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Tunisia: Scientific expedition to the Cani Islands, a corner of paradise in Bizerte (Reportage)

18-05-2022

Tunisia has no less than 60 islands and islets spread along the coast. If some are widely known because populated, like Djerba or the Kerkennah Islands, others are wilder with a breathtaking landscape.

This is the case of the Cani Islands, located about ten kilometers from the town of Cap Zbib in the governorate of Bizerte, in the north of the country. Gnetnews had the exclusive right to participate in a scientific expedition led by the Mediterranean Action Nature (MAN) association on the occasion of World Island Days (Celebrate Islands), in May 2022. Report.

A little history…

The Cani Islands are two small limestone islands, Grande and Petite Cani, of unequal size and located about ten kilometers off Cape Zebib, in northern Tunisia. Empty of inhabitants, it is now an area under the control of the Tunisian army.

Cani Islands Lighthouse

The Cani Islands have a history. Indeed, following the sinking of the HMS Spartan carrying 726 soldiers, on July 5, 1856, the British government asked the Bey of Tunis for permission to build a lighthouse there. Sadok Bey gave the authorization and financed the 18-meter high building himself. He brought from Sicily two keepers to light this lighthouse daily between 1860 and 1870: Joseph Alacchi and Rosa Taranto. This is the second built in Tunisia after that of Sidi Bou Saïd that the Alacchi couple will light after their transfer from Cani.

Today, this beacon still lights up thanks to the presence of a military corps permanently on site.

A biodiversity to preserve

It is aboard the boat “Bichi”, commanded by Khaled Ben Amara that we set sail towards the Cani Islands from the port of Zarzouna in Bizerte. It takes about 1h40 to reach one of the last island paradises of Tunisia.

To accompany this expedition organized by the Mediterranean Action Nature association (MAN), several scientists on marine, plant and animal biodiversity, as well as students from the fisheries section of INAT (National Agronomic Institute of Tunisia). All have the same objective, to collect information on the fauna and flora that inhabit these islands.

“There is significant biodiversity potential on these islands, whether terrestrial or maritime. This space is also a hotspot for some rare birds. We also have unsuspected underwater landscapes with flourishing vegetation and rare species of fish”, explains Sami Ben Haj, expert in coastal and marine environment management and president of the MAN association.

Yellow-legged Gull colony

You won’t find any white sand beaches on the Cani Islands. The surface is calcareous and rocky. But that did not prevent nature from developing there. Dozens of plant species have been able to acclimatize to this hostile environment. There are royal mallows, glasswort or small flowers of different colors.

“We record the species that we enter into a geolocation system in order to establish a plant map of the island”, tells us Wael Bedoui, biologist.

The Cani Islands are a breeding ground for some rare birds. That day we were able to find a colony of yellow-legged gulls. “There are also sparrows, gray shearwaters or even black swifts”, observes Moez Shaïek, environmental expert and member of the MAN association.

A paradise for diving lovers

While the first team is on land, another is busy at sea to discover the vegetation and underwater fauna. Thus, three divers were able to map the seabed. “We found species of fish of all colors. But what is very interesting is the richness of Posidonia”, explains Neji Ben Aïssa, general secretary of the MAN association.

Indeed, this seagrass is essential to marine biodiversity and in some areas it is tending to disappear due to overfishing. “Hence the importance of working in collaboration with fishermen in order to make them aware of the importance of preserving Posidonia and creating good governance,” says Moez Shaïek.

Underwater photo

Cani Islands: an example for island and ecological tourism

Today, the Cani Islands are off-limits to the public without permission. It is only possible to land a few meters away to admire them closely, but it is impossible to visit them.

With the development of alternative tourism in Tunisia, the Tunisian islands could be a real lever for this booming sector in the world. Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic has only accentuated this desire towards a return to nature and responsible tourism.

This is also the objective of the Mediterranean Action Nature association which campaigns for the classification of the Cani Islands. “We can imagine an educational site to make visitors aware of the importance of preserving these islands for the preservation of biodiversity. We can also develop sustainable eco-tourism there to develop a responsible economic activity for the inhabitants of the region”, underlines Moez Shaïek.

One of the many coves of the Cani Islands

For Sami Ben Haj, the Cani Islands could serve as a backdrop for art or even fashion photos. “The Tunisian islands must be visited. But it has to be done in a very regulated way in order to preserve the environment. I consider them to be the ecological portal of Tunisia. Island tourism would break the image of mass tourism traditionally practiced in the country”, he tells us.

“These islands are like monuments that must be treated with respect and love,” he concludes.

Find in the video above, a report dedicated to the Cani Islands.

Wissal Ayadi

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