Working for an NGO: It’s only crazy until you do it
About working at a conservation NGO
Nirmal Jivan Shah is ‘the face’ and the CEO of the largest and oldest NGO for conservation in a place where other people make holidays; the Seychelles. We have been lucky to interview him about his career and his social media presence.
How would you describe your role as the CEO of Nature Seychelles?
I’m not the typical CEO because I’m involved in so many things from the actual science and conservation, to finance, to communication, to development of innovation, to project writing and management, to personnel, and so forth as well as national level policy making. So, one has to have the wisdom of a sage, the understanding of a psychiatrist, the wizardry of a financier, the patience of a saint and the foresight of a prophet…haha.
My profession is also my vocation. I think I am fortunate that I’ve been able to turn my hobby, which is nature and conservation, into a very successful job. I think the secret of life is to find that sweet spot where personal passion meets with what the world is looking for.
Can you give us an example of a project you are working on and what your role is in the project?
I have had many projects over the last 30 years, but let me describe the latest one.
I am working on the innovative and norm-breaking ‘Reef Rescuers project’. It is a coral reef restoration project in the Cousin Island Marine Protected Area. The aim is to fight the climate change induced coral bleaching in the Seychelles. So far, we cultivated 40,000 coral fragments in underwater nurseries and transplanted 24,431 on 5,225m2 of degraded reef – the size of a football pitch.
This is the first ever large-scale coral reef restoration project using the ‘coral garden method’ in the world. It has tremendous implications for Seychelles and other coastal communities as it proved it is possible to innovate and to adapt to climate change. There was no blue-print: we adopted techniques used in experimental settings but also pioneered a lot of things in the field.
The project acted as an active and dynamic underwater laboratory where research questions on coral reproduction and growth, animal behaviour and reef resilience could be addressed. We trained over 40 scientists and volunteer scientific divers from around the world who are now carrying out their own restoration projects in their countries.
A toolkit developed through the project has been published and widely shared to cascade the methodologies used and experiences collected around the world. It has been well-received by coral restoration practitioners. I dared where others nay-said. Like the Nike ad says, “It’s only crazy until you do it.”
Successfully restoring coral reefs and training many people to do the same must be immensely satisfying. Is this the project you are most proud of?
Hmmm, I am definitely proud of that project, but I think I am the proudest of the ‘WildLife Clubs of Seychelles’.
In 1987 I was sponsored by BirdLife International to study environmental education in UK. Their idea was to set up WildLife Clubs in Seychelles as there were in Mauritius. The government of Seychelles at the time was not enthusiastic about clubs in the schools and it took me 7 years to persuade the authorities to allow for them. By 1994 I was helped by a small group of enthusiasts which included locals and expats to formally set up the Wildlife Clubs of Seychelles as an NGO. Actually, I paid for the registration from my own pocket and funded the first 2 years expenses form my environment company ENVI.R.O. BirdLife helped us a lot and when Nature Seychelles was set up, I had the means to support setting up clubs in all the schools in Seychelles and run many programmes.
The WildLife Clubs were the first environmental clubs in the school system in Seychelles and are credited with having trained hundreds of leaders, creating several generations of environmentally aware Seychellois and introducing environmental programmes as part of the official extracurricular activities in schools. Their reach and impact has been enormous
I found a movie online in which you speak about the survival of the Cousin’s birds. That was a big project in your career as well. Can you share a few words on this project?
