Take a tiny nature reserve 29ha in size. Throw in 50 years of conservation success that saved endemic bird species, increased the numbers of hawksbill turtles nesting, and propagated hope in restoring coral reefs. Add a giant sized passion for nature conservation from individuals. Create a program that allows young people to partake in real-life conservation in paradisiacal settings. What you will get is the off the beaten track Conservation Boot Camp (CBC). It happens monthly for a lucky few on Cousin Island Special Reserve, Seychelles.
The invention of Nature Seychelles Chief Executive, Dr. Nirmal Shah, the CBC gives young people the chance to embed themselves smack in the middle of nature, while picking up conservation skills that boost their careers.
Conservation has become an increasingly popular career choice for young people. But many organizations complain that young graduates don’t have the right attitude or the real-world skills to work in field-based conservation. Yet, there are not many places where you can get exposed quickly to both. This program tries to close this gap.
"Few academic courses impart the mental and emotional tool kit needed to work in this multi-disciplinary arena," Shah says. "This is the reason I created the CBC; to bridge the gap between what is learned in the classroom and what is absorbed by working with people and facing situations in the field."
The CBC takes into account several competencies and character qualities needed in the 21st century market place. Along with conservation skills, participants may acquire a dozen fundamental proficiencies that include collaboration, communication, critical thinking and problem-solving. Character qualities are the ways in which students approach their changing environment. They include curiosity, adaptability and social and cultural awareness.
"It is an incredible experience to be allowed to contribute to the protection of endemic species such as the Seychelles magpie robin while learning about scientific field methods," says Malena Mogwitz from Germany.
"Before coming, I was scared. Even with an academic background in the field, I was still incredibly sheltered. So much of my education was limited to textbooks and microscopes," adds Annam Raza from Pakistan. "I was convinced I wasn’t going to be able to handle it: I wouldn’t be physically fit enough, that I would twist my ankle on the third day and spend the rest of my time in bed, that I would somehow just fail at all the tasks. Thankfully, none of that turned out to be true."
48 participants from 23 countries have participated in the program so far.
"They've come from all over the world, bringing with them varied cultures and experiences. When they leave, they take back knowledge, experience, consciousness, and sensitivity that is distinctively Cousin Island," says Yan Coquet, the Program Coordinator.
The CBC is not for everyone, but overwhelmingly the students have loved their soujourn into nature.
"My naming of the program is controversial even among my staff," says Shah. "They think it will scare participants from coming here. But I didn't want to dress it up. I want people to understand that when you come, you put in as much sweat as the people working here. It’s not an extreme situation at all, there are far worse. It’s not luxury either. I would say it’s in between. It real gives you an idea whether conservation is for you or not."
In a New York Times opinion piece (April 30, 2018), evolutionary biologist and professor Heather E. Heying makes a compelling argument for letting young people experience this full breadth of nature.
"We need to let children, including college students, risk getting hurt. Protection from pain guarantees weakness, fragility and greater suffering in the future. The discomfort may be physical, emotional or intellectual — My ankle! My feelings! My worldview! — and all need to be experienced to learn and grow," she says.
The CBC is funded by the Government of Seychelles-UNDP-GEF Protected Area Finance project.
This article first appeared in the SEALife Seychelles magazine 12th Edition Jan-March 2019