Wild treasures

Sarah Marshall learns about the wonderful work of TRASS, the Terrestrial Restoration Action Society of Seychelles.

Paid partnership with Tourism Seychelles

Wild treasures

Sarah Marshall visits the ‘Indian Ocean’s Garden of Eden’ to learn about the wonderful work of TRASS, the Terrestrial Restoration Action Society of Seychelles.

When Eve offered Adam a bite of forbidden fruit, she had no idea of the heavy consequences in store. Countless attempts have been made to identify the real-life location of the Biblical oasis where humanity’s fate unfolded. A forest filled with towering palm trees bearing the world’s heaviest seed, one of the closest contenders for the Garden of Eden, is Praslin’s Vallée de Mai.

British Major-General Charles George Gordon thought so when he landed in Seychelles in 1881. Stood below a canopy of fanning fronds, shards of sunlight struggling to strike a trail of stepping stones, I can easily see why.

This Indian Ocean archipelago is the only place where the coco de mer, a rare plant living for up to 400 years, grows. Picking up a curvy, suggestively shaped fruit seed – which can weigh up to 25kg – from the floor, my guide Victorin Laboudallon jokes: “If one of those hits you, you’ll never be leaving paradise.”

One of the few people to have visited nearly all 115 islands in the archipelago, the 70-year-old local legend was a pioneer for conservation in the country and has dedicated his life to making the islands greener by restoring degraded forests. Nearly half the landmass of Seychelles is protected and in 2010 the government made a pledge to transform 30% of its waters into marine protected areas.

Beyond glossy resorts and sparkling beaches, an abundance of wild endemic wonders – such as the Aldabra giant tortoise, bronze gecko, chameleon and frogs like the Seychelles tree frog – attracts visitors to the islands. People like Victorin are responsible for keeping them safe.

“When I was a child, I would go with my grandmother into the forest and the first thing I would ask her was the name of the trees,” recalls Victorin, as we continue our loop of the nature park. “I’ve lived on so many islands and I know so many species of trees. They’ve even got a fern named after me.”

Largely unchanged since prehistoric times, Vallee de Mai has rightfully earned its UNESCO World Heritage title. Elsewhere on Praslin – one of the inner islands easily reached by ferry or plane from main international entry point Mahé – emerald swathes of jungle, once damaged by bushfires, have since been restored with the help of Victorin’s NGO TRASS (Terrestrial Restoration Action Society of Seychelles).

Other endemics have also benefited from Victorin’s passion to protect nature. Thanks to his invention of artificial nesting boxes, a population of the endangered Seychelles black parrot now stands a good chance of survival.

“Even if you do not have a lot of money doing this job, you love it,” he happily confesses, as one of the charcoal-hued birds swoops overhead.

Although he remains an active figure, Victorin’s work has paved the way for a new generation of conservationists – including an enthusiastic team working to protect seabirds on tiny, uninhabited neighbouring island Aride.

Described by 18th century sailors as merely “a pile of rocks with shrubs”, the largest nature reserve of the granitic islands of Seychelles is now home to the largest number of breeding seabirds at any location in the country. Aride has the world’s largest population of tropical shearwater and lesser noddy and Seychelles’ largest population of roseate tern. 

In addition, some of the stunning flora species found in the reserve are endemic to Seychelles; one of them is the Wright’s gardenia, an elegant small tree with beautifully perfumed flowers, naturally occurring on Aride only. The island also supports five endemic land birds like the Fody Foudia sechellarum or ‘toktok’ and a range of endemic reptiles and invertebrates.

Because the ocean outcrop is an important site for so many species, it is managed by the Island Conservation Society (ICS), an NGO working with the government to safeguard key areas. Day visitors are allowed to step ashore but extreme lengths are taken to avoid introducing any invasive species.

After taking a private boat with Sea Horse Boat Charter from a jetty next to the Hotel L’Archipel, I switch midway through the short journey to a RIB boat owned by the ICS. Strong surf makes landing on Aride an adventure, forcing us to ride waves several metres high before gliding triumphantly ashore. 

Only a handful of researchers and volunteers live or work on the island, including young Seychellois amateur filmmaker and wildlife fanatic Dillys Pouponeau.

“Most young people prefer the beach,” she shrugs as we walk along the sandy coastline where lesser noddy birds dive to collect strands of seaweed for building nests. “But I crave the easier life.” Opening her arms to embrace the sea and sky in one enormous hug, she adds: “This is ours.”

For such a small space – measuring only 0.23 square miles – the number of species here is extraordinary. At the base of tree trunks, fluffy white-tailed tropic bird chicks perch on ground nests free from any risk of predation; in the trees above us, angelic fairy terns have delicately laid their eggs in a precarious fork between branches.

Free from rats – and humans – Aride is an avian sanctuary. In 2002, a small number of critically endangered magpie robins were translocated here from Fregate Island to create a new population. Part of the ICS team’s work is to monitor their numbers.

Friendly and inquisitive, the tiny, dulcet-toned birds (known as pisantez – ‘the singer’ – in Creole) frequently land close by and appear to be beckoning us to follow their melodious path.

Of course, there are still threats from illegal hunters and the larger spectre of climate change. But Dillys feels positive about a future for the islands and their inhabitants.  “When I was small, turtles would nest right outside our house on Praslin,” she fondly recalls. “I hope one day they will come back.”

Driven by passion and a shared pride in their home, conservation heroes of all ages are investing everything into making the Indian Ocean’s Garden of Eden blossom again.

Need to know

Getting there

The main international airport is Seychelles International Airport (SEZ) located on the island of Mahé.

Major airlines such as Emirates, Qatar Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and Etihad offer flights connecting in Dubai (DXB), Doha (DOH), Addis (ADD) or Abu Dhabi (AUH).

Best time to go

Temperatures are pleasant all year round but the best time to visit Seychelles is between April and May, or between October and November.

During these periods, it’s less windy and best for snorkelling.

Where to stay

Major hotels chains are present including Hilton, Kempinski, Four Seasons, Six Senses, Anantara and Raffles.

More boutique options are also available such as Constance Lemuria and Le Domaine de L’Orangeraie.

Must-pack item

Sunscreen and a water bottle, so you can wander happily among the flora and fauna knowing you’re hydrated and protected.

How to do it

Air Seychelles operates domestic flights between Mahé, Praslin, and other smaller islands.

Zil Air offers helicopter transfers and scenic flights between the islands. Cat Cocos operates high-speed ferry services and Cat Rose provides regular ferry services.

Anything else

Moyenne on Aride was once thought to be home to pirate treasure.

However, despite numerous attempts of drilling and excavating, nothing has been found so far.

More information

This article was brought to you in partnership with Tourism Seychelles.

The Seychelles Islands: Another world.

Experience all that the Seychelles Islands has to offer from pristine waters, to exquisite flora and fauna.

For more information, go to seychelles.com >.

JRNY is an independent travel magazine published in the UK. Subscribe to JRNY for more stories like this.