How this conservationist is using tourism to save endangered manta rays

Rolex Awards Laureate Kerstin Forsberg’s work includes persuading fishermen to leave their nets behind, and taking tourists close to the creatures

Conservationist Kerstin Forsberg engages the Peruvian fisherman community and taps their experience and know-how for her scientific research. PHOTO: ROLEX / FRANK GAZZOLA


With wingspans of up to seven metres, posing entrancing figures as giant manta rays slide through the water, “they are just majestic”, says Ms Kerstin Forsberg.

But in the homeland of the Peruvian marine scientist and conservationist, these endangered creatures are considered more a source of food, rather than marine life to be treasured and appreciated as part of the ocean’s delicate ecosystem.

Ms Forsberg, who is leading the Planeta Océano project to help preserve and protect the magnificent creatures, says, “Giant mantas are extremely peaceful and completely harmless. They are marvellous flagships for all vulnerable marine species.”

The International Union for Conservation of Nature currently classifies giant manta rays as vulnerable with a higher risk of extinction. Thousands of them are caught annually worldwide for their gills, which are used in traditional medicine, and for meat.

In Peru, fishermen have reportedly captured dozens of giant manta rays in a season, putting the population there – estimated at over 650 – under severe pressure as the rays are slow to reproduce. They take seven to 10 years to reach maturity, and produce just one pup every two to seven years.

With Planeta Océano, Ms Forsberg, 37, has changed the way Peruvian communities perceive the giant manta rays. The director of the Lima-based non-profit established it in 2009 to conserve and restore coastal and marine environments, by promoting research, environmental education and sustainable, community-based initiatives.

In Peru, the population of manta rays faces a severe threat as they are caught for food and medicine. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES / MARTIN STRMISKA

With that mission as her driving force, she sought to come up with solutions that would not only protect the manta rays, but would also be beneficial to the community.

This spearheaded the idea of making the creatures part of a high-value tourist attraction.

Although some tourists enjoy diving and whale-watching expeditions in Peru, marine tourism is still developing in the northern part of the country, where tropical marine ecosystems support over 500 aquatic species, including the giant manta rays.

So, instead of working against or challenging the local fishermen, Planeta Océano works with them to offer sustainable giant manta ray sightseeing trips. This approach provides the fishermen an opportunity to earn their keep, while encouraging them, and tourists, to become citizen scientists who help collect reliable data about the distribution of manta rays in the area.

Ms Forsberg’s goal is to develop this project into a model that can be used for many different types of marine conservation, in sustainable, community-based initiatives worldwide.

“Eco-tourism is probably the most long-term solution we can have to conserve the mantas,” she tells Geographical, the official magazine of the Royal Geographical Society.

Turning of the tide

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing at the start.

Ms Forsberg’s efforts to save the gentle giants began in 2012, with a collaboration between Planeta Océano and other conservation groups, specifically WildAid, the Manta Trust, the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, Project Aware and the New England Aquarium.

Her early attempts to lobby Peru’s government to conserve giant manta rays fell on deaf ears. She recalls: “Our proposal to legally protect the rays in Peru didn’t receive a response, but we kept knocking on doors.”

Conservationist Kerstin Forsberg co-founded Planeta Océano, a non-profit that aims to conserve and restore coastal and marine environments with a particular focus on Peru. PHOTO: ROLEX / FRANK GAZZOLA

The tide turned when a giant manta ray weighing 900kg was caught in 2015, becoming a local media sensation. “People had no idea how vulnerable giant mantas are,” she says.

Taking advantage of the sustained media and public interest, she convinced the government to ban the capture of giant manta rays a few months later.

Then even more encouragement and recognition came. In 2016, Forsberg was named one of five Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureates for her work in conserving the species. The biennial awards, created by the Swiss watchmaker in 1976, provides support for individuals with projects that improve life and protect the planet. These include projects to preserve natural habitats and species.

“It’s definitely life-changing, and on so many levels,” she shares about the impact of the Awards. “It allows us to take this project up to the next scale, nationally and internationally. This recognition is very important. Giant mantas are extremely vulnerable, and marine environments are severely threatened. We need to engage more people in conserving them. There’s a lot of work to do.”

Ms Forsberg’s project to save the manta rays is in line with the Rolex Perpetual Planet initiative launched by the company which initially focused on individuals who contribute to a better world through the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, on safeguarding the oceans through a partnership with Mission Blue, and on understanding climate change as part of its association with the National Geographic Society.

An expanding portfolio of partnerships under the Perpetual Planet initiative now includes projects such as the Under The Pole expeditions, pushing the boundaries of underwater exploration; the Xunaan-Ha Expedition, focusing on water quality in Yucatán, Mexico; and the Hearts In The Ice platform, which collects climate change information in the Arctic.

Rolex also supports organisations and initiatives fostering the next generations of explorers, scientists and conservationists through scholarships and grants.

Making conservation self-sustainable

Ms Forsberg’s love for the ocean started when she was just a child. Later, when her family relocated from her hometown of Lima to Vancouver for five years, she was inspired by the Canadian city’s strong sense of environmental awareness. Inevitably, her passion for marine fauna led her to read biology at the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, when she returned to Peru.

Through Planeta Océano’s educational outreach programme, Dr Forsberg hopes to teach the next generation about manta ray conservation. PHOTO: ROLEX

That spirit sparked in her teens continues to flame, with her goal to make conservation self-sustainable. She tells Geographical: “In conservation, you need things to be self-sustainable. You need to incorporate the local community, and you need things to work economically in the long run. You can’t be getting funding forever to do things.”

That’s also why Planeta Océano places emphasis on education. It has already rolled out an educational outreach programme, that teaches young people about giant manta ray conservation, to over 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,” she says.

Ms Forsberg has received many accolades for her achievements. She has won an award from Peru’s Ministry of Environment, the World Wildlife Fund among others, and was named one of Fortune magazine’s “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” in 2019.

She says that the success of conservation efforts hinges on making connections with people: “It’s about approaching people, and listening to people. It has to be about what will work best for them too. Solutions need to be developed together.”

We The Earth is a partnership between The Straits Times and Rolex and its Perpetual Planet initiative. Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate Kerstin Forsberg is a stellar example of the many individuals who are doing their part to solve the issues earth faces. 

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