Standing knee-deep in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, on the shore of the island of Praslin, I could see Curieuse. This former leper colony was going to be my home for the next few days, and I was waiting for Rich, a conservation-base manager on this desert island in the Seychelles, to collect me in his homemade RIB-styled boat.
As I wiggled my toes into the soft sand, I pondered General Gordon’s claim that here was the original Garden of Eden. ‘Eden’ is such a hackneyed cliché, but to General Gordon’s Victorian eye there was clear evidence to back up his assertion. The versatile and nourishing breadfruit was clearly the Tree of Life and the brazenly provocative coco de mer tree was without doubt the Tree of Knowledge – that should on no account be tasted.
The male coco de mer palm boasts a metre-long phallus-shaped flower spike while the seed of the female tree is an 18kg double nut closely resembling a woman’s unclad bottom.
Curieuse is also home to a giant tortoise, a relative of the Galápagos species. Sailors hunted these magnificent creatures to extinction on Curieuse around 1770 and, unbelievably, set the island alight to make collecting the coco de mer fruit easier.
In 1883 the island became a leper colony and, unsurprisingly, was left alone. The island vegetation recovered, but not the tortoise. In 1978 giant tortoises were reintroduced from the southern island of Aldabra but, after a promising start, the population crashed and hatchlings were eaten by rats, feral cats and crabs.
Thirty years on, and with more effective management, things are looking up. Rangers now patrol the island and have put a stop to poaching, and ugly but effective concrete pens now protect hatchlings from predation while they are small and vulnerable.
Jason, a Curieuse ranger, told me how on the morning of 24 December 2004 he was horrified to discover that all the giant tortoises had disappeared from the beach. Two days later the tsunami struck – and the tortoises had migrated safely to higher ground; it seems that scientists are missing a low-tech trick for a tsunami early-warning system. Today up to 300 giant tortoises roam the island, though many stay close to the ranger station – which is very convenient for visiting day-trippers.
Rich has been ‘cast away’ on this virtually uninhabited island for almost a year and has converted a ramshackle hut into habitable quarters. Rough tree trunks support the veranda roof, reclaimed boards line the deck and shutters frame the space where windows might have been.
Rich is hugely enthusiastic about ‘his’ island; sitting on the veranda, his only complaint is that “beach holidays are now ruined for me – I’ll never find anywhere as perfect.”
The island is the centre of a marine national park, the main focus for the small teams of conservation volunteers. The work varies through the year – following the cycles of nature – monitoring and protecting the hawksbill turtles during their nesting season, and following the massive whale sharks, which appear later in the year. Snorkel teams catch and tag juvenile hawksbills, monitor the reefs’ recovery from bleaching and help build the fish database for the Fisheries Authority.
Night-time is as black as it gets, and when the generator goes off the volume goes up in the forest. The sea is a soothing lullaby. The dense takamaka and casuarina trees rattle, scrape and groan, but that’s nothing to the startling boom of a breadfruit smashing onto the tin roof when you’re asleep.
Next morning’s early start was hampered by rain but when it stopped we set out for Anse Badamier on the north shore. The island’s highest point is 172m, high enough in the vast Indian Ocean to attract rain clouds, which keep the island as green as the Amazon.
The lepers who lived on the island built a rough stone track across two granite ridges. We walked and clambered to the highest point, where coco de mer occur in amazing profusion. A census of these rare palms is one of Rich’s jobs for a future group of volunteers. Each nut is worth up to US$1,000 (£500) but must be hollowed out before an export licence is granted. The census will be a formidable task.
On reaching the stunning beach at Anse Badamier, the frisson from realising that nobody had stepped foot on it for months was incredible. Rich hacked open fallen coconuts with his machete so we could drink fresh coconut milk. Then, while we snorkelled to tag turtles, flying fish leapt from the sea, evading the pod of dolphins that raced around the bay.
To hear about an upbeat conservation story is fantastic, but to experience it is even better. Being a volunteer, I was able to see with focused eyes, touch what casual visitors miss and encounter something priceless.
Peter Lynch is the author of Wildlife & Conservation Volunteering (Bradt)
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