Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hot Dollars from Cold Water (to cool climate)

Small Island states are being urged to harness the power of the oceans for their energy needs by innovation experts who are using cutting edge technologies. "We're talking about using cold sea water to make hard cash," says Lelei TuiSamoa LeLaulu, president of SOS Caribe, earlier this year in the Dominican Republic

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Economy and the Environment

The Central Bank of Seychelles celebrated its 31st Anniversary on November 3rd with a special event keynoted by the President of Seychelles and discussions by a panel representing key sectors. Below is what I said.

I would like you to consider the Seychelles 1 Rupee coin. On the tails side an extraordinary event is depicted. A triton shell, or lansiv in Creole, is eating a starfish, the Crown of Thorns which was feared in the 70’s and 80’s as the prime destroyer of coral reefs. And the triton was thought to be its predator.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Wind and the Sun

People often ask why solar photo voltaic systems are not used to generate electricity in Seychelles, a country famous for sun (as well as sea and sand) and for conservation of its natural environment.

Now in a different twist, Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s green energy initiative, and the Seychelles Government announced on Wednesday 28 October they will be carrying out a wind resource assessment study for the proposed wind power project. The study comes as part of a collaborative agreement signed by the two parties in January 2009 to develop renewable energy in the Seychelles.

Yes U Can Garden

Nature Seychelles' Heritage Garden at Roche Caiman was opened on 16 October by the Minster for Environment, Natural Resources and Transport, with the ever-smiling Antoine Moustache the big chief of the Seychelles Agriculture Agency facilitating things and an enthusiastic crowd supporting us.

The new theme I introduced in Seychelles through this Garden is Edible Landscaping. Now I want propagate another practice I saw in New York (of all places!) - Low-Cost Gardening or what I have dubbed “Yes, U Can Garden”. Food, and other goodies like aromatic and medicinal plants, can be grown and maintained for very little money. And, you can beat the recession, fight the food crisis, be healthy, make new friends and save genetic resources, all in one fell swoop!

Friday, October 9, 2009

A new tool for Indian Ocean marine science is launched

India launched a second satellite to study the Indian Ocean a couple of weeks ago, the application of which is of interest to the countries of East Africa and Western Indian Ocean. The Oceansat-2 will monitor the interaction between oceans and the atmosphere as part of climate studies, according to the country's space agency.

The satellite, launched from India's southeast coast, carried six nanosatellites from European universities as auxiliary payloads, said the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). It also is equipped with two solar panels projecting from its sides, for generating power and charging batteries.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Women scientists from the WIO sweep AU awards

Women scientists from Mauritius and South Africa made us proud this week by sweeping the African Union Women Scientists Regional Awards. These were presented in Addis Abba on Wednesday 9th September. The five women researchers, each of whom won a prize of US$ 20,000, are two from Mauritius, two from South Africa and one from Egypt.

Professor Ameenah Gurib-Fakim (photo), a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Mauritius, and who was Chair in Organic Chemistry won the prize in the Earth and Life Sciences Sector for creating the first full database of the Medicinal and Aromatic Plants of Mauritius between 1994-1997 (this was published in the form of 4 book volumes) and in 1999-2000, a similar database for the medicinal plants of the Indian Ocean Islands both in English and French. Professor Ameenah Gurib-Fakim had previously won the AU’s Special Award – Outstanding Contribution to Science and Role Model for African Women Scientists in April this year and in 2007 she received the prestigious International Award L’Oreal-UNESCO: ‘Women in Science for Africa’

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Crabs can tell us if conservation is successful

Whilst working on assessment and restoration projects on various Seychelles islands as part of a project funded by the GEF and World Bank, we at Nature Seychelles were struck by several questions that needed answering. We circulated these to various universities to see if we could get students to help in our work. One question that was picked up by our collaborators was whether indicator species of habitat quality could be identified. Land crabs were one potential group because they were found on all our islands.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Epiphany at the WIOMSA Symposium

The latest, and exciting, edition of the WIOMSA Marine Science Symposium was held in La Reunion from the 24th to the 27th August and was attended by the top marine scientists and managers working in East and Southern Africa and the Western Indian Ocean islands. This not-to-be-missed symposium is a landmark event organised by the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA) where the state of knowledge of many marine and coastal environmental subjects is discussed.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Yes we can make fisheries sustainable!

The world’s fisheries are in bad shape. Not only are most of them in decline but other problems such as illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, pollution and environmental destruction are mounting. The collapse of all commercial species within the next 50 years is expected if action is not taken. Customers all over the world have now become wary, even paranoid, of purchasing sea food.

But now the Labeling Program of the Seychelles Hook and Line Fishermen is up and running. This is a first-of-its-kind program in Seychelles that targets international markets to assure customers that the fish are caught responsibly and keeping to the highest standards.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Riders of the Storm: Do dragonflies really make epic journeys across the Indian Ocean like sailors of old?

