I first stepped foot on Aride Island, Seychelles, in March 1972. With John Procter, then the Conservation Advisor to the Seychelles Government, we undertook a 3-day survey of the island, its vegetation and bird and reptile life. The island lived up to its name, being very dry even at the end of the “wet” season and dominated by bush vegetation. This was due mainly to frequent coppicing of the vegetation in order to maintain the habitat in a state that attracted Sooty Terns to breed; their eggs were harvested in large numbers each June-July to be sent to the larger islands of Seychelles for human consumption. John and I also found evidence that other birds, especially frigatebirds, were killed for food and young shearwaters would also have been harvested later in the year.
There was constant noise from vast numbers of seabirds but little bird song, the only small birds present being introduced Madagascar Fodies and Barred Ground Doves. Importantly, although we saw a few mice, rats and cats had never reached the island. As a result, the island retained fauna that most of the islands of the Seychelles archipelago had lost.
A major surprise came when John looked long and hard at one of the bushes on the hill. He had discovered that Wright’s Gardenia, an endemic plant long believed extinct in Seychelles, was alive and thriving on Aride, despite regular coppicing along with the other vegetation.
Following the report that John and I wrote, recommending that the island should be designated a special reserve and offered full protection, the island was bought by Christopher Cadbury and donated by him to the Society for the Promotion of Nature Conservation in UK. Management was eventually transferred to the Island Conservation Society, a Seychelles NGO, and ownership was transferred to ICS in 2008.
This year, Christine and I have been able to revisit Aride Island to run a training course (more details later). Since my first visit there have been many changes. On approach in a small inflatable dinghy it was clear that the island is now dominated by lush woodland, a feature that has been encouraged by the cessation of coppicing and prohibition of the harvest of Sooty Tern eggs (but despite the island’s protection some poaching still occurs). On landing we were greeted not only by the raucous calls of hordes of seabirds,
White-tailed Tropicbirds, Lesser Noddies, Brown Noddies, Sooty Terns, Roseate Terns and White Terns, and in the evening by the trilling calls of Bridled Terns, but also by bird song. The development of the forest has rendered the island suitable for the introduction of some of Seychelles’ formerly critically endangered endemic land birds. Soon after our landing we found ourselves surrounded by talkative Seychelles Fodies, hopping around a table as we were welcomed with tea and biscuits, and heard the songs of Seychelles Warblers and Seychelles Magpie Robins. The conditions that have allowed these birds to succeed, along with tree-nesting seabirds such as Lesser Noddies and White Terns, have come at some cost, however, as numbers of breeding Sooty Terns and Roseate Terns, which normally prefer reasonably open ground for breeding, are in decline. Nevertheless, seabirds abound and their daytime noise is augmented from dusk until dawn by the wailing of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and chatters and whistles of their smaller cousins, Tropical Shearwaters.
ICS’s stewardship of the island has achieved great successes and includes monitoring programmes that help to identify changes that result from management actions on the island and its surrounding waters, and/or from environmental changes such as El Niño and the Indian Ocean Dipole. ICS also supports research on Aride’s seabirds by scientists from various universities around the world and, in addition to tourists, hosts educational visits from young Seychellois.