At first, I was mostly interested in wild plants, particularly those used for medicine or food, but after receiving my bachelor’s degree, I decided to continue my studies and look for a profession that combined aspects of nature and art. I stumbled onto becoming a garden and landscape architect and during my studies I met people who strongly influenced me and awakened the birdwatcher in me. It was at this time that I became more involved with environmental NGOs. I’ve now been involved in nature conservation for more than 30 years, and it continues to excite me even more every day.

Jebel El Haouaria IBA, Tunisia
Jebel El Haouaria IBA, Tunisia. © Hichem Azafzaf​​​​

Tab 2

Ecotourism Benefits
Moussier's redstart, a bird species found only in North Africa
Moussier's redstart (Phoenicurus moussieri), a bird species found only in North Africa. © EL GOULLI Mohamed​

Can you describe the project and its impact on biodiversity?

2015 Bird Migration Festival in Jebel El Haouaria IBA
2015 Bird Migration Festival in Jebel El Haouaria IBA. © Hichem Azafzaf

The region and sites affected by the project are characterized by high levels of biodiversity. They host a significant number of rare and threatened bird species, including North African endemics, species found nowhere else.

The importance of these sites for the conservation of biodiversity is widely recognized at the national and international level, in particular through the designatio​n of the sites as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention and as IBAs by BirdLife International.

Ecotourists visiting Lake Tunis
Ecotourists visiting Lake Tunis. © Hichem Azafzaf

Despite the recognition of the importance and fragility of the ecosystems and the biodiversity they contain, these sites do not have a national status allowing them to be protected adequately. Even though the legal framework to protect biodiversity in Tunisia exists, lack of capacity, resources and coordination among the law enforcement bodies is jeopardizing implementation on the ground. The sites are thus always more exposed to threats including disturbance, alteration and the destruction of their natural components.

These threats are also the result of a lack of appreciation by local communities and policymakers, who do not recognize the ecological and socioeconomic values of these sites, their natural resources and ecosystem services.

Release of a recovered greater flamingo at Lake Tunis
Release of a recovered greater flamingo at Lake Tunis. © Hichem Azafzaf

The project builds on structures and private, associative and state initiatives that already exist, but need better coordination and further development. By bringing together communities at the five sites and strengthening their capacity to improve their impact, diversity and sustainability, AAO is enabling them to increase their contribution to the conservation of biodiversity and socioeconomic development of the region.

Specifically, local NGOs play a key role as Local Conservation Groups (LCGs), particularly in setting up local site management support committees and developing ecotourism activities.

AAO is also working with four partner organizations to create a web platform that will promote the five sites and their ecotourism facilities, allowing tourists to learn more about biodiversity while also organizing trips and booking accommodations and tours.

Why is this work important and how does it benefit people and biodiversity?

Flamingo ringing at Korba Lagoon
Flamingo ringing at Korba Lagoon. © EquipeComAAO

This work is important because it contributes to the conservation of threatened biodiversity in the Mediterranean and even beyond. Biodiversity, including migratory birds, doesn’t know borders and can serve as a link between sites, countries and people.

In 2014, a small colony of about 100 greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) nested successfully in the Korba Lagoon. AAO was able to bring community members together to ring 45 young flamingos, a first in Tunisia. Through our project to develop ecotourism at Korba Lagoon, we hope that the flamingos return in the coming years to continue breeding.

AAO’s project is also important because it allows better participation by local communities and stakeholders in the management of sites and natural resources and strengthens and values local capacity and ambitions. It also contributes to the local economies, which will become even more important in time.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Flamingo ringing at Korba Lagoon
Flamingo ringing at Korba Lagoon. © EquipeComAAO​​​​

Tab 3

Local Participation
​​Training future birding guides at Oued El Hajar water reservoir in Tunisia
Training future birding guides at Oued El Hajar water reservoir in Tunisia. © Hichem Azafzaf

What excites you most about the project?

Bird identification training
Bird identification training. © Hichem Azafzaf

The most exciting part is certainly working with the LCGs and with the young project managers, who are the future local birding guides. It was fascinating for me to see how they have assimilated the idea of the project, developed it at local level and transformed it at each step. It is a feature of this project that perfectly meets AAO’s development strategy to diversify LCGs for IBAs in Tunisia to become a more sustainable "sentinels" network, effectively guarding the biodiversity at each of the five sites.

Today, I see these associations advancing also because of the many trainings and exchanges that we have been able to achieve, and I am especially thankful for the support of the five young birding guides who are leaders within their organizations and who inspire others. Also, new project ideas at the local level have emerged, and proposals have been developed and submitted to donors.

