SIF is a non-profit organization that was established as a public trust by the government of Seychelles in 1979 to protect the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Aldabra Atoll and the Vallée de Mai. Conservation biologist Dr Frauke Fleischer-Dogley has led SIF since 2007 after becoming a board trustee in 2003. Here she discusses the challenges of protecting Aldabra Atoll and the Vallée de Mai, two inspiring and unique nature reserves that are more than 1,000 kilometers apart
What has been the organization’s impact on the country over the years and how successful has it been in its mission?
SIF was this nation’s first nature conservation organization and it has not only been very successful in fulfilling its mandate, but has also played a crucial role as a pioneer in Seychelles’ environmental sector. In terms of quantifying SIF’s success the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) 2017 Conservation outlook gave both our sites a rating of ‘Good with some concerns’. Additionally, in regards to SIF’s overall protection and management efforts of Aldabra and the Vallée de Mai, the IUCN rated us as Highly Effective and Effective, respectively. Considering these ratings alongside the global threats of climate change and invasive species for both sites, as well as the poaching and fire outbreaks that are particular to the Vallée de Mai, it becomes clear that while SIF faces complex issues with achieving its mandate, it has developed the capacity to meet challenges and mitigate threats. Additionally, SIF, has led several successful large-scale projects. One of which was a European Union funded mainstreaming invasive alien species management in Seychelles World Heritage Sites project that targeted a wide range of such species across Seychelles’ inner and outer islands. One of the results of this ambitious four-year project was the removal of over 5,000 introduced red-whiskered bulbuls from Assumption Island, which neighbours Aldabra. At the time this effort was the largest avian eradication in the world. Another notable project was a GEF Protected Area initiative which not only expanded Aldabra’s Marine Protected Area, but also led to the establishment of a long-term marine monitoring program and provided baseline information on the state of Aldabra’s marine habitats. SIF has also been instrumental in introducing and raising the standards of professionals in Seychelles’ environmental sector by being an organization people can look up to and aspire to be part of. The human capacity SIF has helped nurture, as well as the development, standardization and distribution of its protocols and reports has also contributed to the effectiveness of this country’s environmental policies and has helped shape government decisions and practices. Moreover, SIF’s outreach and education programs have also been a cornerstone of its work.
What has been your guiding vision for the islands and what are your key priorities for the long-term protection and operation of these spectacular places?
My overarching goal for SIF has been establishing effective management systems for these World Heritage Sites. My key priorities have been ensuring the reliability of our research and long-term monitoring on a par with international standards, and ensuring that our teams across both sites have the motivation and resources to carry out their duties well. With regards to my long-term vision for SIF, it’s essential that it is an organization that leads by example, not only the management of Seychelles World Heritage sites, but also in its contribution to the country’s research capacity and ability to inform national policy.
The Aldabra Atoll is the world’s second-largest coral atoll. What makes it so precious and what are the key challenges it is facing today?
If you were to take the two-and-a-half-hour flight to Aldabra’s nearest neighbor, Assumption, and then a half-hour boat ride from this island to the atoll, or take a three-day trip by boat to reach Aldabra, the most prominent realization that would dawn upon you is the feeling that you have traveled back in time. Aldabra’s outstanding universal value is primarily a consequence of its isolation from mankind and its incredibly harsh environment. This means that, for the most part, Aldabra’s natural life is unfamiliar with humans, and human impact is low. This makes Aldabra a special place as much of the life there is either unique or is in a much better state than many other places in the world. For instance the Aldabra white-throated rail is the Indian Ocean’s last flightless bird. Aldabra is also the home of healthy population of coconut crabs, the largest terrestrial crustacean in the world, which has been decimated in our region. Moreover, Aldabra hosts the largest breeding population of greater and lesser frigatebirds in the Indian Ocean and is one the most significant nesting sites in the West Indian Ocean for green turtles. Despite those of the Galapagos being better known, Aldabra has the largest population of giant tortoises in the world at over 100,000 individuals, a population greater than the number of Seychellois. The waters that surround Aldabra also teem with life and the abundance of sharks shows how alive the atoll’s reefs are. Spinner dolphins are regularly spotted and humpback whales, which pass the atoll from July to November, breach within sight of the research station bringing much joy and wonder to the staff who are lucky enough to see them. Furthermore, Aldabra still hides several scientifically understudied species such as dugongs, Madagascar pond-herons and greater flamingos, which are intermittently spotted by our team, and there is still exploration to be carried out around Aldabra’s deeper waters. In short, Aldabra is a glimpse of the prehistoric world and a natural laboratory that we can all learn a lot from and still be astounded by.
Up until 2010, Aldabra hosted several cruise ships a year, but this was ended because of piracy threats in the area. How much tourism is currently taking place on the atoll, and is there a possibility of increasing it?
