“This is probably the rarest bird you will ever photograph”, Sarah said as I point my camera towards the Seychelles Magpie-Robin. Sarah should know. As a volunteer, she has spent the last 6 months on this remote island that many of us would consider to be paradise. Aride, one of the granite islands in the Seychelles archipelago, located 1,600 km east of Kenya in the Indian Ocean, is a jewel in the crown of spectacular granite and coral islands that make up the tiny country of Seychelles. But for Sarah, her return home to England can’t come soon enough. “Spending 6 months with the same 8 people on a remote island can be very trying”, she says.
Aride Island is the northernmost granitic island in the Seychelles and is part of the district of Grand'Anse, located 10 km north of Praslin island and is 68 hectares in area.
To me, as a first time visitor to Aride, the island is a wildlife spectacle. Walking on rudimentary trails along the shoreline, I don’t know where to look first. There are giant frigate birds soaring over my head, tiny lizards whizz past my feet and sea turtles lay their eggs at the lower reaches of the beach vegetation while white-tailed tropicbirds roost right beside the trail, totally unperturbed by our presence. As in the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean, here, birds and animals do not fear humans. If you are not careful while walking along the trail, you’ll trip over hermit crabs and baby birds. To most of us, who commonly have to search for wildlife and consider ourselves lucky if we catch a glimpse of a deer, eagle or moose, this is a surreal and uncommon experience.
Aride Island was colonized after 1851. Until then, pirates used the island of 68 ha (168 acres) as a base from where to launch their unsavory activities. The pirates were followed by entrepreneurs who logged the forest, etsablished coconut plantations, made meat pies from sea birds and traded their eggs by the thousands. Fortunately, unlike so many other islands with precious wildlife, Aride’s bird colonies and turtle nests were not devastated and did not suffer damage from cat and rat infestations. Eventually, the natural flora and fauna recovered on the island, which now resembles a nearly undisturbed habitat. In 1973, the chocolate maker and British nature conservationist Christopher Cadbury, purchased Aride for the Royal Society of Nature Conservation in the UK. Recognized under Seychelles law, Aride is now a Special Nature Reserve managed by the Island Conservation Society of Seychelles. The island is permanently staffed with research scientists, an island manager and volunteers who help in the monitoring of bird, fish and turtle populations.
While walking along the shore line under the canopy of trees, I notice the strong smell of rotting fish. Apparently, shortly before our arrival on the island, an abundant and powerful algal bloom caused the ocean to turn blood-red and many fish to suffocate and die. With the exception of the casualties it left in its wake, all evidence of the algal bloom is gone. “We can’t be certain what caused the algal bloom”, says Sarah “but we believe it has something to do with the unusually strong El Nino we are experiencing this year.” Research has shown that there has been a proliferation of toxic algal blooms all over the world’s oceans during the past 30 years. While I try to process the information and the inevitable implications on the fishing industry, Sarah goes on to explain that some seabird species on Aride have been devastated by high chick mortality this year. Again, the causes are uncertain, but a logical explanation is that the chicks simply starved to death due to the sharply reduced fish stocks. The number of turtles returning to the beaches of Aride has also been affected: usually, between 50 and 60 turtles make their trek through the sand to lay their eggs. This year, only 6 turtles have returned. “We hope everything will be back to normal next year”, Sarah comments, but I do sense resignation in her voice. As environmental calamities pile up, finding the strength to get up in the morning can be challenging.
As my first impressions of Aride as a paradise on earth quickly give way to an all-too-familiar despondency about the state of our ecosystems, I notice a plain looking bird in the tree above me. “This is the Seychelles Warbler”, Sarah points out. “During the 1960s this song bird was nearly extinct with only 26 of the species left in the world, but conservation efforts have brought the Seychelles Warbler back from extinction. The species, which is endemic to the Seychelles, is now 2,500 strong.”
I leave Aride Island with a sense of gratitude and admiration for the work Sarah and her colleagues are doing. You have to be a special kind of person to drudge through tropical forests in any kind of weather, to count thousands of birds on a lonely rock in the open ocean or to collect hundreds of dead fish and bury them in deep pits. It is important work in which success is measured in very small increments and patience is directly linked to one’s hope for a better future.