Another important aspect is certainly the creation of the local site management support committees for each of the sites. The committees comprise all site stakeholders, and are great tools for the regular exchange of information and consultation around the sites. This does not mean that there are no more problems, but at least these are discussed and the positive forces seek to find solutions together.

How is AAO working to increase local capacity for conservation activities?

Long-legged buzzard at his outlook in Ichkeul National Park
Long-legged buzzard at his outlook in Ichkeul National Park. © Hichem Azafzaf

AAO has specifically developed different types of training for the local nonprofits to be LCGs. This coaching program includes training in different topics such as project management, development of projects and fundraising, identification and census of birds, biodiversity monitoring protocols, load capacity and assessment of impacts, conflict management, development of ecotourism, and promotion and marketing activities.

The training program for each LCG is based on a preliminary analysis of the capacity of the NGOs involved and the capacity necessary to achieve the objectives of the project. In addition, joint activities allow local NGOs, and in particular local birding guides, to observe and draw on AAO’s mode of operations. NGOs also receive support through the development of working tools and documents, including inventories and monitoring protocols, capacity assessment and monitoring methodology, the charters for customers and service providers, local bird identification guides, and more.

Educational activities in partnership with the children’s club in El Haouaria, Tunisia
Educational activities in partnership with the children’s club in El Haouaria, Tunisia. © Hichem Azafzaf

So far, five LCGs have been created, involving seven NGOs. An additional three NGOs have also benefitted from many of the capacity building measures. But capacity building is not limited to the LCG and the local bird watching guides. Through the creation of local site management support committees, the knowledge and capacity is passed from the LCGs to other local stakeholders, which include site managers, government representatives, other NGOs, research institutes and interested individuals.

How can people get more involved?

If you are living near one of the sites, or any other IBA in Tunisia, be active and join (or initiate) the LCG or the Local Site Management Support Committee. If you are a tourist, nature lover, birdwatcher, or interested in trying local food, come and experience a guided trip to these wonderful sites. Contact us at aao@topnet.tn​ and we will help you enjoy an authentic experience.​​​​

Tab 4

Overcoming Challenges
​​Illegal waste dumping is a serious issue in many Tunisian wetlands
Illegal waste dumping is a serious issue in many Tunisian wetlands. © Hichem Azafzaf

What are the negative impacts of tourism to Tunisia?

Overgrazing is another threat to ecosystems in Tunisia
Overgrazing is another threat to ecosystems in Tunisia. © Hichem Azafzaf

Many tourists do not know about the value of the sites and often have no idea about sustainable tourism, therefore the positive aspect of more interest by the wider public in some cases turns out to become a real threat. This is where initiatives like AAO’s ecotourism project can help by informing people, evaluating the visitor capacity of the sites and coordinating between different stakeholders (guest houses, travel agencies, hiking clubs, individual tourists, etc.) so as to not overload a site and to protect its natural and cultural features.

It is clear that recent events and safety concerns are affecting the tourist’s choice of destination (as do the richness and uniqueness of a site), but this seems to be having more of an impact on international tourists rather than on nationals. I would even say during the last four years following such incidents, including the terrorist attack on the Bardo Museum in March, many Tunisians still increased their activities and travel…it is a form of resistance.

Roosting greater flamingos at Cape Bon, Tunisia
Roosting greater flamingos at Cape Bon, Tunisia. © Hichem Azafzaf

What challenges are you facing?

The greater challenges are certainly those related to the NGO partners and the local site management support committees, as it is not always easy to find the right balance of supporting their development without interfering too much. It was crucial to the project to support young, motivated local leaders, but by paying much attention to them, one can also disturb existing hierarchies and balance, which can have negative effects on the project and the network as a whole.

It was also not easy to convince people that simple, robust, cost-effective and sustainable systems for the monitoring of biodiversity are more important than large ad hoc studies. Many of the partners wanted experts involved, forgetting that they are themselves experts in many fields and that sometimes it is just a matter of sharing, training, coordinating and collaborating to provide the necessary expertise. This then contributes to the capacity of each NGO and partner in the network.

What opportunities exist?

More than one year after the establishment of the local site management support committees, now there is a small group of motivated local people (representing NGOs, government institutions and private sector) at each site who are keeping a permanent watch on the sites. These committees do not limit their activities to those planned in the framework of AAO’s project ― they are developing their own agendas, with biodiversity conservation at the heart of their activities. This gives us hope about the sustainability of their actions in the long term.​

Tab 5

CEPF Support
​​European bee-eater (Merops apiaster), a bird species persecuted by beekeepers, photographed at Ichleul Lake in Tunisia
European bee-eater (Merops apiaster), a bird species persecuted by beekeepers, photographed at Ichleul Lake in Tunisia. Mediterranean Basin Hotspot. © EL GOULLI Mohamed

Why is CEPF support to the Mediterranean Basin Hotspot important?

