Wolfgang H. Thome, long-time eTurboNews ambassador, spoke with Dr. Frauke Fleischer-Dogley, CEO of the Seychelles Island Foundation about the work they are doing across the archipelago, including the famous Aldabra atoll, as it was learned during the interview:
eTN: What does the Seychelles Island Foundation do in terms of conservation, where across the archipelago are you active?
Dr. Frauke: Let me give you an overview of the SIF’s activities. We are looking after the two UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Seychelles, and we are fully involved in regard of environmental conservation, maintaining and promoting our biodiversity. These two sites are the Vallee de Mai on Praslin island and the Aldabra atoll.
The Aldabra atoll is over 1,000 kilometers distance from Mahe, so we have many challenges to reach the site, supply it, and manage it. The atoll has a very interesting history, as once upon a time it was meant to become a military base, but fortunately those plans never materialized following sustained protests abroad, mainly in the UK. The result of the u-turn, however, was that the Seychelles were asked to do something with the islands and subsequently a research station was established on Aldabra. The origin of that goes back to 1969, before the Seychelles became independent, and research has now been going on for over 40 years. In 1982, UNESCO declared the atoll as a World Heritage site, and the Seychelles Island Foundation is now responsible for the site since 31 years. SIF was, in fact, founded with the initial sole purpose to look after and manage the research going on across the atoll. As a result, we have intense contacts and interaction with many renowned universities and research organizations across the world. Our research programs and one off projects, of course, center on marine life, the reefs, etc., but of late, we are also monitoring and recording climatic changes, changes in water temperature, water levels; this type of research is one of the longest running of its kind in the Indian Ocean, if not the longest running.
All of this is bearing fruits, showing results, and shortly we will be publishing research data in regard of ocean turtles and tortoises and the changes we have recorded over the past 30 years. One might think that little has moved over that period but to the contrary; our research results do show very significant changes. The population of the protected ocean turtles, for instance, as a result of protective measures, grew 8 fold over these 30 years, which is quite astonishing.
What Aldabra, however, is best known for are the giant tortoises, which made the Galapagos Islands so famous. Our population of these giant tortoises is in fact TEN times the number of those found on the Galapagos islands.
eTN: And nobody knows this?
Dr. Frauke: Yes, we are not as active as the Galapagos Islands in promoting this knowledge; we don’t blow our own trumpet as much as they do; but we have the numbers to prove it that in terms of population, we are the number ONE!
eTN: I sought feedback about the ocean turtles and giant tortoises recently and the answers were a little thin. Considering what you are now telling me, you have a huge tourism potential of visitors wanting to see those giant tortoises, but then again, considering the fallout on the Galapagos by almost unsustainable tourist numbers; a permanent population, which grew rapidly in recent decades; and the developments on those islands, are you better off with less visitors when it comes to protecting a very fragile environment and protecting the species?
Dr. Frauke: This is an ongoing debate, and discussions are going back and forth – commercial interests versus conservation and research interests. I think that perhaps at times things are portrayed in an exaggerated way as a tool to uplift funding; there are different opinions being expressed amongst the conservation fraternity, our colleagues, and we are always discussing this, of course.
eTN: Then how many tourists did visit the atoll last year?
Dr. Frauke: First let me tell you that the atoll is so big that the entire island of Mahe would fit into the middle of the lagoon, and considering that size, we only had about 1,500 visitors coming to Aldabra. This, in fact, is the biggest number we ever had in a single year. And because we do not have a landing strip directly on the island [there is one about 50 kilometers away on another island, however], all of these visitors had to come by ship or their own yachts. It is the only way to visit; we have no facilities for visitors to stay there, although, of course, we have accommodation for the researchers, but tourist visitors have to return every evening to their ships and stay there overnight. No visitors come, incidentally, by sea plane, simply because there are no suitable sea planes available in the Seychelles to cover that distance. Even our own staff, the supplies and everything, goes and comes by ship. We would in any case be very careful about landing such planes near or in the atoll because of environmental concerns, the noise, the impact of landing and takeoff, etc. We have, besides the sea turtles and giant tortoises, also one of the largest colonies of Fregate birds, and while they are not disturbed by approaching ships or yachts, an aircraft landing or taking off would create disturbances for those flocks. And tourism visits are in any case restricted to one specific area of the atoll, leaving the entire rest of it for research and to protect the fragile underwater ecosystems. But the area open for tourism is habitat to all our species, so visitors are able to see what they come for; it is not that they would be disappointed, to the contrary. We even have relocated some species of birds there, so someone coming to visit the atoll’s open areas will actually see a miniature version of the entire atoll.
eTN: Are there any plans to build or concession a lodging facility for overnight visitors to the atoll who would prefer to stay on the island instead of their ships?