“They come in by their hundreds, like fighter planes in an old war movie” says Terence Vel, referring to the swarming of dragonflies, cigal in Creole, towards the end of each year on Mahe island. Terence runs Dragonfly Watch, an educational program set up by Nature Seychelles at the Sanctuary at Roche Caiman.

Terence and I have noticed that for some species, particularly the Wandering Glider also known as the Globe Skimmer (Pantala flavescens), the breeding is obscure but large numbers suddenly appear at the Sanctuary at Roche Caiman especially in the Northwest monsoon.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Remembering George. G. Shor

George G. Shor Jr, Professor Emeritus of geophysics at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, USA died on the 3r of July . My father is probably the only person in Seychelles who remembers George Shor and gave me some details of his trip to our waters.

Shor's distinguished career included helping develop the United State’s consortium of oceanographic research ships and the creation of the California Sea Grant program. But for the countries of the Western Indian Ocean it is worthy to note that his studies included pioneering research in our region and helped lay the foundation for the theory of tectonic plates, one of the most important concepts in earth sciences.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Killer mosquitoes on mission to save mankind

Mad scientists load blood-sucking flying insects with toxic chemical bombs which are then dropped killing millions of their own kind. Science fiction? Think again. Not-so-mad researchers working in the Amazon city of Iquitos in Peru, have turned normal adult mosquitoes, the Dengue (and Yellow Fever) carrier Aedes aegypti, into infanticidal beasts by making them carry an insecticide to their breeding sites thus killing most of the eggs and larvae living there.

The insecticide, placed in resting areas of the mosquitoes, will stick to the insects’ bodies when they fly off to aquatic habitat to lay eggs. There, the insecticide will destroy immature mosquitoes at that site and wherever else they fly to deposit more eggs.

This is a huge breakthrough in mosquito control, say experts. It replaces costly and not very effective spraying of habitats, many of them hidden and cryptic, where mosquitoes lay their eggs and larvae develop. The method is also relevant to small island states where human settlements are clustered in coastal areas because it involves the control of mosquitoes that develop in small, protected aquatic habitats in urban areas

The senior author Gregor J. Devine and his colleagues from the UK, Peru, Tanzania and the US have published this work entitled “Using adult mosquitoes to transfer insecticides to Aedes aegypti larval habitats” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of June 29

The insecticide used is called pyriproxyfen which is an equivalent of an insect juvenile hormone. In the study it was placed at dissemination stations in a known resting area of mosquitoes in a cemetery in Iquitos. The pyriproxyfen was placed in only 3 to 5 percent of the total resting area, but it destroyed 42 to 98 percent of mosquitoes about to emerge at each breeding site.

Pyriproxyfen does not interfere with the fundamental behaviors of mosquitoes because it is neither lethal nor repellent to adults. "It is the act of oviposition (egg-laying) that contaminates the aquatic habitat, so the technique explicitly and precisely targets the mosquitoes' preferred breeding sites." the paper says.

Pyriproxyfen is also harmless to humans It is registered for public health use and the World Health Organization states that it is safe for drinking at 300 parts per billion, which is 1000 times the dose used by the researchers in the study.

Globally, 50 million dengue infections annually result in 500,000 cases of dengue hemorrhagic fever and 22,000 deaths. The most severe form of the disease, dengue haemorrhagic fever (DHF), strikes a half million people a year. Dengue is spread by Aedes aegypti as well as the Asian Tiger Mosquito Aedes albopictus, a widely occurring mosquito in Seychelles

The results of this study have now raised hopes that not just Dengue but other mosquito borne diseases can finally be controlled in our lifetime.

Dengue - Island Fever or Urban Disease?

Local health authorities are worried about a new Dengue outbreak in neighboring countires and have warned travelers to be on their guard and to avoid certain places. Dengue is spread by the Asian Tiger Mosquito (ATM) Aedes albopictus , and another mosquito Aedes aegypti These mosquitoes are also responsible for spreading Chikungunya.

In 1977 about 75% of the Seychelles population suffered from a Dengue epidemic. Another epidemic occurred in 1978 and 1979. Environmental health authorities speculate that the next epidemic will originate from an infected person arriving from overseas and will affect a large proportion of the population.

Some Dengue infections can lead to hemorrhagic fever. This is where blood vessels start to leak and cause bleeding from the nose, mouth, and gums. Without treatment, the blood vessels can collapse, causing shock and sometimes death.

Persons who have been infected with one or more forms of Dengue virus are at greater risk for the more severe hemorrhagic fever. There are 4 viruses that cause the disease and there are no vaccines yet to immunize people against them. With the increase in all types of virus, the occurrence of Dengue hemorrhagic fever becomes more likely, say physicians

Every year about 50 million people become infected with Dengue worldwide. The return of Dengue and the proliferation of mosquitos like the ATM are making the disease a global health threat on the same level as malaria.

