With more and more
destinations around the world suddenly discovering their 'green' side,
Geordie Torr visits Cousine Island in the Seychelles,
where the conservation came first
Anse Victorin - Frégate, voted the best beach in the world.
away from the helicopter, it feels as if I've been immersed in
wildlife. The sky teems with birds, and those that aren't aloft are sitting
in the trees, chattering away to each other, or tip-toeing around in the
undergrowth. Giant tortoises lumber about on the lawns and it seems as
if every visible surface is occupied by one or several small brown lizards.
This is Cousine, a 25-hectare granite island in the Seychelles, home to a
luxury resort with a difference. Cousine ticks all of the tropical-getaway
boxes - white sand, palm trees, blood-warm turquoise waters - and its
exclusive four-villa resort has all the creature comforts you could desire.
And, like so many destinations today, Cousine is keen to emphasise its green
credentials. However, in contrast to most so-called eco-resorts, Cousine was
created with conservation as its raison d'être.
The island has the 'tropical paradise' look down pat
For decades, the island had been used for coconut cultivation, but in 1992, a
South African businessman (who prefers to remain nameless) purchased it with
a view to returning it to its original state and turning it into a nature
reserve. Alien plants were removed and native species planted - more than
4,300 trees so far.
"When the island was first bought, there was no plan to build a hotel on it,"
explains Jock Henwood, who manages the resort with his partner, Janine Samuel.
"Hence, the conservation has always been at the forefront - the hotel has
simply been there as a means to subsidise the conservation.
Every conservation effort needs to be funded in some way, and what we've tried
to do here is to be totally self-sufficient so that we're not begging people
for funds to run the island."
first thing you notice about Cousine is the birds; and the first birds
you notice are the terns. Four species nest on the island, in impressive,
often staggering numbers. "This year, we counted 70,000 breeding pairs of
lesser noddies and 1,200 pairs of brown noddies," Quentin Hagens, the
island's full-time conservation officer, tells me. My visit to the island
coincided with the tail end of the breeding season for these two species,
and I frequently came across little puffball chicks perched precariosly on
their rather rudimentary nests. Three other seabirds breed on the
island - the white-tailed tropicbird and two species of shearwater.
A nesting white-tailed tropicbird. These birds nest year-round on Cousine
Hagens with a young tropicbird
Although it's these large, noisy birds that grab your attention, it's some of
the smaller species that really deserve it. Five endemic land birds breed on
Cousine, including the endangered Seychelles fody and Seychelles warbler,
whose population sank to fewer than 30 birds during the 1960s.
In truth, these small, inconspicuous brown birds actually do a pretty good
job of grabbing your attention too. You're more than likely to have several
Seychelles fodys visiting your breakfast and/or lunch table, cheekily
darting in to snatch crumbs, resplendent in their coloured ID bands.
However, the star of the avian show is undoubtedly the magpie robin, a type
of thrush. A true conservation success story, the species was reduced to a
population of just 16 birds on Fregate, another Seychelles island, during
the 1970s. Since then, birds have been translocated to three other
islands - first to Cousin in 1994, then to Cousine in 1996 and now a third
population has been established on Aride on the third attempt - and the
total population has grown to around 135 individuals.
Naturally, I'd anticipated a certain amount of difficulty seeing one of
these striking, black-and-white birds - it's an endangered species after
all - but within minutes of settling down on the lounge chair at the
front of my villa, a pair flew down to a nearby tree, as if to greet me.
The endangered magpie robin
Andrés López-Sepulcre, a PhD student from the University of Helsinki,
visits the island regularly to monitor the population and conduct
research into the effect that habitat quality has on the success of
translocations. But it seems that habitat quality is only part of the
"Magpie robins have a very complex social system," López-Sepulcre explains.
"They live in groups and are very strongly territorial - if you see a
territorial dispute, you can draw a line between the two groups.
