In November 2013 a whirlwind hit Seychelles.
On Denis Island in 2010 I, with the help of volunteers, had made a very promising start to the eradication of Common Mynas to prevent their predation of some of Seychelles’ endemic birds that had been on the verge of extinction. Unfortunately, the project had waned in 2011 due to insufficiently dynamic management in Seychelles and our inability to find volunteers to complete the project, which had by then petered out. In January 2014 I received an email from Arjan de Groene, who announced himself as the new General Manager of Green Islands Foundation (GIF), the NGO for whom I had begun the Myna eradication. He bombarded me with questions,
impressing me with his enthusiasm, and impressing me even more when he had secured all the funding and the logistics were in place by May 2014, when Christine Larose and I found ourselves back on Denis Island training new volunteers in the practicalities of catching Mynas. Arjan continually monitored progress, located and recruited more volunteers as necessary and, when trapping became difficult, he found and recruited a marksman to shoot the remaining birds. The eradication, only the second worldwide of large a large population of Mynas, was completed in March 2015. In 2016 Arjan revitalised another lapsed Myna eradication, this time on North Island. Liaison with the owners of the island and Seychelles Ministry of Environment, Energy and Climate Change resulted in further funding and this project began with Christine and me training new volunteers in May; with his constant assistance and guidance this project is also making good headway. These proved to be classic examples of Arjan’s drive, determination and management, negotiating and persuasion skills, attributes that have since been applied and tested in further projects under the banner of GIF.
The Myna eradication was a component of a wider UNDP/GEF/Government of Seychelles-funded project to assist with the identification of and support for Protected Areas in Seychelles. This included terrestrial work involving forest rehabilitation in addition to the Myna project, and also marine investigations to provide evidence in support of designation of marine PAs around Denis and North Islands. On behalf of GIF, Arjan negotiated with owners of these two private
islands and government and, initially with assistance from the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles but later fully under the GIF banner he made sure that regular monitoring of biodiversity on the islands’ reefs and seagrass beds continued to answer several questions relating to the value and resilience of these habitats. This includes surveying and analysis of fish community structure, benthic cover and top predator inventories. These data will be used to support formal designation of these hotspots as PAs and inform their subsequent management.
Arjan has also been active in environmental education in Seychelles, mostly targeted at children and fishermen. I was fortunate to be able to attend an exhibition in the Natural History Museum that highlighted the importance of sharks to marine biodiversity and at which GIF launched a booklet on shark identification. Another project on sharks, aimed primarily at fishermen and boat owners but also informing children and the general public, concerned explaining the environmental consequences of shark finning, hoping to reduce the practice in Seychelles. The message was amplified by a shark float in the islands’ carnival parade – this was in collaboration with the Seychelles Fishermen’s and Boat Owners’ Association, FBOA!
Recognising that other fish species are also threatened but that imposition of regulations on fishermen can be counterproductive, with support from GEF and the Japanese Satoyama Initiative Arjan, with the assistance of local fisheries expert John Nevill, initiated a scheme where fishermen themselves will set their own guidelines to protect threatened fish species; this is an entirely new approach in Seychelles. Another educational project aimed at children involves collaboration between GIF and SYAH, a local youth NGO. The aim is to rehabilitate a mangrove wetland adjacent to the International School, just north of Victoria, Seychelles’ capital. The School and SYAH will jointly manage the site and use it as an educational facility.
During his time at the helm of GIF Arjan did not forget the main face of Seychelles to the outside world – tourism. Both North and Denis Islands are high-end tourist venues that also accommodate components of Seychelles unique biodiversity and, importantly, following the eradication of rats and cats some years ago, they now have the potential to expand their contributions to sustaining unique plant and animal life that is rare or extinct on other islands. With enhanced training for island hotel staff, collaboration with areas of expertise within and outside Seychelles, including the University of Seychelles, Arjan’s vision is to increase the number of tourism operators using nature-based tourism in Seychelles as their business model, understanding that the natural resources around them are Seychelles tourism’s gold-mine, never depleted if managed well. This project will also provide training to local conservationists which will give them the knowledge and the tools to assist hotels and islands achieving this goal. This work is on-going and I hope it will inject genuine “eco” into Seychelles tourism.
As a result of Arjan’s energy and drive over the past three years, GIF is now a very dynamic NGO with a tranche of important projects completed and in progress. In addition, he leaves GIF staffed entirely by Seychellois, a rare achievement among NGOs in Seychelles. He is a mover par excellence, eager to design and begin projects, secure the funding and determined to complete them. He will be missed by all who have worked with him.
Thank you Arjan for your invaluable contribution to Seychelles conservation and very best wishes for your future career.