Up Close ... with Nirmal Jivan Shah, chief executive of Nature Seychelles-‘Conservation is not just a job – it’s a passion’


Nirmal Jivan ShahBorn and brought up in Victoria, his ancestors had arrived in the Seychelles from Gujurat province in India 125 years ago as traders. His father, the late Kantilal Jivan, or Kanti as he was better known, was actively passionate about Seychellois culture and the environment and he also had a keen love for photography. Mr Shah was an only child, and as his mother passed away when he was very small, he developed a very close bond with his father.

His passion for all things to do with the environment came at a young age. His father always extended generous hospitality to foreign scientists arriving in Seychelles for research purposes, so from the age of six, young Mr Shah was out in the field with them, getting to understand a little about their work. According to Mr Shah, this was a time in Seychelles when no-one was doing environmental work or even knew about it or why it should be done, so he feels it was particularly fortuitous for him to have been exposed to it at such an early age.

His career
After obtaining his ‘O’ Levels in Seychelles, Mr Shah then went to India to study for a degree in business management. The plan was for him to join his father in running the family business, but Mr Shah soon realised that he wanted something more, so his father allowed him to study in Texas, USA for the following six years, where he completed his master’s degree in marine biology and thereafter his PhD.

After a few years working as the assistant director for research at the Seychelles Fishing Authority, he became the director of the newly created government department of Conservation and National Parks in 1990. He left the public sector in 1993 to start his own environmental consultancy called ENVI.R.O, doing the first-ever environmental impact assessments for Seychelles and researched climate change and coastal change management. This work proved fruitful and Mr Shah was later hired by the World Bank to do similar consultancy work throughout East Africa.

Mr Shah is the founder and current president of the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (Wiomsa), a regional organisation dedicated to promoting the educational, scientific and technological development of all aspects of marine sciences, with a view toward sustaining the use and conservation of its marine resources.

Birds on the brink
In partnership with Birdlife International, Mr Shah set up a non-governmental organisation in 1998 then known as Birdlife Seychelles, which would later become Nature Seychelles. This organisation has helped to save a number of endangered bird species endemic to the Seychelles, like the Seychelles warbler, the Seychelles magpie robin and the Seychelles flycatcher. 

“Setting up Birdlife Seychelles was a very big job. The Seychelles had the most threatened birds in Africa because since colonial times, most of the coastal and mid-level forests had been destroyed to make way for coconut plantations or secondary forests containing alien species. Most of these birds were isolated on small islands in what we call relic populations. So our work was basically to try and save these birds, because there were very few of them left; for example there were only 19 individual magpie robins left, and now there are about 250 magpie robins on five islands.”

“All these birds are now increasing in numbers, so this is actually a huge international conservation success story, cited all over the world as one of the few examples where birds which were on the brink of extinction have been saved in our lifetime by conservation action.”

In later years, Nature Seychelles went on to use its experience from restoring ecosystems on land for bird populations to restore ecosystems underwater in its coral rescue project. After two years of painstakingly growing tiny coral cuttings in undersea nurseries, the team is now transplanting the baby coral to revitalise damaged and bleached reefs.

Passion and motivation
Mr Shah says that what keeps him going is the belief that Seychelles is a place where the opportunity to make a difference is available to everyone.

“I love Seychelles. I think it is one of the most beautiful places in the world, it’s a place where individuals can make a difference and I can see the difference that I have made here, both in people’s lives as well as the life of the nation. In most other countries you get lost in this huge environment and your voice gets drowned out in the crowd.”

Changing attitudes
Mr Shah believes that an attitude shift needs to take place among Seychellois – a view which seems to be supported by the government’s renesans sosyal initiative. Discussing the problem of Seychellois who pollute beaches, streams and roadsides with litter and other refuse, he believes the problem is not a lack of education, but rather a mentality which needs to be challenged.

