Congleton, Cheshire. UK
Presented at the BCG Symposium University of Bristol, 15th April 2000.
The BCG two week visit to Seychelles took place at the end of October 1999. Twelve members attended, led by Dr Justin Gerlach, Scientific Co-ordinator of the Nature Protection Trust of Seychelles (NPTS). Justin's work on the rediscovery and conservation of the Seychelles Giant tortoise needs little explanation. It is well documented through the media, TV and BCG publications plus numerous scientific references. Therefore, the following account is presented as a travelogue and diary of events as the BCG group experienced them.
The main purpose of the visit was to see the Seychelles tortoise and terrapin conservation project at first hand, especially Adam & Eve, Dipsochelys hololissa, who have been adopted by the BCG; and secondly to see the flora and fauna of Seychelles with the fragile balance of nature on these truly enchanting islands. We especially wanted to see the Aldabran tortoises of the islands, with aspects of captive husbandry. One of the highlights was to attend the official opening of the Information Centre and Laboratory on Silhouette Island.
The Seychelles archipelago is situated in the Indian Ocean 1600 km, from the coast of Kenya. In total there are 115 islands in an area of 1.3 million square kilometres. The inner islands are granite, and coral islands are situated on the outer areas of the archipelago. We stayed on three different islands during our visit - the main island of Mahé, Praslin and Silhouette. From Mahé and Praslin, the main inhabited islands, we went out to other islands of conservation significance.
The flight took 13 hours from Gatwick to Mahé After checking into La Rousette Hotel, we wasted no time in exploring our new surroundings. The hotel was situated near to the Casuarina Beach Hotel and in a shady pen we found some very friendly captive Aldabran tortoises Dipsochelys dussumieri. Many hotels and private individuals on the islands have 'pet' giant tortoises. It was at the Casuarina Hotel that Justin first noted a difference in some species in the collection, which then started his investigation into the rediscovery of the Seychelles Giant tortoises. We received our itinerary and spent much of the first evening discussing planned trips and relaxing with our hosts who ran the comfortable friendly hotel.
One of the first visits was to Cerf Island by motor boat to see wild Aldabran tortoises and also our first wild Seychelles tortoise, a D. hololissa male. This was one of two old tortoises which are regularly monitored by Justin, but are considered too large to transport easily to the reserve on Silhouette Island. It was fascinating to watch these wild tortoises cropping low shrubs and grazing Morning Glory Ipomoea pes-caprae which spreads rampantly along the shoreline on most of the islands. Other tortoise diet plants are the Breadfruit Artocarpus altilis and Prune de France, Chrysobalanus icaco with a round edible fruit. We also found a small gecko, Phelsuma sundbergi and Palm Spider Nephila inaurata which is found throughout the Seychelles archipelago. The female of the species can reach about 100mm across, the male measuring only a few mm. Despite the size, these female spiders are quite harmless and help keep down the mosquito population.
In order to get more of the flavour and atmosphere of the people and lifestyle of Seychelles, we visited the capital Victoria, and discovered at the restaurant where we dined, a collection of breeding Aldabran tortoises. Needless to say, some time was spent photographing and admiring them. Mahé also has several 'not to be missed' locations Beau Vallon Beach, the longest and most well known on Mahé is also the location of Ron and Gill Gerlach's Batik studio, where many ladies in our party acquired the delicate haute-couture fabrics. A visit to Victoria Botanical Gardens revealed some improvement to the Giant tortoise enclosure since my visit 10 years previously. The area had been extended allowing access to a wallowing pond and a food 'manger', which retained fresh green food allowing easy access without having it crushed underfoot by the tortoises. One problem which we encountered was general public access directly into the tortoise enclosure. Some commercial guides encouraged visitors to sit on the tortoises. We actively expressed our concerns over this matter and hope that it will be looked into by the authorities.
One area in Mahé where flora and fauna can be studied in depth is the Mission National Park. Following the English abolition of slavery there was concern for the education of the freed children. The Mission school was opened in 1876, but closed 10 years later due to lack of funds. All that now remains are the walkways and earth steps lined with magnificent Sandragon trees, Pterocarpus indicus. The new viewing platform has magnificent views across to the coast. This reserve revealed several species of snail; Conaxis sp, Achatina fulica, Liardetia barklayi to name but a few, plus several insect species and the only indigenous Chameleon Chameleo tigris. Another species has the appearance of a hedgehog with a long snout. This is the Tenrec, introduced from Madagascar around 1880 as a human food source. It can be found throughout Seychelles and breeds rapidly. The record number of young born to an individual is 32, as the Tenrec has 24 nipples to support them. We walked up through a tea plantation to find the rare indigenous Pitcher plant, Nepenthes pervillea and plucked sweet wild raspberries en route.
