Desroches Island, Seychelles

Island rehabilitation and ecotourism on Desroches

  • 1. Eco-tourism and Desroches Island Lodge
  • 2. Conservation overview
  • 3. Vegetation rehabilitation programme
  • 4. The "Desroches Whale": magazine article
  • Adam Moolna and a nesting hawksbill turtle (Desroches Island) Greeting the flight to Desroches Island

    1. Eco-tourism and Desroches Island Lodge

    Desroches Island, in the Amirantes group of the outer islands of Seychelles, hosts one of the world's most exclusive private island resorts. Desroches Island Lodge is managed by Wilderness Collection, who also run exclusive North Island in the central granitic islands of Seychelles. The island's conservation programme is coordinated by the Desroches Island Foundation, which brings together:

  • - Desroches Island Lodge
  • - Island Conservation Society (conservation programme administrators)
  • - Islands Development Company (government administrators of the outer islands)
  • - Ministry of Environment (Government of Seychelles)
  • - Villa owners (of private residences on the island)
  • The Desroches Island Conservation Centre was opened in June 2009, with the primary aim to promote the conservation and restoration of the island. The centre’s main roles involve the implementation of biodiversity monitoring, with an emphasis on nesting turtles and bird species, as well as the rejuvenation of Desroches’ native woodland. The conservation team works closely with the Island Development Company and Desroches Island Lodge to educate residents and visiting guests in the value and importance of protecting of island ecosystems, both terrestrial and marine.

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    2. Conservation overview

    Desroches at April 2012 was dominated by low density forest of tall old Coconut palms interspersed with Casuarina trees. Patches of native broad-leaved forest were limited to some coastal areas and, in the “wilderness area”, some more extensive inland broad-leaved forest at the eastern end. Coastal vegetation was largely natural Scaevola, which provides important sea turtle nesting habitat and also protection against shoreline erosion. There was an important ground-burrowing colony of Wedge-Tailed Shearwater at Muraille Bondieu at the western tip and various other seabird colonies and roosts. There were, however, no native land birds (introduced Malagasy Fody, Francolin, Barred Ground Dove and House Sparrow). The island has two known endemic cockroach species but lacking comprehensive surveying there may be further endemic invertebrate species to discover.

    The creole village on Desroches Island from the air University of Manchester visit to Desroches Island (on the airstrip doing the island nature tour)

    The conservation vision for Desroches Island is of ecological rehabilitation. It is not known with much detail what the native ecology was – other than that it was rat-free, wooded with various native broad-leaved trees, and fringed by coastal Coconut palms and Scaevola. Rehabilitation aims to restore this approximate situation – give or take a few extra or less particular species dependent on local, national and international conservation priorities. Restoration of the terrestrial vegetation to a native broad-leaved woodland is the central and first requirement of the rehabilitation vision. Potential conservation action to protect and enhance the Desroches endemic cockroaches needs to be explored further.

    Tree planting was begun in June 2012 towards the overall target of approximately 48,000 trees across the island, following Samways et al.(2010). Seedlings are planted under the low density Coconut canopy (retained as protective shade) following clearance of Casuarina trees. Assuming a rate of 1000 tree per month (realistic with 3 ICS staff planting and IDC providing Casuarina clearance) the programme will take approximately 48 months and be completed by October 2016. Maturation of forest over 10-15 years will see progressive development of leaf litter and this should be monitored for the simultaneous development of soil and insect communities, with particular thought to food availability for insectivorous land birds that might be introduced to the island.

    Skeleton of the new whale species Mesoplodon hotaula washed up on Desroches Island in 2009 Native plant nursery, Desroches Island

    Rat eradication has been proposed for Desroches, following the end of villa construction in 2-5 years time. Realistically, maintaining the islands as rat-free will be very difficult given the level of development on the island and the consequent frequency of boat visits. There is a very high likelihood of rats returning to Desroches following eradication in the absence of strict prevention procedures. Ensuring sufficiently strict procedures are implemented in practice is unrealistic for the foreseeable future; so rat eradication must await more suitable on-the-ground realities. The continuing presence of Ship Rats Rattus rattus would not impede translocation of the Aldabra Flightless Rail (a key Seychelles conservation priority and iconic bird of high potential value for eco-tourism) into restored forest as this species lives with rats Rattus rattus on Aldabra.

