Since human settlement of the Seychelles archipelago about two-and-a-half centuries ago, most of the granitic islands that form the main island group have been substantially modified by man’s activities. At about 280 hectares, Curieuse is the fifth largest of the granitic islands and, like most of the others, it was formerly forested. Among the trees discovered there was the Coco de Mer palm, which only occurred elsewhere on its larger neighbour, Praslin. The only fauna mentioned by early visitors were Crocodiles and Giant Tortoises, both of which were extirpated and much of the native forest was destroyed – but some Coco de Mer survived.
Since those early days, the island underwent various uses, for much of the 19th century as an isolation centre for sufferers of leprosy. During this period the most notable medical officer, a Scot, William McGregor, built a magnificent colonial house that has now been beautifully restored as a museum and information centre. Following the move of leprosy victims to a smaller island near Praslin, the island became essentially devoted to farming, but included an abortive attempt to rear Hawksbill Turtles in a large lagoon. In the early 20th century the 16-hectare turtle pond was formed by constructing a 0.5 km wall across Baie Laraie but since the failure of the turtle project this barrier has fallen into disrepair. The island’s function as a leprosy care centre resumed for another period in the 20th century up to 1965, after which a variety of conservation initiatives were begun, and continue with greater determination today. The island is now managed by the Seychelles Marine Parks Authority who, in addition to research and monitoring in the marine environment, undertake restoration/conservation projects in the island terrestrial habitats.
Christine and I were invited to visit the island by the manager, Anto Suzette, on 10 July. We were greeted soon after disembarkation by some of the island’s free-ranging Giant Tortoises that maintain a pleasant lawn area for visitors around the reception area – these animals were introduced from Aldabra in the late 70s/early 80s and have established a breeding population on the island. We explored the boardwalk through the mangroves and on to the “Drs House”, and also took a diversion off this track up a hillside into some regenerating Coco-de Mer woodland.
The hillsides have much of the Seychelles red soils exposed. This results from deforestation in the past leading to erosion, and also fires that have periodically torn through parts of the forest. Replanting has been initiated and we were please to come across numerous young Coco de Mer trees. We saw Seychelles Sunbirds, Seychelles Bulbuls and Seychelles Blue Pigeons during this part of the walk. We were told that Seychelles Black Parrots occasionally fly over from Praslin, the only island on which they breed.
The mangrove area is impressive, the woodland areas including six of the seven mangrove species that have been recorded in Seychelles. There are also more open areas of exposed mud and the whole area is teeming with various species of crab and with large snails. Importantly, access is made so easy by means of excellent boardwalks, from which a visitor can look up to the tree canopy and down to the surface of the mud below with its vast crab fauna. The mangrove trees were full of the calls of Seychelles Sunbirds and within the openings we saw several Green-backed Herons and a Grey Heron, while the appearance of a Yellow Bittern was especially encouraging in view of concerns over the survival of this spectacular bird in Seychelles, due to losses of its wetland habitats on the larger islands (http://www.seychellesbirdrecordscommittee.com/uploads/8/0/0/5/8005875/2._nation_09.02
For me, an intriguing and unexpected feature was the result of the partial collapse of the retaining wall of the old turtle pond. This had left the shallow lagoon open to the influence of the tidal cycle, inundated at high tide but exposing varying expanses of mud at other times. During our July visit single Grey Plover, Whimbrel and Greenshank were searching for suitable prey. In the northern winter these species are much more abundant and are joined by many other species of shorebirds that migrate from their arctic and high-temperate breeding grounds. The mudflat reminded me of a former area of mud that existed in the early 1970s in Victoria, prior to the construction of the New Port. There, over two “winters”, I recorded 19 shorebird species, some of them, such as Curlew Sandpipers, in their hundreds. The Curieuse mudflat warrants regular monitoring from September to March. It appeared to have the potential to be one of the main wintering areas for shorebirds in the granitic islands of Seychelles, with the exciting possibility occasional appearance of vagrant species (which should be reported, with supporting details and, ideally, photographs, to the Seychelles Bird Records Committee http://www.stokecoll.ac.uk/sbrc/index.htm).
We are grateful to Anto Suzette and his SMPA staff for making our enjoyable visit possible.