“Unfortunately, we have created a top-down culture where some people still think that it is the responsibility of the government to clean up after them,” he says.

“Even now when there have been a lot of changes in society, people still don’t want to take responsibility for their own actions. We have to see a shift in attitudes, and we are seeing a shift in attitude, because the top government authorities are now telling people to take responsibility for their lives and jobs.

“We need people to understand that all of us are the custodians of this little island republic. We can’t just leave it all to the authorities; we are responsible for our own destiny.”

Green Health
In addition to Nature Seychelles’ usual work educating schoolchildren on conservation, Mr Shah decided to start a social outreach project for adults.

“I did a survey a few years ago to find out why it was that various types of people, especially highly-educated professionals, were not volunteering or getting involved in our organisations.”

Mr Shah says that 90% of the people they surveyed were not satisfied with their own self-image and felt they were not giving themselves enough time for exercise or health.

“That gave me the idea to design a completely new programme that had nothing to do with what we were doing before, which was called Green Health, where we said that if people were concerned about their health and well-being, why not combine that with nature appreciation? So we started this programme where we combined exercise, yoga and appreciation for nature, as well as things like organic gardening, which we were very keen on promoting.”

Mr Shah with visitors at the Roche Caiman Sanctuary, an artificial wetland site created by Nature Seychelles

Nature Seychelles then obtained funding from donors to work with substance abusers, teaching them yoga exercises to heal mind, body and soul, and they were also given practical life skills in horticulture and conservation.

“The programme is almost over and we’re trying to find funding to continue, because it has been a big success and the participants are very happy. They want to continue with it but we don’t have project funds left.”

“My mission for the last 20 years has been trying to get Seychellois people to have a new partnership with nature in various ways. We have to make people understand that the nature around us has a value for all of us. Whether we use it to rehabilitate drug addicts, or to grow vegetables or medicinal plants, whether you want to work with an NGO to help restore the environment or promote nature tourism, nature has a value, and it has a value for everyone.”

Sustainable living
Mr Shah says that now the challenge for Seychelles is to move beyond nature conservation and develop sustainability in real terms.

“One of our biggest issues here is energy – the energy budget is huge, one of the largest per capita in the developing world, but it was only in the last few years that we saw the authorities actively move to establish renewable energy policies and practices.”

“Now there’s a lot of talk and excitement being generated, but still very little actual renewable energy being generated. Compared to Mauritius, La Reunion and others in the region we are really far behind. Mauritius is now almost generating 30% of its energy requirements through renewable energy sources, La Reunion is almost at 40% and we are at zero-point-something.”
Mr Shah also voices concern about the quality of goods being imported from other countries.
“As a consumer myself, I purchase goods which then have to be discarded very quickly because of the shoddy quality. For example, we just purchased raincoats for our wardens and all the raincoats tore within a day. It’s not just a waste of money, but we are generating more and more waste which then has to be dumped.”

“Sustainability is the key for Seychelles. We talk about sustainable development, it’s been part of national policy since 1990, but we still don’t see it because it has to be on a nationwide level. It cannot only be a function of the environmental sector. It has to move beyond the environmental sector to all sectors because everything is linked on a small island nation like ours.”

Parting thoughts
Mr Shah says that one of the many issues he encounters is that many Seychellois people, even those in government, don’t always understand the logic behind NGOs and why they exist.

“We are not doing this because it’s our job; we are doing this because it’s our passion. If I wanted to make money, I would have stayed in the private sector. My family has been in the private sector in Seychelles for 100 years, we have been very successful in business. But that wasn’t what drove me. What drove me was this desire to help Seychelles, to make a contribution to the country – much more than an ordinary business would allow me to do.

“I want to show Seychellois people that highly-educated and qualified people can do this as a vocation. We don’t have to be employed by the government to do this work, we can do it ourselves. We need to be able to work for the betterment of our society with passion and the love of our nation – otherwise, what’s the use?”

by Hajira Amla