Volunteer blog - Conservation in the Seychelles
Blog by T-CPI volunteer – Felix Smith (Programme Officer for T-CPI)
Hidden away in the heart of the Indian Ocean, lies a secluded, once pristine, archipelago of 115 islands which form the tropical island nation known as the Republic of Seychelles. Often described as ‘Paradise on Earth’, the Seychelles is home to rich biodiversity and breathtaking natural beauty. Flaunting lush jungles, secluded white beaches, crystal clear waters, and coral reefs teeming with marine life, the Seychelles is truly precious. The collection of islands form a thriving ecosystem which hosts impressive species diversity; from endemic tropical birds to critically endangered sea turtles, and even >100,000 Aldabra giant tortoises. Tuna and sharks also prosper in the glistening waters surrounding the islands, which additionally serve as nesting grounds for rare migratory birds.
Unsurprisingly, the Seychelles has become a hotspot destination for travelers and honeymooners from across the world. In recent years the Seychelles tourism industry has been booming, bringing in obvious economic benefits for the country. However increased tourism has also led to increased development on the islands, which has begun to put pressure on the local environment. Furthermore, 99% of the country is ocean, meaning that the local human population of >100,000 people heavily rely on marine resources for their livelihoods; especially as the fishing industry constitutes a major portion of their economy. Given the importance of the Seychelles’ natural environment in attracting visitors to the island nation, a lot of emphasis has been focused on protecting the natural wonders of the remote Indian Ocean archipelago. In fact, the government has recently announced plans to create two new marine protected areas, making up 16% of the country’s ocean territory. These plans are part of an ambitious project to protect nearly 160,000 square miles of the country by 2022, with the goal of protecting the Seychelles from illegal fishing for generations to come.
Fregate Island Private
Fregate Island is the easternmost of the granitic islands of the Seychelles, and home to a private eco-luxury resort which funds the conservation programme to restore the islands habitat and protect its rare species. Fregate Island is home to a variety of unique flora and fauna, such as the critically endangered Wright’s Gardenia, the indigneous tenebrionid beetle, the endangered Seychelles Magpie Robin, and even >3000 free roaming Aldabra giant tortoises. Through intensive conservation efforts, the island is now free from rodents and other pests, enabling the fragile ecosystem to recover and flourish. The Fregate Island Conservation Team continues to monitor and protect the islands diverse marine and terrestrial wildlife.
Driven by my passion for conservation and adventure, I was seeking an opportunity to work with unique wildlife in a remote and exotic location. After discovering a position as a Conservationist at Fregate Island Private in the Seychelles, I jumped at the chance to apply for the role. Having just spent 9 incredible months working there, I am now keen to share my wonderful experience with others. Activities on Fregate Island varied from week to week, but it primarily involved working as part of the Conservation Team to study, monitor, and protect the islands marine and terrestrial wildlife. Guest interaction was also a key feature of my role, as educating and inspiring others to engage in conservation is vital when seeking to create lasting change.
Some of the key projects I undertook included:
Marine Monitoring Surveys
As part of the Marine Biodiversity Baseline assessment around Fregate Island, I was involved in conducting a range of marine monitoring surveys in collaboration with different international organisations (including: Green Islands Foundation, SeyCCAT, University of Seychelles, Blue Nomads, & Coralive). The marine surveys included fish ID, invertebrate ID, coral ID, substrate rugosity, and Baited Remote Underwater Video surveys (BRUVs). The goal of this on-going study is to collect data on the local marine biodiversity in order to provide the Seychelles government with scientific evidence for the establishment of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) around Fregate Island.
Coral Reef Restoration with Coralive
Coral reef only occupies 0.1% of the area of the ocean, yet supports 25% of all marine life on the planet. However these life-sustaining natural wonders are under serious global threat due to climate change and global warming, pollution, overfishing, and destructive coastal development. Half of the world’s shallow water corals have already gone, with the rest likely to all but disappear unless immediate action is taken. It is therefore crucial that coral reefs are restored, in order to protect the rich biodiversity and countless ecosystem services they provide.
