Seychelles: Conserving a unique environment provides conservation opportunities

As the plane approaches Seychelles International Airport on Mahé, your first view of the island is of spectacular emerald green forest-clad hills. From the air, or from any hilltop viewpoint on Mahé, these forests look ancient and untouched. However, this forest is largely artificial. Its main species have been introduced by man. Forest dominated by species native to Seychelles is restricted to a few places. But, with the new century, the tide may be changing for the wildlife of Seychelles as islands are restored to a more natural state.

When people first visited the archipelago, the forests they found were dense with species such as the bwa de fer,, now extremely rare. The coastal mangrove swamps contained estuarine crocodiles, and giant land tortoises were found on most of the islands. The only mammals were two species of bat. Because the granite islands were so ancient and so isolated, they had developed a flora and fauna rich in species found nowhere else in the world. Of the 21 or so resident species of land and freshwater bird in the granite archipelago, at least 16 were endemic species or subspecies

In the first few years following human settlement, major damage was done. The crocodiles were rapidly hunted to extinction. Tortoises would follow, although later reintroduced from Aldabra. And the earliest settlers introduced land mammals, which had never before occurred on the islands. Rats and cats were among the first (and most damaging) introductions.

The earliest human visitors to the islands had little idea of the uniqueness and fragility of the ecosystems of the Seychelles. However, towards the end of the twentieth century and today, growing awareness of the importance of Seychelles’ endemic wildlife has coincided with economic changes and developments in conservation to create new opportunities for preserving Seychelles’ natural heritage.

The first island reserves of the Seychelles were small, predator-free islands such as Cousin and Aride. Cousin, purchased in 1968 as a nature reserve and now managed by Nature Seychelles, was instrumental in the survival of the endemic Seychelles Warbler. In the 1960s, this small bird was reduced to less than thirty individuals, entirely restricted to Cousin . When the island became a nature reserve, the coconut plantation was removed to make way for native forest and the population of warblers increased greatly. Nature Seychelles (BirdLife International in Seychelles) has transferred birds to other predator-free islands and increased its population to over 1,000 birds.

However, few islands in the archipelago escaped invasion by alien species. Most of Seychelles’ endemic birds do not mix with alien species. Today, the rarest of Seychelles’ birds, the Seychelles magpie robin, is still confined to few predator-free islands. There are only around 85 of these attractive black and white birds alive (up from a low of 16 individuals in 1970). The  SMART (Seychelles Magpie robin Recovery Team) involving the management of all the islands with magpie robins, Nature Seychelles and the Seychelles Ministry of Environment, co-ordinates monitoring and care of the populations.

In 1999, Nature Seychelles initiated a project to assess the potential of islands in the granitic Seychelles for habitat restoration and the transfer of endemic species. Through a programme of scientific surveys of vegetation, invertebrate communities and alien species, and work on the economics of restoration, a picture has been built up which prioritises islands by conservation value for the first time.

A new phase in the conservation in the Seychelles started in 2002, actually removing rats and other introduced predators, and beginning the rehabilitation of natural habitats for the benefit of birds and other Seychelles endemic species.

In 2000 to 2003, rats were eradicated on three islands, Denis, Darros and Frégate. in eradicating the rats, exciting possibilities have opened up for conservation. In 2001, a programme of habitat restoration started on Denis island implemented by Nature Seychelles. Teams removed alien vegetation from over 30 hectares of the island and planted some 2000 native trees. Seychelles Fodys and Warblers were transferred in 2004 bringing these globally endangered species further from the brink.

A new project started in 2004 by Nature Seychelles combining privately owned islands to partner in conservation programs heralds an innovative step in the right direction. This program supported by the World Bank needs further private sector support.

By Nirmal Jivan Shah, September 2005

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