25th Anniversary of Aldabra as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
The 19th of November 1982 is earmarked in global history as a day when one of the smallest nations in the world shared one of the largest coral atolls with the rest of the world: Aldabra Atoll became a gift to humanity by the people of Seychelles. In doing so, we Seychellois committed to the protection of Aldabra Atoll - “Wonder of Nature” as it is inscribed on the commemorative plaque.
Aldabra Atoll, one of the Republic of Seychelles’ southernmost islands, is approximately 1100 km south west of the main island of Mahé, 420 km north west of Madagascar and 640 km east of Tanzania. Aldabra has a total land area of 153 sq. km, but together with the mangrove, lagoon and the channels occupies an area of 346 sq. km. Aldabra’s geographical isolation, rough terrain and scarcity of fresh water have been the primary factors deterring permanent human settlement, and subsequently have served as the atoll’s semi-protective shield.
History of Aldabra
According to records, the name Aldabra derives from Arabic, although it is uncertain whether from the word for ‘green’ (perhaps relating to the green reflection of the lagoon on clouds above it) or from the name of a bright star which the Arabs used for navigation. Although the harsh environment and isolated location have spared Aldabra from a large human population, the atoll has not escaped natural resource exploitation. Beginning in the 1600s passing ships stopped to fill their holds with giant tortoises and turtles to use as food. By 1842 there was concern that the tortoises were being over-exploited, but already plans were being made to exploit mangrove wood as well as turtles and tortoises. Around this time goats and pigs were also introduced to serve as a mid-voyage food source. The pigs are thought to have preyed heavily on tortoise and turtle hatchlings but apparently died out. The goats however, slowly multiplied and competed with the tortoises for food and killed many of the shade trees used by the tortoises.
By the 1890s the atoll was being leased out. One lessee is said to have killed 12,000 turtles. He also brought in Chinese workers to harvest sea cucumbers. Various other commercial ventures were considered, such as guano extraction, salt fish, copra and maize but the conditions on Aldabra defied their logistic and financial feasibility. By 1929, it is reported that over-harvest by labourers threatened many of the sea and land birds with extinction. Eventually, by the 1940s and 1950s, modest restrictions on tortoise and turtle harvests were mandated, although other animals and plants remained unprotected.
By far the greatest threat that Aldabra ever faced was in 1962 when the British military conducted a secret survey to evaluate the atoll’s potential as an Anglo-American military base. By 1965, the military’s plans were exposed and the Royal Society requested that two scientists, Dr. D. R. Stoddart and Dr. C. A. Wright, accompany a survey conducted by the Ministry of Defence. The public outcry which followed the Royal Society’s report and the broadcasting of Tony Beamish’s television documentary about the atoll, combined with economic cutbacks by the British Government resulted in the plans being abandoned.
The Royal Society then built a research station on Picard in 1971 and acquired the lease on Aldabra. There followed a period of intense research into the terrestrial and marine ecology, including important contributions by the Smithsonian Institution of Washington, DC.
In 1981, the Royal Society surrendered its lease to the newly formed Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF). SIF was formed with the express purpose of managing and conserving the natural life of Aldabra and of initiating further scientific research. A few years later, SIF took over the management of Vallée de Mai on Praslin. Revenue raised from Vallée de Mai, which is the most important and most visited nature reserve in Seychelles, funds a major part of the running costs of Aldabra.
In 1992 SIF initiated the complete renovation of the Aldabra research station with the financial support of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which also included the purchase of a new rapid reaction boat, the implementation of a first goat eradication programme and the preparation of a management plan. At the same time the SIF used much of its own financial resources to renovate the accommodation block, the dining room/recreation area and much of the general infrastructure. A few field camps located around the atoll at various sites provide basic shelter for field excursions and monitoring.
Research and monitoring
The Royal Society set up a number of research and monitoring programmes in the late 1970s, some of which are still ongoing, e.g. rainfall measurements around the atoll, measurements and statistics of the giant tortoise population and the green turtle population. The latter represent some of the longest continuous monitoring programmes for reptiles in the world. Other monitoring and research programmes that are undertaken mainly by the SIF’s Aldabra rangers cover seabirds, land birds, migrant birds, plant phenology (times of flowering, fruiting, etc), butterflies and fish measurements. In addition, Aldabra Marine Programme personnel have been monitoring the coral reef annually after the disastrous coral bleaching event of 1997/1998. Recent exciting findings have been reported in this newspaper earlier - the sighting of dugongs on a number of occasions in the lagoon and the recording of flamingo breeding on the atoll for the first time. Another recent finding is that frigate birds can fly from Aldabra to the granitic islands and back again within a matter of a few days.
Aldabra – UNSECO World Heritage Site
Aldabra is a prime example of a raised coral atoll and is significantly less disturbed than most other atolls in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere in the world. It is a refuge for many endangered and unique species. Amongst these are the Aldabra giant tortoise (Dipsochelys dussumieri = Geochelone gigantea) of which there are about 100,000; one of the largest congregations of nesting green turtles (Chelonia mydas) in the Indian Ocean; the world’s second largest breeding population of greater and lesser frigate birds (Fregata minor and Fregata ariel); the last flightless bird species in the Indian Ocean - the white-throated rail (Dryolimnas cuvieri aldabranus); and many endemic taxa of plants and animals. As a result of Aldabra’s unique ecosystems and species it was listed as a Seychelles Special Reserve (1981) and as a World Heritage Site (1982).
25th Anniversary as a UNESCO World Heritage
The support extended to SIF to earmark the 25th anniversary of Aldabra as a UNESCO World Heritage is reminding us once more of the importance and need of partnerships and a nationwide engagement. Our partners such as the Ministry of Education, the National Museum, the Seychelles Philatelic Bureau, the media, schoolchildren and artists, listing only a few, have not spared any efforts to commemorate the most important donation of our nation to humanity. SIF is determined to engage the international community in the quest for Aldabra to stay a “Wonder of Nature” with the assistance of the Aldabra Foundation.
SIF is extending its gratitude to all Seychellois for contributing to the protection of Aldabra in whatever way, including having a dream of a remote place, difficult to visit but in our all hearts.