Tourism to Aldabra has picked up again with just over a dozen vessels of varying sizes bringing almost a thousand visitors for the 2017/2018 season. However, these numbers still remain below 2010 figures. These visits by cruise ships and small boats play an important role in subsidizing the research station and sharing this UNESCO World Heritage site, but it is clear that Aldabra can never be a mass tourism destination. One way in which SIF aims to make Aldabra accessible for a larger audience is through Aldabra House, a project that brings Aldabra to Mahé, rather than people to Aldabra. With the return of visitors to Aldabra, SIF has decided it was necessary to create a seasonal position, the Aldabra Tourism Coordinator, to not only organize activities for the visitors, but to also make sure biosecurity procedures are followed, health and safety requirements are met, our research team is well equipped to receive travelers and, most importantly, that the impact of the visits are limited. In this vein, SIF has set a limit of 100 visitors to the atoll per day, and tourism activities such as walks, snorkeling, diving and boat rides can only take place within clearly defined zones.
Moving over to Vallée de Mai, how would you describe this nature reserve and what makes it unique, along with the biggest threats it currently faces?
The Vallée de Mai, as one of the smallest natural World Heritage sites, has a great deal that makes it special. The forest is dominated by palms and all six of Seychelles’ endemic palm species are found here. Amongst them the coco de mer or sea coconut, which only occurs naturally on Praslin and Curieuse, stands out, with its majestic leaves, towering trunk and giant nut, which is the world’s largest. A forest filled with such palms creates a unique habitat and ecosystem for the animals that survive within. Some of these animals, which SIF has been able to monitor and carry out extensive research on have been shown to be highly dependent on the coco de mer, notably the Seychelles black parrot. Our national bird lives only on Praslin and breeds almost entirely in dead coco de mer trees that become hollow and make ideal nests. Other animals such as the endemic bronze geckos, of which the Vallée de Mai is home to all three species, play a vital role in the coco de mer’s reproduction, by pollinating the flowers. Additionally, hearing the sounds of the Vallée de Mai which, if you are lucky, include the black parrots’ call or, with even more luck, the chirp of the Praslin sooglosid frog, which was only discovered in 2009, reveals a world that cannot be found anywhere else on the planet. Vallée de Mai is vulnerable to the global problems of climate change and invasive species. In addition to these concerns, poaching and fire outbreaks are also recognized as major threats. With climate change, it is predicted that Seychelles’ wet and dry seasons will become more extreme. This in turn will increase the site’s vulnerability to hazards such as fire outbreaks. Moreover, the ramifications of drastic shifts in climate, especially more and longer droughts, on certain species, such as the Praslin sooglosid frog, the Seychelles tree frog, the coco de mer snail and the Praslin snail, which have evolved to live in these particular environmental conditions, could be severe. The other global threat the Vallée de Mai faces is invasive species. Being a nature reserve with many visitors, while also being located next to private and public properties, means there are many entry points for invasive species. The yellow crazy ant, the black rat and various species of invasive plants have a noticeable impact on the Vallée de Mai, with the rats preying on black parrot chicks and yellow crazy ants attacking the invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles that live on the forest floor and in the canopy. Invasive plants, which compete with the native species, also change the environment which certain species have adapted to, destabilizing natural balances. With poaching and fire outbreaks, the clear determinant of the level of impact and risk is human behavior. Poaching of the coco de mer and other species is an ongoing battle that requires not only vigilance by SIF staff, but also a good relationship with the local community.
From 2011-2015 the SIF implemented an extensive four-year project funded by the EU to tackle invasive species. What success did you have in getting rid of some of these species?
Invasive species are a direct threat to the biodiversity of our two sites. The European Union invasive alien species project was far-reaching in that it covered actions across four of Seychelles’ islands, two of which are outer islands, and tackled avian, mammalian, insect and vegetative invasive species. Most of these invasive species were introduced decades or even centuries ago and have had the chance to establish large populations. In terms of clear success the project’s first achievement was completing a 25-year eradication program of feral goats from Aldabra using the Judas got tracking technique which was the only way to assure complete eradication. Another major success for the project was the eradication of the red-whiskered bulbul and Madagascar fody from Assumption Island. The removal of introduced sisal plants from Aldabra is also another clear victory for SIF’s fight against invasive species. Within the Vallée de Mai the project also successfully eliminated a number of invasive plants from the site and initiated annual monitoring of highly invasive yellow crazy ants. Today through the IUCN’s Inva’Ziles project SIF continues to control plants and other species that were identified as priority species under the EU project. But eliminating these species is only half the job. Ensuing that they are not reintroduced or that other problematic species do not arrive is a task that is extremely demanding.
The Chinese government is now positioning itself as a world leader in terms of fighting climate change, protecting the environment and investing in renewable energy. How do you evaluate the steps it is taking, and what message would you like to send to Chinese policymakers about why and how they could make a difference in the Aldabra Atoll and the Vallée de Mai?