Our next call was to a hotel where it was known that 14 large tortoises were kept in less than acceptable conditions. They were in a walled muddy enclosure, which flooded when it rained. When we visited, the area was dry, but this exposed trodden in polythene bags and other rubbish. Scraps and even toxic plants from the garden made up the diet for the tortoises. Justin had been working on the general husbandry improvement and acquisition of a particular tortoise, a female Dipsochelys arnoldii. At the time of this presentation at the Bristol Symposium the female now named Alida had been acquired for the breeding programme on Silhouette. Work had also begun on opening up and expanding the tortoise enclosure to give access to grazing. Another success story!
Our time on Mahé passed quickly and it was time to depart for the next destination of Praslin Island by modern fast catamaran.
We settled into the Praslin Beach Hotel, which was a large complex with outdoor pool. Again we soon discovered the local tortoises a few minutes walk away at the Paradise Hotel. Here are housed Aldabran tortoises and one D. hololissa. This area had a personal meaning for me as on my visit in 1990 1 first saw a D. hololissa as then undiscovered, which was later to be named Adam. Throughout our stay on Praslin, we could visit and feed these giants whenever time permitted. Praslin is the second largest inhabited island in Seychelles and known for the remarkable VaII6e de Mai. This is an area which is of great conservation importance. It is the home of the Coco-de-Mer Lodoicea maldivica a large dioecious palm. The male and female reproductive organs resemble human anatomy. The female double coconut can reach 20kg in weight and trees of 25 metres in height are recorded. In the VaII6e de Mai we caught glimpses of the Seychelles black parrot Coracopsis nigra barklyi and other fauna including a green tree frog, Tachycnemis seychellensis.
From Praslin we visited the islands of Curieuse, Aride and La Digue by boat spending a day on each and returning to Praslin each evening.
On Curieuse we spent some time examining the wild tortoises which are at liberty in the area by the beach and are quite unafraid of humans. There is an excellent educational display comprising five concrete enclosures with tortoises ranging from a few months to approximately 5 years. They are returned to the wild at this stage as they are considered to be able to fend for themselves. The warden showed us the nesting area and some small one week old hatchlings. Justin was able to weigh and measure specimens for his statistical data on the Giant tortoises. There was time to feed the larger specimens and at this point disaster struck (for me at least) as one large male 'sat' on my mobile phone and broke it completely. My communication with my office in the UK was gone for good – now I really felt marooned. This event caused much amusement and even reached the Seychelles news media, especially as by now the 'Tortoise group from UK' was becoming quite famous.
The island of Aride is the most northerly of the inner islands of the archipelago and nearest to the equator of the islands visited. The temperature was in the region of 32'c with low humidity. Aride does not have any tortoises, but is famed for the wild sea bird populations. The island was purchased in 1973 by Christopher Cadbury for the Royal Society for Nature Conservation. A warden and visiting researchers monitor the flora and fauna.
On Aride were many plant species from the indigenous Hibiscus tiliaceus, the Tortoise Bush Morinda citrifolia with its ovoid fruit loved by tortoises, to the cultivated soursop Annoda muricata used medicinally in Seychelles. Of the bird population we saw noddies, turtle doves, fairy terns, blue pigeon and tropic birds amongst others. Other fauna included millipedes up to 25cm in length plus Seychelles Wrights skink and bronze geckos.
La Digue Island has a population of approximately 2000 people and covers little more than 10 square km. It is renowned for the beautiful and famous beaches used for advertising promotions. Transport on the island is often by bullock cart or bicycle.
The main area on our itinerary was La Veuve Special Reserve, where we saw the endangered Seychelles black paradise flycatcher Terpsiphone corvina. We watched silently as the male and female took turns sitting on a nest high in the forest canopy. Fortunately with the emphasis on education and conservation the population of this species is beginning to recover. We were hoping to see the two terrapin species, Pelusios castenoides and P subniger, but unfortunately the pond area was completely dry. The terrapins would be buried in a semi torpid state awaiting the next rains. There is a collection of Aldabran tortoises on the island which we spent time watching. These specimens are used to visitors and are quite tame.