The spread of Dengue reflects the ability of diseases to spread in an increasingly globalized and modern world. As with alien and pest species, the constant movement of goods and people create efficient pathways for diseases and their vectors.

Climate change, especially changes in temperature which the mosquito vectors are sensitive to, and increased precipitation (and thus more aquatic habitats being made available) can lead to increase in numbers and in their range. Global warming is definitely a factor in the spread of the disease.

The prevalence of the disease has also increased with the expansion of urban and suburban areas. Seychelles is one of the most urbanized countries in Africa and there are high densities of ATMs in our urban areas. The population of this mosquito has doubled since the 1960’s. Investigators found that flower pots and discarded containers are the main sources of breeding in and around houses in Seychelles.

Changes in lifestyles in Seychelles have resulted in more and more containers being made available for mosquito breeding. Health officials have suggested that a law on mosquito control should be established and strongly enforced. This and other measures become more urgent as other changes may also result in the growth of mosquito populations.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Climate Change increases Cyclones

For someone living on a small tropical island it’s scary to think that tropical storms may be getting worse over the years. Indeed, more evidence is piling up that global warming is increasing the intensity and number of cyclones and hurricanes. In 2005, two papers created quite a stir in the scientific community. One by Kerry Emmanuel demonstrated that in the last 50 years there had been a substantial increase in the power of cyclones in the West Pacific and Atlantic and, the other by P.J Webster and colleagues, portrayed a substantial global increase of almost 100%) in the proportion of the most severe tropical cyclones from the period from 1975 to 2004. (

Now a study published in the journal Marine Environmental Research shows that, incredibly, there has been a 5 fold increase in cyclones in the Arabian Sea since 1995. In fact the increase has been in what is described as “most intense cyclones”. The 1995-2007 periods has seen five times the number of these cyclones than in the previous 25 years from 1970 to 1995

The paper entitled “Response of the Arabian Sea to global warming and associated regional climate shift” by Prasanna S. Kumar and colleagues states that it’s not just the number but also intensity of these cyclones which has increased. Cyclones with a wind speed greater than 100 km per hour are termed as ‘most intense cyclones’.

The authors say that “The response of the Arabian Sea to global warming is the major disturbance in the natural decadal cycle in the sea surface temperature (SST) after 1995, followed by a secular warming”.

The “signatures of this climate-shift are also perceptible over the adjacent landmass of India as progressively warmer winters, and decreased decadal monsoon rainfall.” The climatic changes have “possible impact on frequency and intensity of cyclones, summer monsoon rainfall, wheat production, land vegetation cover and frequency of heat spells.” Since more than 80 per cent of the rainfall over India occurs during summer monsoon, it is expected to have a major influence on the vegetation cover.

These climate changes have led to a rainfall deficiency of 71 mm during 1995-2005 compared to deficiency of 8 mm during 1985-1995. The rainfall deficiency could also lead to a drinking water crisis.

Increases in intensity and number of cyclones, hurricanes and other storm events do not bode well for the Indian Ocean region. It may mean that countries in our region which at present are not directly affected by cyclones will feel the full impact of these changes in the near future.

Cyclone experts say that in recent years the world has experienced an increase in economic damage and disturbance by tropical cyclones. Large loss of human life will continue in developing countries, they say. Projected sea level rises should also be of concern in the context of society’s vulnerability to cyclone-induced storm surges. This is because the main cause of death in the major cyclone disasters in history has been salt-water flooding associated with storm surges.

In a Statement on Tropical Cyclones and Climate Change authored by participants of the WMO International Workshop on Tropical Cyclones in 2006, it is stated that "Despite the diversity of research opinions on this issue it is agreed that if there has been a recent increase in tropical cyclone activity that is largely anthropogenic in origin, then humanity is faced with a substantial and unanticipated threat." (

Friday, July 10, 2009

Sorghum Superhero and the divide between African mainland and island states

The 2009 World Food Prize, worth USD 250,000 has been awarded to Dr. Gebisa Ejeta an Ethiopian who is professor of agronomy at Purdue University in the US. ( Ironically, the prize flags up the divide between mainland Africa and at least one of its island states.

Known as the Sorghum Superhero, Ejeta has been honored for developing Africa's first hybrid and high-yielding sorghum varieties tolerant to drought and the devastating Striga seed. This in turn accelerated crop productivity and gave rise to the first commercial sorghum seed industry in Sudan. By 1999, one million acres of the hybrid had been harvested in Sudan, says the Science and Development Network (

But Ejeta’s work is seemingly irrelevant to us here in Seychelles. Sorghum is so little know in this African island nation that it has no local name. I have tried in vain to quiz experienced agronomists and farmers in Seychelles for a Creol name for Sorgum. Whilst sorghum is one of the most essential grain crops in Africa (made into breads, porridges, and beverages), its importance in Seychelles has been supplemented by rice and wheat and others such as maize.