Dr. Frauke: In fact, there were plans towards that end already under discussion, but the main reason why it never materialized was the cost; imagine the atoll is over 1,000 kilometers from Mahe, and even a large distance to other nearby options from where to reach Aldabra, say Madagascar or the African mainland, so bringing the building materials is a real challenge. Then, when such a lodge is open, it needs to get regular supplies to keep it running, food, drinks, other items, and again the distance is simply too great to be easily affordable or economical. And all the refuse, rubbish, everything then has to be taken off the island again and returned into a proper disposal chain for composting, recycling, etc.
Our board of trustees had even sanctioned a lodge for the tourist part of the atoll, but as negotiations with interested developers went on, the credit crunch came into play, and we then also considered the whole plan again, having been able to function for so long with visitors coming by ship and staying on their ships, besides their trips on shore.
Meanwhile a foundation, a trust, was formed for the Aldabra atoll, and a promotion of sorts took place in Europe to raise funds, create awareness.
We had a very big exhibition in Paris last year, but it is maybe too early to assess the impact the trust, the foundation, will have in regard of securing funding for our work. But we have hope, of course, to secure more funds to keep our work going; it is expensive, in general, and specifically because of the great distances.
But let me come to the second UNESCO World Heritage site we are entrusted with – the Vallee de Mai.
This is the number one tourist site on Praslin, and, in fact, many visitors come even for the day from Mahe or other islands to see that park. Visitors to the Seychelles come for the beaches, but many of them also come to see our intact nature, and the Vallee de Mai is a globally-known site to see our nature nearly untouched. We reckon that nearly half of all visitors to the Seychelles are also paying a visit to the Vallee de Mai to see the unique palm forest and, of course, the coco de mer – that uniquely-shaped coconut only found there.
It is here that we most closely work with the tourist board in promoting this attraction, and only a couple of months ago we opened a new visitor center at the entrance of the park. (eTN reported about this at the time.) Our president opened the center in December, which gave us a lot of media exposure and also signaled that our work had the blessing from the head of state and government overall. The president is also our Patron of the Seychelles Island Foundation, again showing how highly valued our work is.
And now let me explain the link between the two sites. We generate a lot of income at the Vallee de Mai and, of course, support the tourist board by granting free access to journalists, to groups of travel agents brought in by STB, but the income from visitors is used to not just support the work there, but a lot of it goes towards the research activities and work done in Aldabra, where the income from the comparably small number of visitors is not enough pay for our activities there. Therefore, visitors coming to the Vallee de Mai who pay a high fee to visit that park and see the palm forest and the coco de mer need to know what is being done with their money. It is not just for that visit, but it supports our work and conservation measures over 1,000 kilometers away on Aldabra, and your readers should know about it – the reasons behind the 20 Euro per person entrance fees on Praslin. We are also mentioning it at the visitor center and the displays, of course, but some more information about it will not harm.
Until three years ago, we charged 15 euros; we were looking at raising the fees to 25 euros but the global economic crisis and temporary downturn in tourism business then convinced us to charge first an intermediate fee of 20 euros. That was discussed with our destination management companies, the ground handlers, but also representatives of overseas agents and operators and eventually agreed upon. Now we have a new visitor center at the main gate, better facilities, so they can also see that we invest back into the product in the interest of giving better services to tourists. The next step will be offering the option for coffee, tea, or other refreshments to visitors, but not for accommodation. There are nearby hotels and resorts – those will be enough for guests staying on Praslin overnight.
eTN: I read some time ago about increased incidents of poaching of the coco de mer, i.e., they are stolen from the palm trees, including from the most-photographed tree near the entrance. What is the situation here really like?
