One of the least known islands of the Seychelles group, tiny Cousine Island is introducing limited tours for keen nature watchers. Now up to six visitors a day can visit its unspoilt wildlife, which includes giant Aldabra tortoises and Hawksbill turtles. By Jeremy Torr.
Situated some eight kilometres off the west coast of Praslin — the Seychelles’ second most inhabited island — Cousine Island has begun day visits for small groups. The organisers promise close up encounters with nesting seabirds, endemic bird species, giant land tortoises, and depending on the season, nesting sea turtles. All this is mainly thanks to the efforts of the island’s owners who literally rescued the island and it fauna and flora from a sterile extinction.
Two hundred years ago, Cousine Island came under French occupation, and the new occupants set about a thorough exploitation of its resources. Settlers and visitors ravaged its seemingly endless natural bounties and slowly but surely eliminated most of its wildlife, its nesting birds and the once vibrant array of sea creatures on surrounding reefs. Waters were severely overfished, native forests levelled to make way for cash crops, and local wildlife hunted almost to extinction in the rush to make money from turtle-shells, bird and turtle eggs, and lumber its forests.
In 1991, the almost-barren island was purchased by the Cousine Island Company, which committed to revitalising its ecosystem. The owner’s philosophy of applying a unique conservation-based management system saw a new 12 adult, 6 children boutique hotel built, which provided ongoing income to help fund the conservation efforts.
Over the last 20 years, some of the profits have been used to finance reforestation schemes; alien vegetation was painstakingly removed and replaced with the island’s original flora. Livestock and invading predatory pests such as feral cats were also removed from the island, enabling endemic fauna to start re-establishing themselves. Hawksbill Turtles, and Sooty Terns, along with many of the islands original inhabitants were purchased or rescued from around the world and reintroduced into the island, where they could safely roam in peace around their natural habitat.
Breeding pairs of birds now flock to the island by the hundreds as they originally used to. Various species of turtles, manta-rays and even whale sharks can be seen cruising the waters around the island, and the flora is now almost exclusively indigenous species over the revitalised terrain.
Now, the island is ready to take day trippers in very small groups to experience what Cousine used to be like a couple of centuries ago. Nesting sea birds include the white-tailed tropic birds and fairy terns. A thriving population of the endangered IUCN Red-Listed Seychelles Magpie Robins can also be found on Cousine.
Visitors are welcomed by the island’s conservation team upon arrival, who offer a briefing on the island’s regeneration program. They can then take a guided tour of the island’s central plateau to identify and learn about the various species that make the area their home while best maintaining an undisturbed environment for the animals. “All precautions are taken to minimize any disturbances to the wildlife,” said Pretorius.
But it is a delicate balance. “To minimize any disturbance to the wildlife and guests on the island we only accommodate up to a maximum of six visitors per day,” said Guest Relations Manager Mrs. Michelle Pretorius. Nonetheless, lucky visitors can expect to meet one of the 80 giant Aldabra tortoises that roam freely on the island. And best of all, lucky nature lovers may be able to see a Hawksbill turtle laying its eggs on the beach during the nesting season, a truly unique sight.
Small but Impressive
At just 1.4 kilometers in length and just under 1 kilometre in width, Cousine is small in size – but big on attractions. As well as the natural attractions, visitors on the five-hour round trip from Praslin can enjoy a three-course lunch and time to relax and enjoy the scenery, including the exclusive clear waters surrounding the island.
“We are a conservation island with strict invasive species protocol; we only allow our boat to beach on the island [to stop invasive species landing]. We can collect visitors from Praslin by boat, or we can even arrange a helicopter transfer at an additional rate if visitors want that,” said Pretorius.
As well as the newly introduced day visits, Cousine now offers limited accommodation in its revamped boutique hotel which underwent major renovations between 2011 and 2016. The hotel can house what it calls an “intimate compliment” of visitors in its four luxury villas and single Presidential villa that have been carefully constructed to blend in with the island’s lush tropical vegetation.
All images courtesy Cousine Island