Magazine article Geographical

Once upon an Island

Magazine article Geographical

Once upon an Island

Article excerpt

The Seychelles are more than just a haven for tourists. April Burt reports on how one part of paradise has become a conservation success story

The story of Cousin Island begins like all good stories--a long time ago. Before colonisation in the 1800s by the French then British then French again, the granitic islands of the Seychelles would have been an ecological Eden, abounding in a balanced and self-regulating ecosystem. The inner-islands are the tips of an ancient and giant mountain range, the Seychelles Plateau. This archipelago has a history as rich as the seas were once abundant; pirates, buccaneers and tangible tales of buried treasure.

Before the islands were settled, they were used as part of a trade route to India and so traders and pirates alike used them as a base, eating plentifully from the islands birds and reptiles. The famous 18th century pirate, Olivier Levasseur, (nicknamed 'La Buse') is believed to have buried his treasure in the Seychelles. Once colonised, the islands were plundered for their resources and suffered from over exploitation and the introduction of invasive species. They were also commercialised for trade in vanilla, cinnamon and coconuts and many of the islands' natural habitats were destroyed to make way for more coconut plantations. Cousin was one such island. The natural habitat had been replaced by coast to coast coconut palms.

NOISY LITTLE BIRDS

In 1959, Dr J H Crook, a British ornithologist, visited Cousin Island and discovered that the Seychelles warbler was confined to a small area of mangrove, the remnants of a once widespread species having been reduced to just 28 birds. This discovery prompted him to recommend turning the island into a nature reserve.

After Crook's recommendations, a global fundraising campaign led by the International Council for Bird Protection (now BirdLife International) resulted in the purchase of Cousin Island with the immediate purpose of saving the warbler. A crusade was started to rescue these birds and they became the flagship for conservation of small island species.

A long-term habitat restoration project began. The key restoration practice was to prevent young coconuts from germinating. Some coconut trees were also cut down and native vegetation including Pisonia grandis and Morinda citrifolia were encouraged to regenerate. This increased the density of available food allowing the warbler to once again flourish. Soon, more than 300 birds could be heard singing on Cousin. From here the warbler was re-introduced by BirdLife International and Nature Seychelles to other islands in the area to boost and safeguard its population. The bird can now be found on the islands of Fregate, Cousine, Aride and Denis in numbers exceeding 3,500.

Cousin won the status of Special Island Reserve in 1975, awarded by the Seychelles Government. The management of the island was taken over by Nature Seychelles (originally BirdLife Seychelles) in 1998, a conservation NGO working on wildlife conservation in the region. The transformation of the island from an ecologically impoverished coconut plantation into a thriving indigenous forest also benefited other species, notably the Seychelles magpie robin.

COCONUTS TO CONSERVATION

The first step in the rescue of the robin, also once on the brink of extinction and clinging to life on Fregate Island, was the establishment of a population on Cousin. 'The methods for reintroduction themselves have become the blueprint for other island bird rescue,' says Dr Nirmal Shah, Nature Seychelles CEO. Shah has spearheaded the transformation of Cousin, stating that 'it involves the restoration of whole islands by planting forests, bird introduction, and removal of alien predators such as rats.'

The Seychelles Seabird Group (SSG) and the Seychelles Magpie Robin Recovery Team (SMART) coordinate their efforts across the various islands. The collaboration between islands is essential for maintaining a standard monitoring protocol, ensuring that population trends and breeding success can be compared on a nationwide level. …

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