    The conservation programme on Desroches from 2012-13: monitors and protects nesting sea turtles; monitors and protects the Wedge-Tailed Shearwater colony; records shorebird and seabird sightings; restores native broad-leaved vegetation; collects visual sightings of cetaceans; nurtures a giant tortoise population; engages hotel guests through nature talks and tours; and includes dives for sea surface temperature data logger collection and coral reef monitoring.

    With my friend Tony Jupiter and two French journalists on Desroches Island Conservation staff houses, Desroches Island ^ return to top

    3. Vegetation rehabilitation programme

    We launched the vegetation rehabilitation programme for Desroches Island with the planting in 2 hours of 300 trees on the 4th June 2012, at a community event bringing together Islands Development Company, hotel and Island Conservation Society staff to mark World Environment Day.

    The aim was to work up to planting 2,000 trees per month from September 2012 for a 2 year period, which would achieve the cross-island 48,000 tree total plan proposed by Michael Samways (2010). Our coconut forest clearance strategy is to remove small coconut palms and other non-natives, plus all casuarina, whilst leaving the large coconut palms to provide necessary shade for the native broad-leaved seedlings we are planting. These large coconut palms will be dealt with by long-term poisoning leading to gradual die off, by which stage our native broad-leaved seedlings will be established. This rehabilitation strategy has been developed through extensive experimental work on neighbouring D'Arros, the conservation manager of which we have been advised by.

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    4. The "Desroches Whale": magazine article 2013

    "Conservation on Desroches Island and a new species of whale" - Pot Pourri magazine, January 2013

    pdf Conservation on Desroches Island and a new species of whale

    Eco-tourism on Desroches

    "Lying 240 km southwest of Mahé in the Amirantes group, Desroches is a 324 hectare low-lying sand cay of just over 5 km length. The island lies at the southern edge of a 20 km wide sunken atoll and is today the most developed of Seychelles' outer islands. Owned by the Seychelles government, the island is managed by the government's Islands Development Company with the involvement of the Desroches Island Lodge resort and the Island Conservation Society environmental charity. Desroches Island Lodge is one of the most luxurious resorts in Seychelles and attracts the most discerning guests, including Prince William of the United Kingdom and his bride-to-be Catherine in 2007."

    the whale carcass on 

    Tree planting

    "The Island Conservation Society established a conservation centre on Desroches in June 2009 and within weeks we were presented with the rare event of a stranded beaked whale. The 4 metre whale was photographed and anatomical measurements taken to help identify the species. The closest potential match was one of the rarest types of beaked whale – the Gingko beaked-tooth whale Mesoplodon gingkodens, only known from just over two dozen strandings. Significant differences in skull and teeth shape from the official Gingko beaked-tooth whale characteristics, however, prompted the Island Conservation Society and Seychelles' Ministry of Environment to get involved with global experts in whale taxonomy (the science of how species relate to each other)."

    "The 'Desroches Whale' turned out to be identical to a specimen that had been heralded as a new species when washed up in Sri Lanka in 1963. Very similar to the Gingko whale, however , taxonomists of the 20th century found the proposed species impossible to confirm. Later advances in DNA technology have allowed recent re-investigation of beaked whale taxonomy and the Island Conservation Society joined forces with these researchers. DNA studies confirmed in 2011 that the 2009 Desroches whale and the 1963 Sri Lankan whale, along with five further specimens from across the Indo-Pacific, were indeed a new species. We presented the scientific findings to the International Whaling Commission in June 2012 , with 2009 ICS team members Danielle Jupiter and Lisa Thompson as co-authors, and the new species was officially recognised as Mesoplodon hotaula. As is the custom of naturalists, the 'Deraniyagala's Whale' common name agreed is that given to the first specimen in 1963."