Dr. Frauke: Sadly, this is true. There are a number of reasons for it, not just a single one. We are reacting to these incidents by making them public, telling the people living around the park what damage this does and how it impacts on the long-term future of the park, and all the visitors coming there to see the coco de mer and the rare birds in that habitat. These visitors support the local economy, and, therefore, the communities living around the Vallee de Mai need to know that poaching or theft of the coco de mer is doing a lot of damage and may endanger their own incomes and jobs. There are only a couple of thousand people living on Praslin, so we are not talking very big communities, and the villages and settlements around the park are home to [a] small number of people; those are our targets for this information campaign. But we have also strengthened surveillance and monitoring to more actively prevent similar incidents in the future.
eTN: The tourist board is committed to bringing the entire population of the Seychelles behind their concept that tourism is the number one industry and employer, and everyone should support all measures needed to keep this going. How can STB and the government assist you there?
Dr. Frauke: They just have to tell everyone about these issues, tell them of the impact, the consequences for tourism, and if everyone supports this we should see results. A clear and strong message, that Seychelles cannot afford to lose such an attraction, will help us in our work. And it has to be understood, that if we earn less through the Vallee de Mai, we cannot continue our level of work on Aldabra either, this is very clear.
The Chairman of STB is also our chairman of the board of trustees, so there are direct institutional links between SIF and STB. The president is our patron. We are not shy to using these links in a proactive manner, and after all it is beneficial for the tourism industry what we do, beneficial to the entire country. Believe me, we are not tiptoeing where action is needed, and we have access to our government institutions and make use of them in the interest of conservation.
And it is through these links that we discuss our fee structures, our plans for future rises in fees, and we agree with them, of course; this is never done in isolation by us alone, but we consult with our other stakeholders.
eTN: In East Africa, our park managers, UWA, KWS, TANAPA, and ORTPN, now discuss with the private sector years in advance the next planned increases, at times two years in advance. Are you doing the same here?
Dr. Frauke: We know that, we are aware of the tour operators in Europe planning a year, a year-and-a-half ahead with their pricing; we know it, because we work hand in hand with STB and other bodies who give us their input and advice. It is also a process of confidence building. Way back in the past, we acted differently from what we are doing today, so our partners, the stakeholders in tourism, need to know that we are predictable and not simply try to get one over them. We are well on the way to achieve this, however.
eTN: What other projects are you presently working on; what are your plans in the future? You presently look after two UNESCO World Heritage sites; what next?
Dr. Frauke: The Seychelles presently has 43 percent of its territory under protection, which includes terrestrial national parks, marine parks, and forests. The country has institutions, which are responsible for the management of these areas and a range of NGOs are assisting in these tasks. I believe we can improve further the work we are doing presently in the two UNESCO World Heritage sites in Aldabra and on Praslin, add on our research programs. Some of our data are now 30 years old, so it is time to add new information, establish new data in those areas, so research is always ongoing and seeking to add fresh knowledge. But we are looking at a new challenge in the Vallee de Mai, which as mentioned before was until now a visitors’ park with less attention to research. Often in the past, people from abroad with a research background visited the park and then shared information with us. Now, we are proactively working in that park, and last year, for instance, we discovered a new species of frog, which was obviously resident in the park but literally undiscovered. Some of the research is part of masters theses, and we are building on this by adding new scope all the time. As an example, some of the new research is focusing on the nesting and breeding habits of birds, to identify how many eggs they lay, how many of those hatch, but we also added research opportunities for the coco de mer itself; we simply do not know enough about it yet and must know more to effectively protect its habitat and the species. In other words, our research will be progressively expanded.
And then we have another project underway. I had mentioned earlier that we had a big exhibition in Paris last year about Aldabra, and we are presently negotiating with government to bring the exhibits, the documentation from that exhibition to the Seychelles and to display it permanently in an Aldabra House on Mahe where visitors can learn about the atoll, the work we do there, the challenges of conservation, even those who do not have the opportunity to actually visiting Aldabra. Such a building, we hope, will be featuring the latest green technologies in construction, in terms of operation, as after all sustainability and conservation are the hallmarks of the Seychelles Island Foundation. In this connection, it is worth mentioning that we are presently developing a master plan to introduce renewable energy sources to our project in Aldabra, for the research station and the entire camp, to reduce on the very costly supply of diesel, the cost of transporting it a thousand kilometers to the site, and reduce our carbon footprint for our presence on the atoll. We have now fully established our requirements, and the next step is now the implementation to shift from diesel generators to solar power. To give you a figure, 60 percent of our budget [is] set aside for diesel and the transportation of diesel to the Aldabra atoll, and when we have converted to solar power, these funds can be used in a more effective, a better way. We have recently started genetic research on the species we have on the Aldabra atoll, but this is expensive work, and when we can begin saving on diesel, we can shift funds into those research areas for instance.
eTN: How are your relations with universities from abroad, from Germany, from elsewhere?