White storks flying in Jebel El Haouaria IBA
White storks flying in Jebel El Haouaria IBA. © Hichem Azafzaf

The CEPF investment in the Mediterranean is so important because it meets real needs, in terms of nature conservation, but also in terms of democratization of the management of KBAs and natural resources. CEPF’s investment is based on an analysis of the situation in the Mediterranean in terms of biodiversity conservation, the actors involved in the management and conservation of key sites and the previous investment for conserving sites and species ― all under a widely participatory approach.

CEPF’s support is all the more important in that it contributes to the development of specialized NGO networks and civil societies in general in the countries of the region, especially North Africa and the Balkans, by facilitating their access to financing for conservation projects and at the same time for strengthening their own capacities. Thus, CEPF has sown grains that grow today and already attract other investments and skills in the region.

We should also not forget that this program is complementary to those supporting governments and that it contributes to the achievement of national and international strategies in terms of conservation.

Fishermen at Lake Tunis, Tunisia
Fishermen at Lake Tunis, Tunisia. © Hichem Azafzaf

How has CEPF support benefited AAO most?

CEPF’s funding has been important, but this monetary support comes with manageable conditions in regard to the monitoring and reporting, which leaves you as the grantee more time to concentrate on the purpose of your project.

CEPF support has allowed AAO to advance its strategy of developing a network of partner NGOs around IBAs and other important biodiversity sites, testing to see if what we had developed works on the ground. CEPF support is also allowing us to do additional work on some priority sites and priority species.

In the past AAO mainly worked through its own regional branches in the different regions of Tunisia, and even though the networking with other Tunisian NGOs began a long time ago, CEPF support allowed us to do important work at the site level with select partner NGOs and the local communities and stakeholders.​

Tab 6

On the Ground
Karima Kerkeni
Karima Kerkeni. © Karima Kerkeni

Karima Kerkeni, a local birdwatching guide and manager of AAO’s conservation project at Maâmoura Lagoon, shares her experiences below.

​How did you become involved in the project?

I submitted my application to AAO’s call for proposals for the position as a local project manager for Maâmoura Lagoon and was lucky enough to be selected unanimously by the jury. Since that day, my life has completely changed. Every day I gain new knowledge, particularly in the field of biodiversity. This is an extraordinary adventure with new experiences and new challenges to overcome. I am always eager to learn more in order to move beyond my skills for optimal conservation of the Maâmoura Lagoon, with the collaboration of different stakeholders.

How are local people benefitting from this project?

Initially, shared socioeconomic benefits of the project with different stakeholders were not well understood, especially by local people who did not see the point of creating these ecotourism projects around the lagoon. Most of them find that tourism is a vulnerable sector, it sustains 10 percent of the country’s population, but it has been in deep crisis since the revolution of 2011.

Flamingos at Maâmoura Lagoon
Flamingos at Maâmoura Lagoon. © Hichem Azafzaf

The local population did not see ecotourism as a solution for local development, especially with ornithological wealth as the main product to promote. The state of mind of the local population is not the same anymore though. The interest and the value we have brought around the lagoon by our regular visits and our advocacy actions have only strengthened our credibility and positively changed their perception of the coastal lagoon.

The organization of some ecotourism outings to the lagoon have given the local community a taste for the socioeconomic impacts generated by such activities. Hence, the perception of the lagoon has changed into a source of wealth for some and a source of learning for others.

On another level, regular meetings of the Local Site Management Support Committee have provided a formal and conducive framework for local participants to all get around one table and consult with each other on the various problems observed in order to make the decisions most appropriate to address them.

What is your favorite aspect of the project?

My favorite part of this project is the work on ground. Early in the project, my passion was for nature in general. Today, each component of the lagoon is a source of information that enlightens me on the state of the lagoon and its potential for ecotourism over the long-term.

At each group visit, a friendly rivalry atmosphere forms to find rare species and get the most beautiful pictures. The same enthusiasm awaits visitors to the lagoon, who can observe my favorite species such as the majestic gray herons, avocets, cattle egret, etc.

The continuous discovery of various fauna and flora species and the monitoring of the site's conservation status are the most motivating factors. Being in direct contact with nature and local people makes me more sensitive to the conservation of the various natural resources within the site.

Before, I never thought I would become a bird guide, but thanks to this project, I feel totally ingrained in the world of birds and their lives. I like to share my new passion, and observing and counting birds has become a spiritual ritual that I cannot live without.​​