    "We are now expanding our whale monitoring system on Desroches, including a visual sightings programme that has been established with the support of Bryan Rapson at the island 's Castaway activity centre. We are also looking to bring the latest technology for acoustic whale detection to Desroches – part of proposed whale monitoring across the Seychelles plateau in collaboration with Dr David Rowat at the Marine Conservation Society of Seychelles."

    Tree planting for the vegetation 
	rehabilitation programme

    The conservation team and island rehabilitation

    "The Island Conservation Society team on Desroches is today led by Tony Jupiter. Originally from Bel Ombre on Mahé, Tony is one of Seychelles' most experienced conservation rangers and has tagged, during his working life on outer islands including Aldabra, more than half of all the sea turtles ever tagged in Seychelles. We also have Melinda Curran working as a volunteer administration officer and Kat Machin on a placement year for her zoology degree at the University of Manchester, England."

    "The indigenous broad-leaved forest of Desroches, once marked on maps as 'Wood Island', was largely replaced with coconut palms during the 19th century for plantation agriculture. The Island Conservation Society is now building on past experience restoring the native forest of Aride Island with an ambitious vegetation rehabilitation programme for Desroches. Closely supported by our partners at the Islands Development Company, led on Desroches by Alain Commettant, we are planting nearly 50,000 native broad-leaved tree seedlings over the next few years. Native forest that remained in a wilderness area at the eastern end of the island is being used as the source of seeds and seedlings for our planting programme to conserve the genetic provenance of the Desroches forest. Future rehabilitation work is proposed to include rat eradication, with potential for translocation then of the endemic ground-dwelling Seychelles Magpie Robin or Aldabra Flightless Rail."

    7 year old giant tortoises 
	released from our nursery into the wild on World Environment Day

    Environmental education with the Desroches family

    "One of the eco-tourism highlights for guests at Desroches Island Lodge is the giant tortoise nursery and adoptions of young tortoises are popular. We have here 40 to 50 juvenile tortoises at any one time, ranging in age from a few weeks to 7 years old. Most hatchlings come from our twelve captive breeding adult tortoises in what, at the size of two soccer pitches, is possibly the world's biggest giant tortoise pen. There are also 30 wild giant tortoises on Desroches and these lay eggs in nests scattered across the island. We are regularly brought hatchling tortoises found by island staff and hotel guests on their travels. For the first weeks of their lives, freshly hatched tortoises are protected by Island Conservation Society staff at their houses."

    "World Environment Day in June 2012 allowed the Desroches family to bring these various aspects together in an enjoyable event for the whole island community. Staff from Desroches Island Lodge, the Islands Development Company and the Island Conservation Society all came together for an intensive morning planting 300-plus trees. Great fun was had by all and we finished up, joined by an enthusiastic contingent of hotel guests, with a ceremonial release of five juvenile giant tortoises that had reached a suitable size for safe wild living at aged 7 years. We've begun planting a Botanic Gardens next to the tortoise nursery that Kat, our university placement student, is developing."

    "Desroches Island Lodge are enthusiastic partners and support the bulk of the conservation centre costs. Mark Leslie and Wicus Prinsloo of the hotel management host the Island Conservation Society team at the hotel library every Monday and Friday evening where we present popular nature talks to guests. Evening environmental education goes further during the Green Turtle nesting season, with guests welcome to accompany us on night patrols to tag nesting females. Year-round, we also offer a daily afternoon nature tour of the island. Earlier this year, Tony encountered the unusual sight of Green Turtles mating on the beach and was able to take some stunning photographs."

    The rare sight of Green Turtles 
	mating on the beach

    And the 'Desroches Whale'?

    "One of only seven specimens known to science, we propose to have the skeleton of the Desroches Whale wire-mounted by professionals and installed under a wooden protective shelter as the centrepiece of our Desroches Botanic Gardens. Together with our giant tortoise nursery and the education materials, this will provide a focal point to inspire guests and staff alike for years to come."

    Dr Adam Moolna - for the Island Conservation Society, Seychelles (January 2013)

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