Yet, sorghum grows well in Seychelles. At the award winning Heritage Gardens at Roche Caiman, Nature Seychelles has grown three harvests of sorghum with little effort. But because this grain is not utilized by the local population, the birds have befitted from nutritious feed.

My father, coming from an Indian tradition, gave me the seeds to plant at the Heritage Garden. He himself had grown the plant many years before on a property by the sea so he knew that it would do well here. He even tried to mill the seeds and make bread out of it.

Rice and wheat are not grown in Seychelles but are imported. On the other hand Sorghum grows very well. So why is it we are not growing this important food plant? Is it simply out of tradition and “what came first”? Whatever the case, should we not be eating foods that we can grow locally instead of relying on imports to satisfy some of our basic nutritional needs?

After last year's global food crisis, national food security strategies in many countries have taken on board a very important element of self suficency, abandoned by so called modern economies some time ago in favour of focusing on competitive advantages. We should start doing the same right here in Seychelles.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Resilient Ecosystems- a comment on the economic crisis

I flew into Mumbai, India last year on December 21, the same day the modern wing of the Taj Mahal Hotel was re-opened after being damaged during the Mumbai terror attacks. Yes, the heritage wing of the hotel which had almost been gutted was still closed but the official re-opening in the presence of a packed crowd of India’s glitterati proved to many the resilience of the people of Mumbai.

Resilience is a word that is bandied around nowadays. Much of what we know about resilience as a science comes from a relatively new discipline in ecology which has generated many papers and books. To some, especially those working on issues to do with small island developing states (SIDS), resilience is the other face of vulnerability. Many vulnerable human and natural ecosystems display resilience, or not, when hit by shocks.

In simplistic terms a resilient ecosystem, be it human or natural, is one that can withstand shocks and rebuild itself when necessary. Just as the people of Mumbai seemingly bounced back after the horrific attacks, so it is that resilient ecosystems have the ability to absorb blows and come back to some state of “normality” without much delay. But, it’s never that simple. The state that emerges after shocks may be somewhat different. The raucous, easy, free-wheeling democracy that was previously evident in Mumbai has now given way to a police regulated city with heavy security installed at hotels, cinemas and historical sites and police check points set up everywhere.

Inevitably, we see resilience now being used in the context of the global economic crisis. Pundits, journalists and pop-economists are debating which country will be more resilient in managing the crisis. For us in Seychelles we have a double whammy to cope with; the national debt servicing plus the economic woes of the developed world which provides us with tourists, investment and development assistance.

I believe Seychelles as a nation displays many aspects of resilience necessary to rebuild its system. But not all parts of the system will end up the same as before, meaning not all parts of society will be able to withstand the blows as well. There are similar situations in natural ecosystem. Studies of impacts of cyclones and hurricanes show that water quality and phytoplankton productivity in the sea for example– a measure of the health of the food web – are impacted by winds and heavy rainfall, but return to normal within months. Not all components of the marine system are equally resilient. After hurricanes, many coral reefs suffer massive damage and the ecosystem can shift to a different regime, one that may not be as productive or diverse.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Chagos-The most pristine marine environment on earth?

Diego Garcia, in the Chagos archipelago, is back in the international news with the release of a new book in the United States entitled Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military base on Diego Garcia, by David Vine. It is what the publishers call a “groundbreaking work that dares to expose the other Guantánamo”. The book was officially launched in Seychelles and Mauritius in June this year. The author will donate all the book royalties to the Chagossians.

Seychellois, especially those of a certain generation, have a good knowledge of the Chagos. The coconut plantation on Diego Garcia was managed from Seychelles. My father's company on Mahe provided fuel and supplies once upon a time to the Chagos and also exported the copra from there. The Chagossians who returned to Seychelles integrated into our society, with their Association still very active.Many other people around the world, through the international media, know about the Chagossians and their fight to return to "Diego "

What is less well known is that many scientists believe that the Chagos - a UK Overseas Territory - is probably the most pristine tropical marine environment on Earth. The archipelago has the world's largest coral atoll, its healthiest reefs and its cleanest seas, they say

A booklet was launched in March this year called The Chagos Archipelago: Its Nature and the Future, to start a discussion on a programme “to create one of the world's greatest conservation areas”. The archipelago is described as comparable with the Galapagos Islands or the Great Barrier Reef in environmental and scientific importance.

The publication flags up the Chagos as the United Kingdom's greatest area of marine biodiversity by far. The area is a crucial refuge, staging post and breeding ground for marine life, it says. The Chagos also provides a scientific benchmark for an environment without degradation; this is important for helping to deal with problems such as pollution, climate change and loss of biodiversity. It calls for people to support these ideas and encourage the British Government to make the conservation area a reality. This is a great start, in my opinion, as it sets aside a very important area of the planet and defers benefits to future generation - hopefully generations of Chagossians whose fate is currently a political hot potato.

