Seychelles Islands Foundation-Getting it right for the coco de mer


20-April-2009

Endemic to Seychelles and occurring naturally on only two islands in the world, the coco de mer is also classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and requires protection if it is to survive in the long term.

How to reconcile these conflicting interests of harvesting for socio-economic purposes and conservation of a threatened species is a familiar challenge.

In many such cases, over-harvesting wins at the cost of a species’ existence, a fact that has been tragically documented by records of numerous extinctions, especially on islands, across the world.

To prevent this from happening to the coco de mer, the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF) is working in collaboration with the Praslin Development Fund, the Seychelles Centre for Marine Research and Technology-Marine Parks Authority and the Department of Environment to determine a sustainable level of harvesting for the species.

Put simply, how many nuts is it possible to harvest without causing a population decline?
This is the basic question addressed by research initiated recently by the SIF and Dr Lucy Rist, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

Existing information on the population, sex ratio and growth of the coco de mer was used to begin to determine how long the trees live and how many nuts can be produced in the lifetime of a typical female tree.

Three main preliminary conclusions based on this data were presented at a well-attended public talk by Dr Rist on April 3:
• The coco de mer is now being overharvested, and the population is likely to decline under the current harvesting regime;
• Due to the longevity of the species and difficulty of collecting accurate long-term growth data, the information collected so far is not sufficient to fine-tune the model and make more accurate predictions;

• Better use could be made of the kernels, which are currently under-used but have the potential to generate almost as much revenue as the nuts themselves, so harvesting fewer nuts would produce the same or even greater financial benefits.
The research needed to accurately determine the sustainable harvesting level requires a long-term significant commitment from all those involved in coco de mer management.

As a result of this initial work, and based on its recommendations, the SIF and its collaborators have committed themselves to and started long-term monitoring of the coco de mer. This will lead to a clearer picture of population dynamics and enable more accurate predictions and recommendations to be made concerning the effect of the current harvesting regime on population viability.

As a safeguard for the population, the SIF also sells viable coco de mer nuts to Seychellois and encourages growing these in gardens to increase the total population in the long term.

However, efforts by any organisation to protect the species in the long term will be in vain if poaching of nuts continues at the current level, which effectively counteracts any attempts by legal producers to keep harvesting to a sustainable level.

Extra measures to prevent poaching are under way, and in the meantime the SIF, with its partners, will continue to research the ecology of the coco de mer to identify the most effective strategy for protecting the species and for sustainable harvesting.

Contributed by the Seychelles Islands Foundation

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