Our last island was Silhouette. Transport was by a 30 minute helicopter ride from Mahé, having first transferred back to the airport on an Air Seychelles internal flight. We landed on the helicopter landing pad by the beach on Silhouette and were greeted by Ron and Gill Gerlach. Once we were assembled with luggage we settled in at Silhouette Island Lodge. This is the only hotel on the island and a special hideaway with accommodation in small traditional chalets surrounding the main complex. Silhouette Island has the highest recorded biodiversity of all the islands. It has a small population of just over 200 people and it is now home to Ron and Gill Gerlach. They have transformed an area at La Passe into the nature reserve for the Seychelles Giant Tortoise and Terrapin project.
There are large grassy grazing paddocks for the Giant tortoises and roofed constructions for sleeping and shelter. The terrapin reserve area was set up in 1997 and has ponds and dry land areas covered by green netting to protect from bird predation. It is hoped to breed the two terrapin species P. Castenoides and P. Subniger for ultimate release into the wild.
We were honoured to have an invitation to the opening of the Information Centre and Laboratory which coincided with our visit. This was a grand affair attended by Seychelles government and NPTS officials, plus the Seychelles TV team. The guests arrived in style by motor yacht from Mahé and were transported by dinghy directly onto the beach. Lunch at the Silhouette Lodge was provided for all and after opening speeches and TV interviews, Justin and Ron conducted tours around the splendid air conditioned visitor centre with its educational and data displays. The attached laboratory houses the egg incubator, microscopes, computers and anatomical specimens. Scientific work can be carried out in the spacious rooms.
After the guests departed we returned to our exploration of this beautiful island and spent as much time as possible during the last day with the Seychelles Giant tortoises arid relaxing by the sea. Sadly we departed Silhouette by helicopter with fond farewells and onward to Mahé to await our flight back to the UK and transfers back home, with our memories of a remarkable experience to a wonderful part of the world.
1 would like to thank the following for making the trip possible. Dr Justin Gerlach, Ron G Gill Gerlach, Travel Services (Seychelles) Ltd, Gemma Jessy (Guide), also the late Betty Beckett MRCVS, a naturalist who inspired me for many years with her enthusiasm of the islands, plus the following BCG participants who encouraged me to take all the photographs and were such good company: Henny Fenwick, Jackie Stevens, Penny Haynes, Yvette Herman, Julie Martin, Jean Jones, Andrea Evemy, Stephanie Hodges, Brian Cheshire, Ann Crosbie, Tiny Kronenberg.
The following list of publications refers to studies by Justin Gerlach on the Seychelles Giant tortoise. The list is by no means exhaustive.
Gerlach, J. & Canning, K.L. (1996). On the Seychelles Giant Tortoise; its rediscovery and prospects for conservation. Proceedings of the International Congress of Chelonian Conservation, pp 131-135.
Gerlach, J. & Canning, K.L. (1997). Evolution and history of the Giant tortoises of the Aldabra Island group. Testudo 4(3), 33-40.
Gerlach, J. (1998). Chelonia and people in the Seychelles. Testudo 4(4), 25-40.
Gerlach, J. (1998). The Rediscovery and Conservation of Seychelles Giant Tortoises. International Zoo News 45, 4-10.
Gerlach, J. & Canning, K.L. (1998). Taxonomy of Indian Ocean Giant Tortoises (Dipsochelys). Chelonian Conservation & Biology 3, 133-135
Gerlach, J. & Canning, K.L. (1998). Identification of Seychelles Giant Tortoises. Chelonian Conservation & Biology 3, 133-135.
Gerlach, J. (1999). Distinctive giant tortoise neural bones - structural and taxonomic characters. Journal of Morphology 240, 33-38.
Gerlach, J. (1999). Notes on Seychelles reptiles. Herpetological Bulletin 67, 53-60.
Gerlach, J. (1999). Feeding behaviour and the saddle-back shell of Dipsochelys arnoldii. Chelonian Conservation & Biology 3, 496-500
Testudo Volume Five Number Three 2000