Monday, 13 February 2017 14:43

Coral Reefs are the rain forests of the tropical seas – Dr. Nirmal Shah

One of the Indian Ocean’s foremost environmental defenders Dr Nirmal Shah (Nimmo to his close friends) who is the CEO of Nature Seychelles, spoke to the IOO on a wide range of marine conservation issues. In this interview which forms part of our IOO 2017 Environmental Perspectives, Dr Shah narrates of his mission to  “save birds, introduce conservation to the public and young people, restore island ecosystems, integrate tourism and conservation”. Significantly Dr Shah opens up an extraordinary window showcasing how he has helped nurture designer reefs and how he has promoted the deployment of innovation to push the boundaries of marine conservation. It is a sobering read and an eye opener for the Western Indian Ocean enthusiasts.

Nirmal Shah, CEO of Nature Seychelles and former President of the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA) gives us an special interview on his pioneering conservation work

IOO. What inspired you to enter the conservation world? And how did it come about?: 

Nirmal Shah: My father, although a very successful businessman, was a pioneer of conservation in Seychelles. At a very early age I was able to go out in the field with leading American and European scientists. I had a surfeit of nature, the extreme opposite of what they now call "nature deficit disorder"

That formative period was very important in terms of gaining a large array of knowledge, developing a wonder and fascination for the natural world and also insight into scientific methods.

IOO. You have a major eco-footprint on the western Indian Ocean courtesy of Nature Seychelles work. Kindly explain how Nature Seychelles work feeds into the region? 


Nirmal Shah: Nature Seychelles’ work to save birds, introduce conservation to the public and young people, restore island ecosystems, integrate tourism and conservation and more recently growing designer reefs have had to be innovative and game changing to stick and be successful where others failed. That pioneering approach has gained the attention and interest of regional and international organizations some of whom have used our work as models or best practice. In addition, success has grown our legitimacy and enabled us to make major contributions to regional work such as that of WIOMSA where I was a founding board member and past President.

Shah raising environmental awareness at a function graced by Miss Seychelles [Image: NS]

IOO. The western Indian Ocean region is seen a mega-biodiverse region. Why is this? 

Nirmal Shah: The center of the hotspot is of course Madagascar. The Seychelles are stranded fragments of a lost super-continent so ancient that relicts of fauna and flora are still found there such as the Aldabra Giant Tortoise, the Coco de Mer, the Jellyfish tree and an entire family of frogs. Going beyond the usual approaches to environmental protection, I believe small islands are vital to conservation because they are the archetypes of a connected landscape and seascape, an environmental gestalt so to speak, where the need for a new and integrated terrestrial and marine conservation approach presents itself very strongly. One of the new approaches that Nature Seychelles is again pioneering is our Green Health program where we have integrated an agro-ecology garden (organic and climate smart horticulture) with a protected wetland area, programs of wellness and fitness for people, sustainable funding mechanisms and awareness building. 

IOO. For decades now you have been a key advocate for ocean conservation and increased marine protected areas? What has been your conviction to push for these ideals? 

Nirmal Shah: I have always had an “ocean view” because In Seychelles it is impossible not to see the ocean wherever you are. In my teens I realized we were living on the tops of what was once huge mountains and our domain was actually the Indian Ocean - that liquid asset was our future because the land was too small. The Seychelles is a small nation but a big country -today we talk about a Blue Economy but Seychelles is really a Big Blue Country. Being a Blue Country means that the Blue Economy has to be more than old wine in a new bottle - it has to have sustainability built in at all levels because our very existence depends on the wise use of blue resources

Cousin Island Conservation Reserve: Remains one of the key marine conservation hotspot in the world. Nature Seychelles flagship conservation work is centered on this island off Praslin, Seychelles second largest Island. [Image: JH-NS]

IOO. When coral bleaching hit the western Indian Ocean in 1997-98 you took a huge risk, undertook a comprehensive feasibility study and launched an intensive coral replanting exercise. What are the results so far? 

Nirmal Shah: Our “designer reef” is the largest in the world using a method called coral gardening. We have planted over 6,000 sq. meters of new reef with corals we have grown from small fragments recovered from coral colonies that survived the initial bleaching event. With last year's so-called Godzilla El Niño the designer reef resisted the bleaching for 3 months but the warm waters persisted and it bleached like the rest. The good news is that we have discovered a second generation of super corals that have not bleached at all. We now have about 3,000 of these "X-Men" corals, as I call them, growing in our underwater nurseries or "coral corrals". 

IOO: Coral bleaching has devastated corals in the Indian Ocean stretching from the Somalia coast all the way to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. What are the implications of bleaching to the Indian Ocean and global conservation? 

Nirmal Shah: Coral Reefs are the rain forests of the tropical seas. Like rainforests they grow in nutrient poor environments and if removed the areas turn to almost-deserts. Coral reefs are vital because they supply the sand for our beautiful beaches, barrier protection against tropical storms, fish for our plates and for export and areas for dive tourism and leisure. Coral reefs are one of the most important national assets of many of these countries and without them we become impoverished both as countries and as peoples.  

IOO: In the last five years, your have been involved in your country's push for the Blue Economy as a senior advisor to your government. To a layman what is the Blue Economy and how does it benefit the global community

Nirmal Shah: The Blue Economy is simply the rationalization of what has always been there - an ocean that has been used for transport, food, leisure....and wonder. The Green Economy that came out of the World Summit on Sustainable Development somehow missed the Oceans. But as coastal and island peoples we always knew that the mighty ocean was our lifeblood. The Blue Economy is a rebooting of the old economy to use our greatest asset in the most sustainable fashion so as to meet a challenging future. 


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