China’s decisive and rapid efforts to mitigate its contribution to climate change and to recently ban the import of certain types of waste distinguishes it as not only a global leader, but also as a great power that is attentive to the world’s needs and as such concerned with the environmental disasters on humanity’s doorstep. Furthermore, China’s meteoric rise in renewable energy to become the largest producer of electricity generated by renewable means mirrors its astounding economic development and dispels the myth that economic growth and environmental protection are opposed to one another or mutually exclusive. Moreover, the Chinese government’s conceptualization of an ecological civilization and desire to create a beautiful China recognizes the significance of a country’s environmental wellbeing to its people. For Seychelles, China’s example in pushing for a sustainable development model that does not condemn small island states like ourselves to the catastrophic effects of sea level rise, ocean acidification and increased exposure to extreme weather events, is a matter of survival. In the cases of both heritage sites, with Aldabra being particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, it is clear that without further global agreements and concrete actions that mitigate the effects of climate change these sites and others around the world will be lost and all the effort that has gone into their protection too. And though the Paris Agreement was a breakthrough in itself and asked signatories to keep the level of greenhouse gases emissions to an amount that would not cause the global average temperature to increase by 2°C, small island states and costal settlements require states to aim for 1.5°C. If states like China can achieve this and provide pathways for others, places like Aldabra and the Vallée de Mai may be saved from the impacts of climate change. Moreover, in this day and age where technology increasingly offers our societies many solutions and opportunities, the assistance of Chinese policymakers and companies working within and outside of China to bring about what has been called the circular economy is vital. Last month SIF, in collaboration with the University of Oxford, launched the Aldabra Clean-Up Project to remove plastic pollution from Aldabra, educate the local and global community about the issue and find ways to turn such waste into a resource. This project is a benchmark for the establishment of a circular economy in Seychelles; however, for it to be a meaningful enterprise, further investment in Seychelles and other countries’ waste management systems is essential to guarantee that our waste is not ending up in the ocean and then on the shores of places like Aldabra. Additionally, China’s pledge and adherence to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and deterrence of traffic in illegally poached species is another vital way in which the biodiversity of places like the Vallée de Mai can be protected.
How would you evaluate the Seychelles government’s efforts regarding environmental protection?
Throughout Seychelles’ existence as an independent nation, environmental protection has always been one of its cornerstones. In recent times, the government has done well in promoting Seychelles’ environment by encouraging concepts such as sustainable tourism and the blue economy that balance economic growth with ecological wellbeing. The setting up of renewable energy and a smart gird also shows progress and follow through on Seychelles’ commitments towards climate change. Additionally the 2015 government moratorium on large hotel projects on Mahé and the inner islands, as well as the decision to not proceed with the Grand Police Bay hotel, shows that the government has been attentive to public opinion. For his part President Danny Faure has been very supportive of conservation efforts in the country and, as SIF’s patron, has been instrumental in making the Aldabra Clean-Up Project an initiative of national significance by launching it at State House on World Environment Day and conveying a powerful message for the project’s launch in the United Kingdom. He also shocked world leaders at a special session on oceans at the G7 summit at which pictures of the plastic pollution were shown, furthering the reach of the project and stressing the need for global commitments towards the cause.
Can you give an example of how the foundation is using technology to facilitate its research and conservation activities?
The latest step in SIF’s continual bid for innovation is our ongoing research into the use of drones for monitoring one of Aldabra’s least known inhabitants, the dugong. We believe that drone technology will enable research that can generate information on the distribution and movements of Aldabra’s dugongs which until now is not possible due to the inaccessibility of the lagoon. Photos will provide spatial data that may allow us to learn more about these elusive marine mammals and their interactions with other organisms and habitats in Aldabra’s lagoon and around its shores. It may even be possible, depending on the drone and camera capabilities, to record weight, body length and identify individuals from their markings to track their health by analyzing photos and videos. With drone technology SIF can undertake research that was previously prohibitively expensive and logistically complex, while also ensuring personnel safety. SIF is still engaged with identifying the drone and camera combinations that would be used after which it will begin consultations on the software and training for staff on Aldabra that will be needed.
How optimistic are you about the future of the Aldabra Atoll and the Vallée de Mai?
I am very optimistic about the future of these natural wonders. Though they face serious challenges, they have the attention and support of their country and beyond. Seychellois have a strong connection with nature and a keen interest in its protection; these two UNESCO sites are a source of national pride. Both sites incite people’s sense of adventure and imagination. I truly believe that the future of both sites depends on how well we manage to engage with the community, our leaders, scientists and definitely the visitors to our shores. Looking outwards will need to be the strategy, and this is what we are fully gearing up to.