Drawing on best practice from other sites, the aims of the conservation area would be: to protect nature, including fish stocks (benefiting countries such as Seychelles in the region); to benefit science, and support action against damaging climate change; and to be compatible with security and be financially sustainable. In my view, one of the major aims should be to provide livelyhood opportunities and environmental services for Chagossians upon their return.

Pollution, overfishing and climate change are affecting the oceans worldwide, but the creation of a conservation area around the Chagos will help preserve this pristine marine environment and secure rich natural heritage that many people say the Chagossians are actually the stewards of.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tsunami predictions are plain wrong

"I just wanted to let you know to stay away from the beaches all around in the month of July. There is a prediction that there will be another tsunami or earthquake hitting on 22 July 2009. It is also when there will be a sun eclipse,"

This is a typical "Tsunami Warning" email message that has been filling my inbox over the last month. The message goes on to say that an earthquake is predicted to hit Japan on July 22nd, which would trigger a Tsunami traveling as far as Seychelles Mauritius and the East African coast.

The prediction is based on one fact: a solar eclipse will take place on July 22nd 2009 directly to the south west of Japan. This eclipse according to the prediction circulating on the World Wide Web means that the gravitational pull of the Sun and Moon pulling together will 1. Lift the earth’s tectonic plates in that region of Asia; 2. Cause the tide to rise more than usual and 3. Cause an underground molten magma tide to dip and raise the plates following the water tide.

On July 22nd 2009, according to this prediction, a 6+ Magnitude Quake will take place at 3:00PM Local Japanese time. This will be followed by two level 5+ Earthquakes and a Tsunami between 5:00PM and 7:00PM. The Tsunami will start out in the Pacific Ocean and hit all the islands to the south west of Japan , Indonesia and New Zealand and also the Western Indian Ocean to Seychelles Mauritius and East Africa.

The prediction, outlined by a computer games developer called Britton La Roche in the US, is based on the following theory. A solar eclipse means that the moon is blocking the sun. The moon has enough gravitational pull to cause the tides and other natural phenomena on earth. The sun has enough gravitational pull to keep the earth in orbit. The theory is that during a solar eclipse, the moon has the Sun's added pull on the Earth's tectonic plates. When the Sun and Moon are together on one side of the planet, they can supposedly pull together and lift up the tectonic plate, just beneath the eclipse. This causes the plate to shift upward, and then an earthquake is generated when the lifted plate gets the little extra push (lift) it needed to move over its neighboring plate.

But this has been pooh poohed by the scientific community. The first to react was the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS). Dr. Kerry Sieh of EOS affirms on the EOS website that to date, scientists have not found any significant correlation between solar eclipses and earthquakes. Since 1900, for example, of 82 earthquakes greater than magnitude 8 worldwide, only two occurred close to the time of a solar eclipse. However, these were not only partial eclipses but also far from the locations of the earthquakes. Dr Sieh is visiting from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in the US. His principal research interest is earthquake geology. He, students and colleagues are studying the megathrust that produced the devastating giant Sumatran earthquakes and Indian Ocean Tsunamis of 2004 and 2005.

“Earthquakes are not caused by gravitational pull”, says Dr. Kate Hutton, a seismologist also at Caltech, reported by Earthquakes are caused by the accumulation of strain in the Earth's crust, she adds. The U.S. Geological Survey has also stated: "Neither the USGS nor Caltech nor any other scientists have ever predicted a major earthquake. They do not know how, and they do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future."

Professor Ian Main of the University of Edinburgh, UK writing in the journal Nature about earthquakes says that in the USA, the emphasis has long been shifted to a better understanding of the earthquake process, and on an improved calculation of the seismic hazard. In Japan, particularly in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake in 1995, there is a growing realization that successful earthquake prediction might not be realistic. In China, thirty false alarms have brought power lines and business operations to a standstill in the past three years, leading to recent government plans to clamp down on unofficial predictions, he says.

Dr. Chris Rowan a geologist specializing in paleomagnetism, also at the University of Edinburgh writes in his blog that “Any geologist would be celebrating a genuine, proven, method of earthquake prediction: but we're clearly not there yet. Right now, the best we can get is a hazy view of tectonic storm clouds building on the horizon, and we lack even the equivalent of a barometer, let alone advanced tools like weather satellites, to give us a more specific forecast. It would be irresponsible to claim otherwise.”

Poor old Britton La Roche has been dropped in it because he was simply theorizing so that he or others could think about building a Game Simulator. In fact on his blog he says “This is a theory and I have no background in earth science or seismology. In short, I have no valid qualification to back this prediction.” But the media and the internet community have reacted as if this was a scientific fact and have managed to stir panic throughout Asia and the Indian Ocean region

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The world has become generic

Victoria, the capital city of the Seychelles, looks as if another place has come visiting and decided to stay! This small city that I know so well from childhood wanderings in back streets, back of buildings, under bridges and even in streams is starting to look like any other town anywhere else. Large buildings seemingly from a well-thumbed architectural digest have popped up. And the landscaping, apparently originally planned by experts from Singapore, fits in this tidy and clean but bland and generic cityscape.