In the late 1960s, Seychelles had the dubious distinction of having some of the rarest birds in the world because there were so few left. Among them were 26 Seychelles warblers (Acrocephalus sechellensis), which were on the brink of extinction and hanging onto life on a small patch of mangroves on Cousin Island. It is the reason the island, then a coconut enterprise, was purchased for conservation by the International Council for Bird Protection (ICBP, now BirdLife International). A rigorous conservation programme saved the bird from extinction, and after Cousin reached carrying capacity, populations were established in 4 other islands in 1988, 1990, 2004 and 2011. This ensured that there were viable populations of the bird in different islands. The warbler now numbers over 3,000 in these 5 islands and has been down-listed from “Critically Endangered” to “Near Threatened” on the Red List – a first for bird conservation in recent times. As Nature Seychelles CEO, I took over the management of this programme and Cousin Island in 1998 to continue with the extraordinary work started by BirdLife. The success forged for the warbler has been replicated with the Seychelles magpie robin and other endemic birds through various multi-stakeholder projects I led. Additionally, saving the warbler on Cousin also saved the island for conservation. It has saved globally important seabird populations, critically endangered marine turtles, and precious marine ecosystems.
On this island, I have initiated innovative and ground-breaking programmes such as the Reef Rescuers, the Conservation Boot Camp, which trains young people for a future in conservation, and making Cousin Island the 1st carbon-neutral nature reserve.
The Seychelles is an attractive holiday destination. Is tourism a chance or a threat for conservation?
It’s interesting that you ask this question as we are having to deal with balancing conservation and ecotourism on Cousin Island Special Reserve. Although the island is a strict nature reserve and conservation takes precedence over everything else, it has had a long-running ecotourism program – established in the 70s – that funds conservation. Money from ecotourism is ploughed back into managing the island and conservation activities. In 2018 we experienced over tourism. The Special Reserve received a record number of visitors; 27% more than the average of the last 10 years. Analysis of visitor statistics and of our management and conservation reports, shows that the coping ability of our management team and the biophysical carrying capacity of the Special Reserve are being overshot. The visitor experience is, in addition, being compromised. To check this we are increasing the Tourism User Fee from July 2019. It is hoped that this will have the required result. But if it does not, we will have to put other measures in place. Over-tourism is happening all over the world including Seychelles. It can be described simply as “too much of a good thing”. It’s when you start to become a victim of your own success. The trick therefore is to know when and how to adapt or mitigate.
What does a typical working day look like for you?
I don’t have many typical days. My day could start at the normal 8 AM at the Nature Seychelles office or at 4.30 AM doing an early morning show on SBC Radio, or at 6 AM catching a domestic flight to go to Praslin island to our coral restoration project or Cousin Island Special Reserve. When we have other projects running I could be in the field on other islands for one or several days. I might leave the office at the normal 4 PM but also attend late meetings or skype with journalists doing interviews in different time zones from mine. Over weekends I could be blogging and updating social media or meeting with important visitors at the Sanctuary at Roche Caiman and Heritage Garden at Roche Caiman. Moreover, I attend many high-level government meetings in my various roles. When I’m travelling overseas for meetings and conferences of course my days would be focused on these.
You say that you attend high-level governmental meetings. Do you act like a political advisor?
I am the special envoy for Environment and Climate Change, the Chair of the Seychelles Fisheries Authority, the Chair of the National Environment Advisory Council and a member of many other Boards. In those roles I am called upon to advise and even help to execute.
What do you like most about your job?
The freedom it gives me to think outside the box and to implement real, change making programmes unencumbered by excessive red tape.
What is the most challenging about your job?
Finding people to fit the job that we need done. As a small island nation, Seychelles doesn’t have enough human capital to fit the many roles some of our larger projects inevitably require. We have to recruit expats to fill in these roles. But this is a lengthy and time consuming process compared to finding people locally. Sometimes, the people we recruit look good on paper but are a poor fit in the field. And then we have to start the process again. On the flip side, we have also been able to attract excellent expertise for our projects internationally, and found people still committed to our programmes long after their contracts are over.
Nirmal, most people will not become the CEO of an NGO directly after finishing the PhD. You look young. Still, you must have seen a few summers since you finished your PhD ;). Can you tell us a bit about your career path?