"The birds either live in pairs or in bigger groups, with some subordinates
or some offspring from last year that stay to help them with new siblings,"
he continues. "And the different roles that the birds take on have different
impacts on the population's growth. If offspring tend to stay and help, it
boosts reproduction in that territory, if males have subordinates in their
territory, it increases their mortality, because they spend time fighting
and stressing. That reduces their reproduction, and hence the rate at which
the population would increase."
The roles that the birds take on depends on the composition of the habitat.
When robins are introduced to a new island, the males quickly form
territories in the high-quality habitat. Once that's full, the new
recruits have to decide whether to build territories in the lower-quality
habitat or become a subordinate in another bird's territory. If they choose
the latter option, they might waste a few years, but then they'll get the
good-quality habitat and produce lots of offspring. "We're trying to
predict, on a new island with a particular habitat structure, how would
groups form in which territory and how would that affect the growth of
the population?" says López-Sepulcre.
The work that's been done on Cousine to remove alien plants and to grow
native species has vastly improved things for the birds. "This is the
best you can find in the Seychelles in terms of habitat quality," says
López-Sepulcre. Currently, Cousine's population stands at 26 birds in
a total of six groups.
The birds will attempt to reproduce every year. Those in low-quality
habitat will probably be successful every two to three years, but pairs
with a high-quality territory will usually produce a chick every year.
"We actually had one pair that was using two different nest boxes at
the same time," López-Sepulcre tells me. "While the female was sitting
on one egg, the male and the helpers were feeding a chick in the other one."
Each chick is ringed just before it's about to leave the nest. "Here on
Cousine, they have a nice tradition of giving the birds names,"
says López-Sepulcre. "The guests get to choose them if they're
around when the chick is being ringed."
Henwood later tells me that one of the birds is named Geordie. I express
surprise that my fame had spread all the way to the Seychelles. Sadly,
however, it turned out that it was the fact that the bird's colouration
mirrored that of the Newcastle football club's strip that had prompted
birds don't push your wildlife buttons, there's plenty more where
they come from on Cousine.
One of Cousine Island's 20 giant tortoises grazes outside one of the villas
The island is home to 20 Aldabra giant tortoises - mostly ex-captives
that were rescued from poor conditions elsewhere in the Seychelles and
brought to the island. They lumber serenely about the place, chomping
away on whatever vegetation happens to be in front of their old-man
faces. Although a trifle intimidating at first - especially when they
hiss at you - the tortoises are surprisingly friendly. Once they
recognise you as a source of scratches, they'll come over and stick
out their necks - the skin of which feels like soft leather.
The tortoises aren't the only shelled reptiles found on Cousine - each year,
female hawksbill and green turtles visit to lay their eggs. The turtle
breeding season starts in September and peaks in December, with the
hatchlings struggling out of the sand about two months later. Unusually,
here in the Seychelles, the hawksbill come up during the day so, during
the nesting period, Hagens walks the beach every hour looking for the
tell-tale signs of an emergent turtle. Staff at Cousine have been tagging
visiting sea turtles since 1995, as well as collecting data on egg numbers
and the like, and negotiations are under way to share the data collected by
all of the Seychelles islands in the hope of putting together a local
management plan for these endangered reptiles.
But perhaps the biggest eye-opener is Cousine's lizard population. Nearby
Cousin Island has the highest lizard density ever recorded, and there's no
reason to believe that Cousine is any less blessed. There are, quiet simply,
lizards everywhere. The most visible are two species of skink - the Seychelles
skink and the larger and slightly less common Wright's skink - but there are
also three species of gecko. And with no major predators on the island since
the introduced rats and cats were removed, the skinks are relatively unafraid,
climbing over feet, into luggage and pretty much everywhere else.
On nearby Cousin Island, the density of skinks is the highest
recorded for any lizards. Numbers on Cousine appear to be comparable
The one area in which Cousine could be said to disappoint is the snorkelling.
