Wildlife and chocolate

skink 3 (Custom)
Wright’s skink, endemic to Seychelles, on Aride Island

My story on ecological restoration in Seychelles has just been published on National Geographic’s website (with a compilation of video clips at the start), and will soon be available in the March 2016 print edition.

One of the islands I visited, but which didn’t end up being included in the story, was Aride, which has been a nature reserve for 50 years. Unlike some privately owned island reserves in Seychelles, which have luxury resorts on them, Aride is home only to nature and a handful of caretaker staff. I was there for less than 24 hours, but I felt a quiet enchantment on Aride that I experienced nowhere else. Here’s a short account of that visit. . . .

I have a knack, it seems, of finding the one seat on any small open boat that gets the greatest soaking from the sea. And so it proved on the eight-mile journey by inflatable from Praslin to Aride—one a well populated residential and resort island in the eastern Seychelles, the other a privately owned nature reserve with a caretaker staff of six. I arrived well drenched, but that was no hardship in the tropical heat of Seychelles. And especially not when stepping ashore on one of Seychelles’ best preserved enclaves of indigenous wildlife.

As with most Seychelles islands, Aride was heavily cleared for coconut plantations in the 1800s, and the copra era persisted until well into the 20th century. Despite the coming and going of vessels to carry coconuts away for processing, not to mention the movement of labourers on and off the island, Aride somehow escaped being invaded by rats. As a result, much of the island’s ground-dwelling reptile and invertebrate fauna remains intact, and now that the island is a reserve, seabird populations are rebounding. More than a million roseate terns, lesser noddies and tropical shearwaters breed on the rocky slopes of the island.

On a night walk with wildlife officer Juan Michel I heard the haunting calls of wedge-tailed shearwaters, and next morning I watched seabirds emerging from the forest canopy as if being breathed out like winged pollen. White terns, noddies, shearwaters, and, soaring above them all, crawling across the sky in slow motion, frigatebirds, pirates of the sky.

Aride may be a reserve for nature, but old human habits die hard. Every year, in seabird breeding season, island staff see lights on the hillsides where poachers are taking eggs and chicks—a throwback to earlier times when up to 200,000 sooty tern eggs might be taken each year. The harvest persisted for a century, until in 1967 the island’s owner put a stop to it and declared Aride a nature reserve. For the past few years, armed guards have been deployed, and arrests made, but the relevant laws have loopholes, convictions are rare and sentences light.

For many Seychellois, harvesting from nature is an entitlement, regardless of law or conservation status. Juan Michel told me that many Seychellois retain a blind faith that nature’s storehouses are inexhaustible. Their fundamental premise is “God will provide,” Michel said. “I say to them, ‘The blue kestrel is extinct. The moorhen is extinct. In 1990 there were 12 magpie robins left. These birds were all once abundant. What happened? Why didn’t God provide? Did they just vanish, or were humans to blame?’”

Michel grew up on Aldabra, Seychelles’ westernmost atoll and a World Heritage site of outstanding ecological value. His father was the administrator. He recalled turtle eggs being broken on his head to make his hair grow thick and long. In those days, not only was turtle meat a staple, it was common practice to drink green turtle blood for its supposed health benefits. It appalled Michel. Rather than eat turtle, he ate flour and water dough. “There are still Seychellois who kill dolphin and turtle,” he told me. “I don’t know the taste of those meats.”

To Seychellois who argue with him about the cultural tradition of eating turtle, calling it a “God-given right,” he retorts: “Just because everything on earth is God-given doesn’t mean you have to eat it.” He added wistfully to me, “Why is it we like the taste of the ones on the endangered list?”

Aride was bought by Christopher Cadbury, a member of Britain’s first family of chocolate, in 1973, and in 1979 it became a special reserve under Seychelles law, with a small marine protected area extending 200 metres offshore.

According to Michel, Cadbury gave strict instructions to his children that no fancy resort was ever to be built on the island. And that’s how it is today. Staff live in a collection of spartan huts just back from the beach. Further inland, in a forest clearing, is the old copra plantation manager’s house. When they came to the island, the Cadburys lived here—two rooms with no glass windows, just shutters; no air conditioning, just shady eaves. The weatherboards have aged to a dark-brown colour, the colour of chocolate.

When I went to look at the house, a magpie robin darted in and perched on the back of a chair on the verandah. It seemed an eloquent reminder of a benefactor’s timely purchase. A bird on the brink of extinction, now flourishing on an island set aside not for touristic benefit but ecological preservation.

Arid in name, but not in nature.

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