Coralive.org is dedicated to protecting and restoring healthy oceans around the world, currently with projects set-up in Jamaica, Kenya, the Philippines, the Maldives, and the Seychelles (at Fregate Island). The coral restoration project at Fregate Island involved installing eight metal structures in two nearby locations that had been severely damaged by the recent bleaching event in 1998, which destroyed nearly 90% of all corals in the Seychelles. Coral fragments were attached to the artificial structures which were divided into two sites (four electrified and four without electricity – to act as a control). The electrified site uses Mineral Accretion Technology, which increases survival rates among small coral fragments, accelerates coral growth, and increases resilience against further bleaching events. Each coral site is thoroughly maintained, with every coral fragment routinely cleaned and measured to determine growth rates over time. This two-year research project will continue to collect valuable data, and offers an innovative method to restore coral reefs worldwide.
Sea Turtle Monitoring
The sandy beaches of Fregate Island provide a vital nesting habitat for the critically endangered Hawksbill Turtle and the endangered Green Turtle. The Seychelles is also one of the few places in the world where sea turtles come ashore to nest during daylight hours, making this incredible natural phenomenon available for all to witness. During the nesting season (October to January), >300 nesting turtles are expected to nest across the 7 sandy beaches on Fregate Island, with ‘Grand Anse’ being the most popular. During the 2019/2020 Hawksbill turtle season so far, there has been >135 nests and >240 turtles; 23 of which were newly tagged by the team. Despite the inherent chaos of turtle season, combined with severely eroding beaches, the conservation team pulled together to record every turtle, track, and nest, whilst also translocating every nest that was under threat. The sense of accomplishment is unmatched when you watch turtle hatchlings climb out of a nest that you’ve helped protect, and then witness them charge for the ocean. Only 1/1000 turtle hatchlings will survive to adulthood, meaning that it is important to protect every nest in order to conserve these fascinating creatures for future generations.
Seychelles Magpie Robin Monitoring
Fregate Island has many conservation success stories, but one of the most iconic was saving the Seychelles Magpie Robin from the brink of extinction. It was recorded that in 1970 there were only 16 individuals remaining, all of which lived on Fregate Island. Since then, intense conservation efforts were undertaken in order to save the species. Magpie robins were transferred to other islands in the Seychelles with the goal of establishing new breeding populations whilst also strengthening genetic diversity. Fregate Island set up nest boxes around the island (hotel side and wild side) which are monitored every two weeks to check for magpie robin nests, eggs or chicks. Chicks that are 14 days old can then be rung using alpha numeric rings, which provide a better understanding of family and territory dynamics, as well as an estimate of species abundance. As of 2019, there are around 170 individuals on Fregate Island. These efforts will continue for years to come and are a shining example of successful conservation management.
Giant Tortoise Research Project
Fueled by my inquisitive mind, I also independently designed and managed my own research project whilst working on Fregate Island: “An investigation into the distribution and movement of the Giant Aldabra Tortoise population on Fregate Island”. The aim of this study is to understand the movement ecology of the giant tortoise population on Fregate, and to identify the key habitats used by individuals so that these areas can be effectively managed and protected. By training and educating numerous volunteers and staff members in regards to the survey methodology and techniques, I have ensured that this project will continue into the future. I aim to write a research paper based on the findings of the study once the project has obtained 12 months of data, as this will determine if there are any yearly movement patterns across the different seasons in the Seychelles.
This unforgettable experience has given me a wealth of experience and valuable skills in scientific research and conservation as a whole. I found that by fully immersing myself into every project, I have vastly broadened my knowledge of island biodiversity conservation and ecosystem management. I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to work in such a beautiful country with such vibrant people, whilst being constantly surrounded by such breathtaking nature. The Seychelles will always have a place in my heart.
I’m also very grateful for all the skills and knowledge that I have gained whilst volunteering for The Conservation Project International! My experience working initially as the ‘Grant Writer and Fundraising Support Intern’, followed by my current role as the ‘Programme Officer’, has given me valuable insight into the Conservation NGO sector as well as vastly improving my employability skills. My voluntary work experience at T-CPI definitely put me in a strong position to achieve the role at Fregate Island, so I just want to express my sincere gratitude for the opportunity. I look forward to working on more innovative conservation projects with T-CPI, and I am excited to see what future collaborations await.