Dr. Frauke: The project to convert from diesel to solar power was initially started by a German masters student who carried out some research towards that end. She was from the University in Halle, and she is now back to implement the project as part of her next work. Other cooperation we have [is] with the University in Erfurt in Germany, which is leading in the field of energy conservation, energy savings. We also have excellent working relations with the Eidgenoessische University in Zurich, with several of their faculties, in fact, [in] for instance gene research on the coco de mer. For instance, we have research fields since 1982, and we are analyzing changes in those fields with foreign universities. We work with Cambridge, very closely in fact; Cambridge has been a driving force in research projects on Aldabra. With them, we are working on remote sensing, comparing satellite images over a period of time, recording changes, doing mapping of the lagoon and other areas, including generating vegetation maps. This permits us to identify changes seen over the past 30 years since we established a firm research presence on Aldabra. This work, of course, extends to climatic changes, rises in water levels, the impact of rising average temperatures on aquatic life forms. With the East Anglia University of the UK, we also operate joint programs and projects like here, in particular the black parrot and certain species of geckos. But we also have regular contacts with American researchers, like from the Natural Museum of Chicago, and we had in the past, cooperation with the National Geographic Society, of course, for whom our work was of great interest. Last year they brought a sizeable expedition to Aldabra, so their interest remains high. Another similar group organized by Conservation International was due to visit us in January, but the piracy issues made it impossible for them to come this year.
eTN: Pirates, that near to Aldabra, is that real?
Dr. Frauke: Yes, sadly so. We had some of those boats come relatively near, and in fact one diving expedition removed itself rapidly when approached. They went to an island some 50 kilometers away where there is an airstrip, and then evacuated their clients from there, so this is real. That diving boat, which was used as a platform for the divers, was eventually hijacked in March last year. Our board of trustees, in fact, did discuss this issue, as piracy around our waters in Aldabra has an influence on visitor numbers; there are insurance issues for the operators of expedition ships coming to Aldabra and, of course, issues on security in general.
eTN: So if I get this right, there is an airfield on an island some 50 km away from Aldabra; would that not encourage visitors to fly into that island and then use boats from there?
Dr. Frauke: In theory yes, but we have very strong currents and high waves, depending on the season, so this would at best be very difficult to achieve, and generally our visitors come with their own expedition ships and then anchor off Aldabra for the duration of their visit, normally about for 4 nights.
One could try during the November to March/early April season, but for the rest of the year, the seas are just generally too rough.
On Aldabra we charge a visitor fee of 100 euro per person, per day of presence. That fee also, by the way, applies to the crew on board irrespective of whether they come on shore or not, so it is not cheap to come and visit Aldabra; it is a very exclusive club of visitors who really have keen interest. In fact, all boats, ships, or yachts anchoring off Aldabra must, according to our regulations, have our own staff with them at all times while they are on anchorage to ensure compliance with our regulation and to avoid any element of pollution to our waters. That applies for the shore visits and even for their diving expeditions.
eTN: The Seychelles celebrates an annual underwater festival, “Subios” – was Aldabra ever the focus of this festival?
Dr. Frauke: Yes it was, a few years ago; the main winner of the festival filmed from Mahe to Aldabra, and it got us a lot of attention, of course. Several other entries of underwater films taken around the Aldabra atoll also won main prizes in the past.
eTN: What is of the most concern to you, what do you think is the message you want to send to our readers?
Dr. Frauke: What is very important to us at SIF is that we not only have two UNESCO World Heritage sites, but that we maintain them, keep them intact, protect them and preserve them for future generations,of Seychellois and for the rest of the world. This is NOT just our work at the Seychelles Island Foundation, but it is the work of our country, government, people. We know, for instance, that visitors to the Seychelles generally have traveled to many other places before, and when such visitors share their impressions of our sites with the people living nearby or the guides, the drivers they come in contact with, then everyone knows just how important these two sites, especially the one in Praslin are for us on the Seychelles, for tourism purposes.