Although the water is reassuringly crystalline and you can easily reach
reefs and rocks populated by all manner of outrageously coloured fish by
swimming straight out from the beach, the ocean warming associated with the
El Niño event of 1998 killed most of the coral. Thankfully, there are signs
of recovery - small clumps of healthy coral rising from the
rubble - but it will be decades, if not centuries, before
the reefs return to their former glory, assuming further ocean warming
doesn't do them in first.
the world lurches from one environmental disaster to another, so more and
more people are finally discovering their long-dormant eco-consciences.
They're recycling, cycling, buying dolphin-friendly tuna and going on
eco-holidays. And, rather predictably, more and more businesses are
falling over themselves in their scramble for the green dollar. Consequently,
the term 'ecotourism' has lost some of its lustre, devalued as it has morphed
from philosophy into marketing buzzword. Which is why Cousine is so
On Cousine, because the conservation came first, the principles of ecological
sustainability are deeply embedded in the resort's philosophy. This is
reflected in every aspect of both the original setting up of the resort
and its ongoing operation.
"The decision was made in the very beginning to have only four villas, so that
the resort's environmental impact would be minimal," says Henwood. "And the
income from four villas is just enough to sustain the conservation. Having
four villas also minimises the amount of staff that you need.
"We also do some small things, such as catching rainwater for use in cooking,
for the guests in the villas and for the staff. We have solar panels for all
of the island's water heating and all of our appliances were bought with
electricity consumption in mind so as to reduce the amount of diesel we
use in the generator." Similarly, lighting is kept to a minimum, not just
to save energy, but to reduce the number of disoriented shearwaters and
hatchling turtles. And each of the four villas has a clearly marked path to
the beach, which minimises erosion of the beach crest.
Those of you with active eco-antennae will have noticed that I arrived on the
island aboard a helicopter. "How can a resort call itself eco-friendly when
it relies on one of the most polluting forms of transport around to ferry its
guests to and fro?" you ask. Well, it gets worse. Virtually all of the
island's provisions arrive the same way.
This isn't some sort of affectation aimed at the super-rich, but another
attempt to safeguard the island's ecology. "We bring in guests and all of
our food by helicopter to minimise the risk of anything being brought to
the island that shouldn't be here," Henwood explains. "All of the food
is sealed up, and after the helicopter has brought it over, we move it
into the store, where it's opened behind closed doors."
The staff also keep an eye out for poachers, who come to the island in
search of turtle and bird eggs and to catch shearwaters. "We try to
patrol regularly - so that we're seen by any potential poachers," says
Henwood. "We're also looking at systems to try to monitor the whole
island without physically going out there." However, the level of
poaching is relatively minor. "In my two-and-a-half years on the
island there have only been two incidents that we know of."
The island's conservation officer Quentin Hagens tags a female hawksbill turtle
During my visit, preparations were under way for the arrival of a special
guest - the Seychelles white-eye. Another Seychelles endemic that saw
its population crash during the latter half of the 20th century, the
white-eye has now been established on three islands and the population
has grown to about 300. Cousine hopes to become the fourth island to host
the birds. "We've planted about 200 trees with the specific berry that the
birds like," Henwood tells me.
The island has
also recently set up a trust fund to secure Cousine's future
and to provide support for visiting scientists, as well as helping to pay
for the purchase of saplings for the rehabilitation work and the day-to-day
running of the turtle, magpie-robin and seabird monitoring.
And with the future of Cousine and its conservation programmes assured,
this little dot in the Indian Ocean should continue to offer a haven for
both wildlife and the people who love it for the foreseeable future.
This article was written and photographed by Geordie Torr, Editor of
Geographical, the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society -
in which it appeared in June 2005.
When to go?
Although the Seychelles are a year-round destination, if you travel
between November and March you should get the best of the weather.
February is a good time to visit Cousine as it's when the turtle eggs
Take plenty of sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses - the tropical
sun can be brutal.
Pay for six nights on Cousine and receive a seventh night free.
Prices start at £3,220 per person, based on two people sharing,
and include seven nights on a full board basis, international flights
from London and regional airports on Emirates and helicopter transfers.
This offer is valid from 30 June to 22 September 2005. Contact Roxton
Baily Robinson Worldwide (01488 689 799; www.rbrww.com).
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