Cousin Island Special Reserve is a granitic island covering 29 hectares and lies approximately 2km from Praslin island. It became the world’s first internationally owned-reserve when it was purchased in 1968 by the International Council for the Protection of Birds (ICBP), now Birdlife International. The objective was to save the last remaining population of the Seychelles warblers.
First made into a Nature Reserve in 1968 it was afforded further protection when it was designated a Special Reserve in 1974. It is not only significant for sea birds and endemic land birds but is also the most important breeding site for Hawksbill turtles in the Western Indian Ocean. The reserve is managed solely by local staff and benefits local communities on the neighboring Praslin island through eco-tourism.
Looking around Cousin today, it is hard to believe that this vibrant and diverse island ecosystem was once a coconut plantation. When the island was first settled in the early 1900's, the original vegetation on the plateau was cleared to make way for profitable coconut trees as well as a small garden. Cousin has been successfully restored to its original vegetation, creating homes for many endemic species of land birds and important breeding sites for seabirds.
Today, Cousin is managed by Nature Seychelles. Conservation activities include monitoring of the island's biodiversity, research, re-introduction of endangered species such as the Seychelles Magpie Robin, ecotourism, and education.
Cousin has received international awards for its conservation and ecotourism efforts by Conde Nast Traveler and Bristish Airways.
Cousin Island attracts some 10,000 visitors a year and also caters to educational groups and locals. Travel agencies are responsible for organizing the transfer of foreign visitors to Cousin Island where they are then transferred to the Cousin boat, a measure implemented to prevent the accidental introduction of pests onto the Reserve.
The island is open to visitors five days a week (Monday to Friday), between 10:00 a.m. and midday, and there is no overnight accommodation. Visitors pay an entry fee of SCR 600 for all non-residents including children and SCR 300 for residents.
Locals or educational groups should contact the Nature Seychelles office on Mahe for details regarding the transfer from Praslin Island to Cousin Island.
Fauna and flora
Despite its small size, Cousin boasts a number of species and habitats. The plateau forest is characterized by mapou Pisonia grandis, Indian mulberry Morinda citrifolia and bwa sousouri Ochrosia
oppositifolia where many of the landbirds can be seen. There are wetlands where fresh water attracts dragonflies and moorhens; the hill creates ideal nesting sites for shearwaters and bridled terns; on the seashore crabs and shorebirds abound. The coastal vegetation comprises casuarinas Casuarina equisetifolia, vouloutye scaevola sericea and bwa matlo suriana maritime that help in coastal protection as well as providing habitats.
Five of Seychelles eleven endemic land birds are found on Cousin Island. They include the Seychelles magpie robin Copsychus seychellarum, Seychelles sunbird Nectarinia dussumieri, Seychelles fody Foudia seychellarum, Seychelles blue pigeon Alectroenas pulcherrima in addition to the warbler.
Seven species of nesting seabirds occur in numbers exceeding 300,000 individuals; fairy terns Gygis alba and white tailed tropic birds Phaethon lepturus nest all year round, whilst lesser noddies Anous tenuirostris, brown noddies Anous stolidus and bridled terns Sterna anaethetus have different breeding seasons. Two varieties of shearwaters, Audubon’s shearwater Puffinis lherminieri and the wedge-tailed shearwater Puffinus pacificus are found on the island. The former breeds all year round whilst the wedge- tailed shearwater breeds from May to October. A recent census was undertaken to determine their numbers and estimated the population at 11,000 individuals.
Science and Conservation
Cousin Island is recognised as one of the most important nesting sites in the western Indian Ocean for hawksbill turtles Eretmochelys imbricata. Some 30-100 turtles come ashore to nest a year in broad daylight, whilst elsewhere they nest under the cover of darkness. Other reptiles found here include Aldabra giant tortoises Geochelone gigantea, and four endemic skinks – the Seychelles skink Mabouya sechellensis, Wright’s skink Mabuya wrighti, the bronze gecko Ailuronyx seychellensis and the burrowing skink Pamelaescincus gardeneri, as well as a native green gecko Phelsuma astriata, giving Cousin Island one of the highest lizard densities per hectare in the world.
The Special Reserve area includes the surrounding marine area up to 400km offshore.
Comparative studies have revealed that Cousin’s reefs have the highest fish biomass compared to reefs in other marine protected areas in the granitic islands. However, the reefs have suffered bleaching as a result of a rise in sea water temperature in 1997/8. Nature Seychelles and its partners have been conducting surveys to understand more about the impacts of the bleaching and the recovery of the reefs.
The transformation of the island from a coconut plantation to an ecologically-restored island has taken place through a policy of habitat restoration. As a result, conservation on Cousin has enjoyed great success with a 300% increase in the population of warblers, and Seychelles fodies have now attained a healthy population. There has also been successful translocation of magpie robins from Fregate Island, as well as movement of fodies from Cousin to Aride Island and both now have a viable population.
Changes in vegetation are being monitored, especially after the storm of 2002, to assess any impact on the animals that depend on them. There is an ongoing programme to weed invasive creepers and other species that proliferated in clearings created by gaps in the forest canopy after the storm. Cousin is today one of the few islands free of cats, rats and mice, a cause of the demise of the native fauna on other islands. This is a result of strict regulations visitors and wardens working on the island have to adhere to.
In 2009, Carbon Clear, a leading European carbon management company, was to assess the footprint of conservation and tourism activities on Cousin Island Special Reserve. This included both on and off island costs as well as the hotel, transport and other relevant impacts of our international visitors. We found that we were responsible for more than 1,500 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents annually.
The restored forest on Cousin was estimated to absorb certain amount of this. But the bulk had to be offset. Carbon Clear searched for a carbon sequestration project that met several internationally agreed criteria and found an improved cook-stove project in the Darfur region of Sudan where the appropriate number of carbon credits were purchased to make Cousin the 1st carbon Neutral Nature Reserve.
The scheme is unique in that it invests funds derived from eco-tourism in Seychelles into climate adaptation projects in other countries. Two projects in Brazil and Indonesia are recipients of the carbon offset funds this year. The Brazilian project prevents deforestation and protects the Cerrado Biome by using agricultural waste in place of deforested wood to fire community based ceramic kilns. The Indonesian project made a number of vital upgrades to an existing conventional power station using coal to make it geo-thermal.