Conservation work on the islands has deep roots; our people here appreciate intact nature, often because they live from it, look at the employment tourism brings, at fishing, without an intact ecosystem, without clean water, intact forests, this would all not be possible. When a hotelier hears from the guests that they come here because of the untouched and unspoiled nature, the beaches, the underwater marine parks, then he or she understands that their own future is completely linked to our efforts of conservation, and they support our work and stand behind our efforts.
eTN: Is government seriously committed to your work, to supporting you?
Dr. Frauke: Our president is our patron, and, no, he is not generally, as [is] the case in other countries, the patron of all and sundry; he is our patron by choice and supports our work fully. He is briefed, kept informed about our work, our challenges, and, for instance, when we opened the visitor center for the Vallee de Mai, he came without hesitation to officiate during the opening ceremony.
[At this stage, Dr. Frauke showed the visitor book, which the president signed on that occasion, then followed by the vice president who is also the Minister for Tourism, and surprisingly the president did not use up a full page for himself but used, as all other guests subsequently, ONE line, a very humble gesture: James Michel at www.statehouse.gov.sc .]
eTN: In recent months, I often read about new investments on new islands previously uninhabited, private residences, private resorts; concerns were raised about the environmental issues, protection of water and land, flora and fauna.
Dr. Frauke: There are concerns, for instance, when developments on new islands take place about the introduction of invasive species of any sort and form; such can invade and almost take over the flora on an island if not recognized at an early stage and remedied. No country today can afford not to make use of its resources, all of its resources, but it is important that investors, developers know from the onset what terms and conditions apply, that they understand the terms of an environmental impact assessment and report and the mitigative measures, which need to be taken, must be taken, to mitigate the development impact.
So if an investor comes here, their main reason is to be part of our nature, and if that gets spoiled, their investment, too, is in danger, so it is, or should be, in their interest to support this, especially when they know at a very early stage what cost will be involved for them in addition to the building of the resort, etc., in terms of environmental protection and mitigative measures in the long term.
As long as new investors go along with this, we can live with it, but if a developer simply comes to bulldoze everything out of the way, then we have a big problem with such attitudes, with such a mindset. Environmental protection is the key for the future of the Seychelles tourism industry, so it must be at the forefront of all future developments.
At no time should we say, ok, come and invest, and then we shall see; no, we need to have all the details on the table from the beginning, including career prospects for Seychellois staff, of course, to give them opportunities through such new developments. That is the social, the cultural, component, which is just as important as the environmental and conservation components.
This comes also from my background; by education my main field would be conservation, but I also worked for some years in the ministry responsible for the environment where I was also confronted with tourism development issues. So that is not new for me and is giving me a wider perspective. In fact, I recall that during my years at that ministry, we had several students doing their master’s theses, working on sustainability issues, developing what we would today call templates, and much of that even today is still very relevant. We developed criteria, which are still being applied, and although much has developed and advanced since then, the basics are still valid. So investors need to embrace this, work within such frameworks, then new developments can be sanctioned.
eTN: Is the SIF in any way involved in the discussions over the licensing of new projects; are you consulted as a matter of cause on a formal basis? I understand from other discussions that existing resorts and hotels are being encouraged to subject themselves to ISO audits, and new projects are given a whole catalogue of added requirements now before the can proceed.
Dr. Frauke: We are part of consultative groups tasked with looking at such issues; of course, government makes use of our expertise, seeks our input, and we participate in such bodies as the environmental management committed, but about 10 other similar working groups, where we offer our knowledge and experience on a technical level. The Seychelles have an environmental management plan [present edition 2000 to 2010] to which we contributed and where we are helping with the next edition. We collaborate on national panels about climate change, sustainable tourism; there are some projects we work on under the GEF heading, on the panel of experts, or even in the implementation phases,
eTN: In closing, a personal question – how long have you been in the Seychelles and what brought you here?
Dr. Frauke: I am now living here for the last 20 years. I am married here; I met my husband at the university where we studied together, and he did not wish to remain in Germany – he wanted to come home to the Seychelles, so I then decided to move here, too, but I am very satisfied with my decision I made then – no regrets at all. It has become my home now. I spent my entire productive work life in the Seychelles after my studies, after coming here, and I always enjoyed working here, especially now as CEO of the SIF.
eTN: Thank you, Dr. Frauke, for your time in answering our questions.