But it does not have to be that way. Taking a break today from the computer screen I was wandering around the native plants we have growing around our Centre at Roche Caiman, a relatively new District bordering Victoria and I noticed that the Wrights Gardenia was flowering. I already smelled the heavy scent from the beautiful flowers as I approached the tree.

Wrights Gardenia is a plant that grows only in the Seychelles (endemic in biological parlance) and is found in its natural state only on Aride island, near Praslin. I think the flower is probably one of the most beautiful of the endemic trees of Seychelles. It’s named after Edward Percival Wright who visited Seychelles in the 19th Century.

The plant we have growing was one of four, grown from seed collected by Terence Vel our Techical Officer at the forestry station at Sans Souci, Mahe, where some of these trees are growing. They had been planted there by the former forestry director.

I think we are the only organization in Seychelles that landscapes around its building with native plants. The plants we have growing in the front of the Centre are native and were collected and planted by myself, Terence and Lucina, the Centre caretaker. But buildings and public places around Victoria and environs are still landscaped with exotic plants imported from various places. This despite the Government’s own campaign to rid Seychelles of alien invasive plants.

Many alien plants not only take a lot of resources, like water, to maintain, but also gives our country the same feel and look as any other place in the world. Popular Hawaiian and South American plants have tended to homogenize the world. Everything looks the same. What has become of diversity? Is the whole world doomed to look like “More of the Same”? Or can we use our own native plants to showcase our difference and our uniqueness?

Even a so called “recalcitrant” plant like Wrights Gardenia can be maintained and used in landscaping. If it can grow at sea level mostly on coral fill at our Centre, then with some nurturing it, and many other unique plants of Seychelles, can be kept by most building and home owners. Go for it people! Let us celebrate diversity rather than uniformity!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Somali Piracy started with a fight over fish

I tried to interest a popular island biodiversity email group in the following article but the moderator said it had nothing to do with biodiversity. This shows a complete lack of understanding about environmental management because actually the Somali piracy has its roots in a war over biodiversity resources - fish - as I explain below.

The exploits of the Somali pirates as far as the Seychelles have struck fear across the board and slammed the region’s economy. The Western Indian Ocean tuna fishery fell by 30% last year owing to pirate attacks on tuna vessels. As national and international military forces scale up their responses, and national and international press give us almost blow by blow reports, we need to ask ourselves the right question so as to get the most lasting solution to the problem. And I doubt that a purely military response will solve the piracy because I think the problem has not been framed properly.

The piracy problem in Somalia has its roots in the instability of the country after the civil war but also in another form of piracy practiced by foreign nations in Somali waters. This is a dirty little secret that is not talked about in the media but lies at the core of the problem.

Andrew Mwanguru of the Seafarers Assistance Programme in Nairobi says that since the civil war began in Somalia around 1991, illegal fishing trawlers started to trespass and fish in Somali waters even within the 12 mile territorial waters. These vessels encroached on local fishing grounds. A struggle then began between local fishers and the illegal fishing vessels. The foreign trawlers used strong arm tactics against the local fishers, even pouring boiling water on them and crushing the smaller boats and killing fishers. Mwanguru says that it is little wonder that the locals began to arm themselves.

The cycle of warfare has been escalating ever since. At one time there were up to 800 illegal fishing vessels in Somali waters. Most of these vessels are owned by European and Asian companies. Once the Somalis started to seize the foreign illegal vessels to make them stop they were approached to ransom them back. Thus, their appetite for bigger and better targets started to grow.

The problem is exacerbated by the extreme poverty in the country. According to Oxfam over three million Somalis need desperate assistance and one million have fled their homes in the past two years. Oxfam policy advisor Robert Maletta says, "The piracy issue that has grabbed international headlines is a symptom of deeper issues that have gone unaddressed since the collapse of the national government."

Brett Schaefer, Jay Kingham fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at The Heritage Foundation writes that only ground and sea based military action will not be successful at stopping the piracy but that other matters have to be taken in hand including a recognition of the failure of trying to impose a Centralized State Authority, helping local Somali authorities to improve their governance structures and mature politically, increasing international cooperation to dissuade Somali pirates, and improving the lives of poor and destitute Somalis .

Meanwhile people in East Africa assert that the pirates are investing heavily in some countries. In Kenya for example it is alleged that the pirates have entered the transport,housing and fuel markets in a big way. What does this portend for these local economies and societies and will it help Somalia at the end of the day?

Tagging Tuna in the Indian Ocean

Many people believe research is a waste of time and money for small countries like Seychelles. But when you are dealing with fish like tuna that can swim long distances at speeds of up to 70 kilometers an hour, that are heavily exploited and whose trade runs into billions of US Dollars, knowing more about their habits is critical to our own welfare. One of the ways to do this is to put tags on them and when they are fished to get the date of capture, the location and biological details.

