The Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF) is a non-profit charitable organization with the mandate of managing and protecting Seychelles’ UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Aldabra Atoll and the Vallée de Mai. It also manages and protects the Fond Ferdinand reserve on Praslin. SIF’s education and outreach program is a cornerstone of its work, contributing to the public’s understanding of biodiversity and environmental issues in Seychelles. While open to diverse audiences located within and outside of Seychelles, SIF’s education and outreach program largely focuses on Seychellois youth, enhancing their knowledge on the unique ecosystems of Seychelles’ UNESCO World Heritage Sites while exposing them to the principles of conservation and science. Ultimately, through a wide array of activities that includes holiday camps, school site visits, art and essay competitions, social media, virtual tours and classrooms, the Foundation empowers Seychelles’ youth to recognize the importance of their natural heritage and take part in its stewardship.
In the pursuit of this overall aim, SIF has collaborated with the Ministry of Education for the past 20 years through the Seychelles' Eco-school program. The program seeks to incentivize school children to learn and take action towards environmental protection and sustainability, and involves schools taking part in a variety of environmental activities and competitions. The activities earn each school points throughout the year and the schools with the highest points win the star-prize; an all-inclusive one-week educational trip to Aldabra, sponsored by SIF.
Recognized at national and international levels for its near-pristine state and unique ecosystems, Aldabra occupies a special place in the hearts of many Seychellois. It hosts the world’s largest population of giant tortoises, and countless sea turtles, sharks, seabirds, fish, mangroves and seagrass, and a dedicated team of conservationists live and work on Aldabra to monitor and protect these. Largely protected by its extreme isolation, few people are lucky to set foot on the atoll. Appreciating the transformational experience of a visit to Aldabra, SIF annually sponsors and facilitates these trips of a life time to groups of children (about 13 students and 3 teachers per trip) to learn more about Aldabra’s terrestrial and marine environments and become young environmental ambassadors.
As part of the Eco-school Aldabra trip, participants take part in experiential learning activities, such as snorkeling, boat excursions, beach clean-ups and species identification. These ambassadors in the making learn about the atoll’s different ecosystems and the various challenges they face such as climate change, invasive alien species and plastic pollution. These activities are intended to inspire them to return home with an understanding of why and how such a place must be protected. Thus, the trip is also an opportunity to introduce participants to more sustainable practices that they can apply to their everyday lives. Observing the detrimental impacts of humanity on Aldabra’s fragile ecosystem, such as the effects of plastic pollution on marine life and the atoll’s coasts, the trip sensitizes the children to the impacts of their everyday choices on the health of the planet and in turn, on their lives and futures.
2019 marked 20 years of the Eco-school Aldabra trip. SIF celebrated this milestone by launching an evaluation project that aimed to review and reflect on these trips’ impact while considering ways to improve them.
A major focus of this project was determining what influence the trip has had on the selected students and teachers as well as their families and members of the public through conducting surveys. To share the trip’s impact and the project’s results as widely as possible, a video documentary that includes powerful testimonies from a range of participants over the past 20 years was created.
As we begin the UN’s Ocean Decade, such a trip and its evaluation highlights what's possible and effective in inviting youth to engage in ocean conservation and science. SIF’s commemorative project revealed that 236 people (194 students and 42 teachers) have travelled to Aldabra as part of the Eco-school trip, with SIF investing US$1,500 per head. This investment in Seychelles’ next generation of environmentalists has proven to be meaningful with 69% of participants stating they had an enhanced understanding of conservation and environmental management due to the trip and 53% of participants revealing they considered working in the environmental sector after the trip. Additionally, the project also looked at the future plans of the students and the results revealed that 32% are now pursuing or would like to pursue a job in an environmental field. After further follow-up, SIF discovered that five students, who have previously been on the Eco-school Aldabra trip, have worked with SIF after completing school; two of which are currently working on Aldabra and one other student who had recently worked on Aldabra for two and a half years.
The Eco-School Aldabra trip clearly has immense value for not only Seychelles’ sustainable development, but also the world’s. Our evaluation shows that experiences from this exceptional trip mark the lucky few that earn the right to visit such an iconic place. Our documentary and follow up activities with schools also highlights the human connection to research and conversation, acting as a platform for the wider community to build an appreciation for Aldabra while supporting and informing Seychelles’ citizen networks, especially young people, as to how natural heritage can influence lives.
The documentary has triggered important dialogues covering critical and emerging issues in ocean science and protection and we hope it continues through this article’s reach. In any case, the evaluation has already convinced SIF that such assessments after each trip are valuable. Moreover, with several lessons learned from this evaluation SIF is keen to integrate the Eco-school Aldabra trip into exciting projects on the horizon. One such project which is being funded by the Seychelles Conservation and Climate Adaptation Trust is Communication for Change. This project aims to virtually connect Aldabra with global audiences allowing the exploration and sharing of the atoll’s conservation success stories as well the threats it faces, in doing so strengthening the trip’s impact by including those who would not have the chance to visit.
SIF believes that the Eco-school Aldabra trip is an example of the long-term commitment (only been disrupted by piracy and now the COVID-19 pandemic) needed for education and outreach and is grateful that it can be recognized within and possibly built upon during the UN’s Ocean Decade.
Although such experiential learning is priceless to participants, their schools, and communities, it is worth noting that SIF has so far invested over US$ 350,000 into the Eco-school Aldabra trips and plans to continue, especially after confirming its positive impacts. The ability to trigger enthusiasm and earnestness within students from an early age is hugely rewarding for SIF and therefore worth the investment; building future ambassadors who will not only understand and defend our blue planet, but teach their peers and communities as well.
Ultimately, the Eco-school Aldabra trips sustain youth empowerment and the preservation of natural heritage. Despite the increasing costs, challenging logistics, and reduced revenues caused by the pandemic, SIF is committed to continuing and advancing the trip of a lifetime.
This article is part of an online series dedicated to the UN Ocean Decade. One story will be published each week that is related to initiatives, new knowledge, partnerships, or innovative solutions that are relevant to the following seven Ocean Decade outcomes. Access the special digital issue dedicated to the Ocean Decade.
Watch A Trip of a Lifetime: Evaluating 20 years of the Eco-school Aldabra trip documentary: https://bit.ly/3zpH3MQ
Pictures Credit © Seychelles Islands Foundation