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.

Stepping 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."

A nesting white-tailed tropicbird. These birds nest year-round on Cousine
The 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.

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.

The endangered magpie robin
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.

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 equation.

"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 the name.

One of Cousine Island's 20 giant tortoises grazes outside one of the villas
If birds don't push your wildlife buttons, there's plenty more where they come from on Cousine.

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.

As 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 refreshing.

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 island's conservation officer Quentin Hagens tags a female hawksbill turtle
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."

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.

Website: www.geographical.co.uk

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 hatch.

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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