I started off as the Assistant Director of Fisheries Research, then Director of the Seychelles Conservation and National Parks service as well as the Managing Director of an environmental firm, ENVIRO. I worked on projects covering almost every aspect of environmental management and also represented Seychelles in major international fora and events such as World Summit on Sustainable Development.
I was the coordinator of the Seychelles National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan process and of the Environmental Management Plan of Seychelles 2000-2010. Moreover, I worked as a consultant for international organisations such as the World Bank, IUCN, UNEP, Sida and UNESCO.
You have a team of people around you. Do some of your team members join you directly after the PhD?
PhD holders usually end up in the more science and research based projects related land and marine ecology. But we have also had PhDs doing other work related to community and social projects.
How would you describe your colleagues?
A few questions about your social media activities:
My colleagues have come from across the globe; from Europe, mainland Africa, North America and Latin America. It would be difficult to describe them all, we are talking about tens of people drawn from different cultures and backgrounds. As you can imagine, working at Nature Seychelles is never boring with this kind of diversity. The most important thing is to maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect and friendship.
I dare say, that of all the people I am connected to on LinkedIn, you are my favourite person to follow. Why? Because, I find your posts educative and interesting; it keeps me updated in the Ecology and conservation field and read about topics I would not quickly search for myself. Hence, I would like to ask you a few questions regarding your social media presence.
Why are you active on social media (e.g., LinkedIn)? Do you have a specific aim/ aims with your social media presence?
As a thought leader I use LinkedIn and Twitter to share my expertise and experiences to influence positive change. I also use the platform to discuss important issues and to learn from others. I learn something new every day. One is never too old to learn. It’s a great opportunity to connect with like-minded people whom I would otherwise not be able to reach or meet. I also use it to stay relevant. This is no longer the domain of millennials and if you want to be an influencer in your field you have to be on Social Media. I have also used it to find talented individuals for our projects. And similarly people have reached out to ask for our expertise.
Did you see any positive effect on your career or for Nature Seychelles due to your social media presence?
Yes, we’ve had people show interest for example in the Reef Rescuers project and the Conservation Boot Camp through my LinkedIn presence. And as I’ve said we’ve been offered expertise.
Do you have a ‘social media strategy’?
Nature Seychelles does have a Social Media strategy, which articulates our goals and objectives for being on various platforms, and lays out the type of content we share on each platform. Our objectives are to highlight the Nature Seychelles brand, attract and generate leads to our paid programs, drive traffic to our website and make connections to benefit nature and the environment in general. We are on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter ad LinkedIn and to a lesser degree Pinterest. We make use of a content calendar and map out what to share each week. We also have a content creation strategy which helps us produce and share material that resonates with our audiences. We track performance to see how many people are connecting and engaging with us, and whether this is translating to valuable leads that benefit the organisation, our work or the environment.
The importance of outreach and connecting to the public is often underestimated by scientists and undervalued in academia. What is your opinion on this?
The environment is one of the most precious resources we have and we need the public to help us take care of it. People only look after what they love. The best way to nurture this love is by getting people involved. We have had great success with getting the public involved through the Wildlife Clubs of Seychelles, which I chaired for many years, through public events, and by using the media to tell our stories. We have also produced various publications to create awareness including the highly successful Zwazo magazine, and we blog extensively about our work. We spread what we call good news conservation to inspire change and build the next generation of conservationists.
If we teach ‘social media for scientists’ in our seminars we often hear that people do not know what to write about or how to create engaging posts out of scientific papers. Do you have any tips for them?
Tell a story, everyone loves a good story. Reduce complex subject into bite size stories that your audience can relate to. Write about the small things – they might be routine for you but to others it’s a peak into your world. Aim to inform, awe and even entertain. Nature and science can be funny. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
What social media channels are you active on or have you been active on in the past? Which social media channels do you recommend for scientists?
As mentioned above: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Thank you very much Nirmal Jivan Shah for your participation in this interview. We will keep on following you and are excited reading about your future projects!