I learnt to tag tuna on a Japanese research fishing vessel in the distant reaches of the Seychelles EEZ. That was back in 1987. At the time tuna tagging was only done sporadically and in fact when I returned from that long trip the French scientists working for what was then called ORSTOM were very keen to know the details of the Japanese tagging program.

Now, the results of the first comprehensive tuna tagging program in the Indian Ocean have started to come in. The Regional Tuna Tagging Project –Indian Ocean (RTTP-IO) began in 2002 with an initial tagging project in Mayotte and with feasibility studies. The intensive and large scale tagging began in 2005 and ran up to 2007.

Funding of 14 million Euros was made available by the European Union and the project was implemented by the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) and supervised by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC). The success of the tagging project depends on the good will of the fishers who recover and report the tagged fish. To date, RTTP-IO says that 26,800 tagged fish have been recovered and reported. The best data comes from at-sea recoveries by tuna purse seiners where the fish can be kept and biological measurement taken.

One of the first results coming out of the project demonstrates that the Yellowfin tuna stock is close to or already being over fished. This is a serious state of affairs and matches other studies that have been done on this species. Assessment of skipjack and bigeye tuna will now be undertaken using the tagging data.

The Indian Ocean tuna fishery is one of the most lucrative fisheries in the world. The annual catch in the Indian Ocean of almost a million tons has a landed value of more than 2 billion US dollars. For Seychelles, as is the case for other involved countries, this industry plays a vital role in the economy. Knowing more about the state of tuna stocks will help us maintain their biological resilience and in turn maintain our own economic resilience.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sustainable energy for a sustainable economy

“I’d put my money on the sun and on solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait ‘til oil and coal run out before we tackle that”, wrote Thomas Edison at the turn of the 20th Century.

Well, this homily applies to Seychelles because the country’s energy bill is so large that the Government has to borrow money to buy oil. The oil bill has put a strain on the country’s finances. In fact, Seychelles probably consumes more fossil fuel per capita than any other Small Island Developing State.

Therefore a move to more sustainable energy systems would not only be good for the environment but for the economy as it would reduce the large foreign currency outlays. At the moment except for some limited photo voltaic electricity generation on some small islands the energy needs of this country are met though imported oil.

If we take a look at Mauritius we see an energy picture that is worth examining in more detail. Mauritius has adopted the “Sustainable Island” slogan to pursue a path to renewable energy. Currently, 20% of Mauritius' electricity is generated from renewable biomass systems.

In recent years thousands of Mauritians have obtained loans at a preferential interest rate from the Development Bank of Mauritius to purchase solar water heaters. Small photo voltaic solar panels to power sodium lamps at night are a common sight in many public gardens, parks and car park areas.

Innovations like a new project to build a tidal power station to generate electricity from the sea are going ahead. A UNDP and Agence Française de Développement project is underway to provide technical assistance to install a wind turbine as a pilot for developing a larger wind farm, to develop energy audits and to use solar thermal energy in large institutions such as hospitals.
Mauritius plans to produce 40% of its electricity from renewable sources within the next 10 years. And it seems it will meet this target. As a major route to energy savings, it also introduced Daylight Savings Time (DST) in 26th October on a trial basis. Simulations suggest that the country would use 15 megawatts less of energy through DST.

Yes, Mauritius is fortunate in having sugar cane waste or bagasse since this is a vital component of the government’s national target for renewable energy. But its other energy strategies may be relevant to Seychelles. Whatever the case may be, it is imperative that we adopt a renewable energy policy and national targets and move to implementation of renewable energy programs across the board to meet these targets.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Seychelles Food Security: Try Edible Landscaping

A well known agronomist who recently visited Nature Seychelles’s Heritage Garden at Roche Caiman told me that this demonstration Garden, jam packed with fruit trees, crops, grains and vegetables, was a landscape that needed to be replicated across homes, in back yards, on reclaimed land and around buildings to produce food to feed Seychelles in these difficult times. That remark got me thinking because I had just read an article from the City University of London that made similar observations about Britain.

The City University says Britain will have to rely on a return to past methods of food production. The country needs to re-learn the gardening skills it lost a century ago and to change its diet to one that includes less meat, fewer dairy products and more fruit and vegetables. Britain produces less than 10 per cent of the fruit it eats and experts say that the country has to consider planting on a massive scale as well as encouraging people to eat more fruit and vegetable.

The skyrocketing rise in food prices has made most countries re-think their food strategy. With the multiple shocks of high oil prices and domino effect down the food production chain, increase in biofuel production, the credit crunch, higher demand for food in India and China, and the carbon footprint involved in transportation of food, a total revolution in every nation’s agriculture is needed to save them from serious food shortages

The City University says it is no longer acceptable that 40 per cent of the grain produced in Britain is used to feed livestock that provide meat and dairy products. Growing grain which is then fed to animals is an inefficient way to produce protein. Livestock should be confined to hillsides where they can graze and not use up grain that has required oil-based fertilizers for its growth. Prime land should be protected from development and used to feed people directly.

