On 11 July we took a small boat from Praslin Island to Félicité, a small (2.68 square kilometres) granitic island lying to the north-east of La Digue. This was at the request of Steve Hill, who had been heavily involved in a major rehabilitation project on the island, associated with the development of a luxury hotel, Six Senses “Ile Pasyon”, and a national park. Like so many of Seychelles’ islands, Félicité had been planted with coconut trees in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to contribute to Seychelles’ main export commodity, copra, for almost a century. The cultivation of coconut trees had involved clearance of most of the island’s indigenous flora and its replacement with rows of evenly spaced coconut trees. Other non-native plants were doubtless introduced to provide food for the work force and its domestic stock. As with all such developments, human activities led to the introduction of rats, cats and other commensal animals and plants. Steve’s mandate was to remove a large area of the exotic vegetation and replant it with indigenous woodland.
This followed on the heels of an earlier major landscaping project that he had undertaken on Frégate Island, there involving replacement of introduced woodland with around 100,000 native plants, as part of the Seychelles Magpie Robin Recovery Programme. This bird had become one of the rarest in the world, with only about 12 individuals surviving, all on Frégate, when I first visited the island in 1972. Steve’s habitat rehabilitation project was a major contributor (probably “the” major contributor) to the Seychelles Magpie Robin’s rescue from the brink of extinction, although other projects initiated by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the International Council for Bird Preservation (now BirdLife International) undoubtedly played a part.
On Félicité, Steve’s replanting programme involved the growing of about 40,000 seedlings/saplings to the stage where they could be safely planted out and appropriately nursed to ensure their survival. The planting programme has included the introduction of some plant species obtained from other islands in Seychelles, such as the endemic Rothmannia annae, (Wright’s Gardenia, or Bwa Sitron in Creole); this formerly widespread endemic shrub was believed to be extinct, but was rediscovered on Aride Island in 1972.
In order to ensure the success of the planting programme of the indigenous and endemic species, exotic and highly invasive species had to be removed. Coco-plum Chrysobalanus icaco presented particularly difficult problems as t clothed large swathes of the island. This plant had been introduced to Seychelles in an attempt to stem the soil erosion that had been the inevitable consequence of the removal of native vegetation during development of the islands for human occupation. But Coco-plum revealed huge powers of colonisation, aided by dispersal of its seeds by animals, both native and introduced, until it clothed granite-derived soils to the exclusion of other plant life. On Félicité its successful removal from large parts of the island involved incredible effort and manpower to cut down the bushes and dig out the roots, followed by constant vigilance for the emergence of new plants and their removal. This represented a huge achievement and it has led to a large part of the island being designated as the Ramos National Park. However, recent lapses in Coco-plum control have allowed some resurgence and without appropriate on-going management its continued growth could undo much of the enormous success that had been achieved.
Félicité hosts four of Seychelles’ endemic birds. Seychelles Sunbirds and Seychelles Blue Pigeons are abundant and breed. A small number of Seychelles Paradise Flycatchers appear to be resident on the island but have not bred successfully, and the Seychelles Swiftlet is sometimes seen over the island, but its status is unclear. On nearby Praslin and La Digue it nests in “caves” under granite rocks but nest sites are very difficult to find. While they are not thought to nest on Félicité, the possibility cannot be excluded. In addition to these four, Seychelles Kestrels occasionally visit.
The rehabilitation work that has been undertaken so far has created habitats that could support other Seychelles endemic birds, such as the Seychelles Magpie Robin and Seychelles Warbler, thereby creating another reservoir for these once highly endangered species. A major obstacle is the presence of rats, cats and Common Mynas. A rat eradication is proposed once construction on the island has ceased. This could create another predator-free island in Seychelles where limited high-end tourism can contribute to the broader scale conservation of Seychelles’ unique animal and plant life.