If countries like Britain are already discussing such enormous changes to food production, what of Seychelles? The loss of arable land over the years, the rise in oil prices, and now the impacts of our economic restructuring program all lead to one inescapable conclusion. In the short term, many of our people may not be able to nourish themselves or their families properly.

We need a radical re-thinking of food security and the rapid implementation of activities that include home and community gardens that generate local food for local people. I suggest that, among other things, we need edible landscapes that look like the Heritage Gardens at Roche Caiman across all the urban areas of Seychelles

Tsunamis- Past and Present

1993 – I was with a Dutch coral reef geologist at Anse Boileau looking at ancient reef deposits when a local resident showed us sandy sediments inland that had been exposed by some excavations. The geologist believed these were reef sediments deposited there many years ago by a huge storm or upheaval.

Now, scientists have found layers of similar sandy sediment dropped by a 600 year old tsunami under more recent layers deposited in 2004 in Thailand’s Phra Thong Island. These findings have been published in the journal Nature.

The two sandy sediments in Thailand are similar in thickness, suggesting a tsunami 600 years ago similar to that in 2004. Both tsunamis were caused by earthquakes. The longer the intervals between tsunami events, the more stress that can build up at the tectonic plate boundary and the larger the earthquake will be.

Were the sediments we found at Anse Boileau deposited 600 years ago by a tsunami or earlier by another event? Indeed a tsunami did hit Seychelles in August 1883 when the massive explosions and collapse of the volcano of Krakatoa generated large waves. These waves destroyed 295 towns and villages in the Sunda Strait in Western Java and Southern Sumatra drowning 36,417 people.

The Krakatoa tsunami, being of volcanic origin was only destructive locally in Indonesia, but in Seychelles the effect was apparently seen through a tidal effect that temporarily emptied the Victoria harbor area and left fish and other sea life stranded. If it did generate waves in Seychelles that were similar to those of the 2004 tsunami is not well known.

The 2004 tsunami, unlike the one from the Krakatoa disaster, was caused by an earthquake off the western coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia. The resulting tsunami devastated the shores of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, South India, Thailand and Seychelles.

With the new discoveries in Thailand, there is evidence that a similar earthquake-generated tsunami occurred 600 years ago and may have hit countries like Seychelles. This is important because it will build more knowledge about the time intervals between these earthquakes.

But tsunamis can also be detected by signs that appear in the natural environment. In Seychelles and elsewhere coastal animals like crabs and turtles disappeared hours before the 2004 tsunami. The sea gypsies of Indonesia who had ancestral knowledge of previous tsunamis saw the signs and saved coastal villages by giving them early warning.

Both science and indigenous knowledge are useful in making sense of the natural world. This proves that we must look at nature in a more holistic fashion and we must quiz local people for whatever knowledge they may have.

Mosquitoes and Fevers

As the rainy season approaches I have noticed that the Asian Tiger Mosquito, that striped flying monster which is the carrier or vector for both chikungunya and dengue, is increasing in number and range. Research also suggests that climate change is assisting the spread of this mosquito in many parts of the world.

And the chikungunya virus keeps mutating. We already know that the last Indian Ocean outbreaks were caused by a different strain of the virus. This strain differs from those involved in earlier outbreaks and makes the virus more likely to enter the cells of the Asian Tiger Mosquito and replicate after the insect has fed on the blood of an infected person. In fact, the symptoms are also changing. At a meeting of WHO last month it was suggested revising the definition of chikungunya fever because researchers have noticed the symptoms have changed.

This points to the fact that there needs to be timely and better identification of fever cases. But for prevention there needs to be early warning systems set up in countries like Seychelles. In La Reunion, where the chikungunya outbreaks caused massive health, economic and social problems, a surveillance system is now in place. This collects information on the mosquito density in every area which is then used in scientific models to predict where the next outbreak might occur. The system gives citizens and government advance warning.

The mosquito density is only a possible indication of the presence of the chikungunya virus and not a certainty, but it does give an advance warning for early action. In some countries better early warning systems especially based on gis (geographical information system) are under development. gis -based modeling can predict chikungunya-prone areas using information on the distribution of the mosquito vectors, rainfall, temperature, altitude, vegetation cover and urbanization.

More sophisticated data such as on the mosquitoes’ ability to transmit the disease and the susceptibility of people in different parts of the country can also be used in GIS-based models to predict the spread of the disease and help pinpoint the time when an outbreak could become an epidemic.

In Seychelles such GIS based modeling would be very useful. Both Dengue and chikungunya cause huge hardships, loss of productivity and losses of millions of Rupees. The country does have a GIS unit with good GIS maps. Perhaps donors should be approached to assist with setting up with a GIS-based early warning system. Putting this in place is not as simple as it sounds but is greatly needed because early action based on early warning is critical in preventing an epidemic.