Environment - Nature | Travel - Leisure
Curiosities of Curieuse Island, Seychelles
Curieuse Island, located only a 20 minute boat trip off the major Seychellois tourist destination island Praslin, has never really had any major settlement or industry, leaving most of the island and its protected waters a nature site. There are no hotels or restaurants.
Indeed, it all started a bit nasty for settlements on Curieuse. Here, it is much drier than on Praslin - and especially Mahé - as it rains a little bit less and more importantly because the soil cover is too small to store much ground water. Poor soils in general made agriculture a bad idea on Curieuse.
But as it was a big island, colonial authorities decided to make use of Curieuse as a location for the outcasts; the ones it was necessary to isolate. In 1833, the leper colony on Curieuse's Anse St José was established, with a long row of more or less ruined houses still seen north of the beach, nicely hidden away in the forests.
At what was once the colony of outcasts, now the only "tourists" residing on Curieuse have installed themselves. They say they are researchers; an entire colony of youngsters from the US and Europe, having taken over the lepers' colony. They are into really important scientific environmental monitoring programmes, they claim.
Actually, these young environmentalists are what is now becoming a growing and curious global trend: "research tourists". They are getting access to the strictly no-hotel national park, being allowed to live there for ten months. Mostly without any research skills, they get a five-month training course on Curieuse; then they are to act as researchers, gathering environmental data on several especially monitored reefs in the marine national park off the island.
Rodney Quatre, a research manager at the Seychelles National Parks Authority (SNPA, a government au
Both the SNPA and Globalvision accept the damages to local environment caused by this research tourism camp. Sewage from the camp could even damage the reefs the "researchers" are meant to protect. At the other side of the island, on Baie Laraie, environmental group Earth Watch is let to do something similar, with tourism in the name of science. It is both peculiar and curious.
The researchers - both the tourists and quite a few representatives of the SNPA - are not the only human inhabitants on Curieuse, however. Indeed, at Anse Caiman, a beach up north, off access to the public, still a family of three persons have managed to withstand all pressures from government, environmentalists and even nature itself to oust them from the island.
They are the last remnants of a smaller settlement established on Curieuse in 1910, after the leper colony started to be transferred to the smaller Round Island. It is widely estimated that around 30 persons lived of small-scale farming and fishing at settlements in Anse Badamier and Anse Papaïe, with a coconut plantation seeing its heydays in the 1930s. But in 1979, they were mostly squeezed out by government.
Nationalisation of their lands and the takeover of Curieuse by government environmental agencies in June 1979 meant that the settlement was no longer viable. The entire island and all the waters off it were declared a national park, with strict restriction on land use and fishing. While nobody was "forced" to leave Curieuse, people were not left with much choice. The last "stubborn" islanders were clever enough to go over to "the enemy", now working within tourism and for the SNPA itself.
The 1979 decision was a turning point for
Entering the Curieuse Marine National Park, you need to pay a reasonable rupee 200 (euro 12) entrance fee and permission, which is collected by rangers at sea and on the island. Then you need to get transport to the island, to which there is no regular ferry. And of course transport back on the same day, as you are not allowed to stay overnight on Curieuse.
Most people visiting Curieuse come on organised daytrips booked through the main hotels in Praslin or local tour operators, which can even include stop-overs on Cousin and Couisine islands. Tour operators will then organise all the paperwork with the SNPA.
Once at Curieuse, visitors are normally shown the Doctor's House (built 1873), which includes a small museum, at Anse St José, or - if landing at Baie Laraie, shown around the ranger station, which is crowded with giant tortoises. The beach at Anse St José is a superb, shiningly white sandy one; while the one at Baie Laraie is less white but has more spectacular granite cliffs. At both beaches, barbeque equipment is available, usually organised by tour operators taking you to the island.
The other option of going is of course on your own, in a rented boat or private yacht. At Anse St José and Baie Laraie, park rangers will issue permissions and charge the rupee 200 entrance fee to the park, if not already paid. Make sure to anchor up only at designated places, as wild anchoring forbidden and is causing great damages to the reefs.
Pressing environmental issues
While conservation has been the main trade and business on Curieuse since 1979, there have however been curiously many setbacks to one of Seychelles' most important national parks. And there have been surprisingly little funds available to address the most pressing environmental issues on the island.
But there are only small spots of palm forests remaining on Curieuse. The reason is two-fold. It started with fires and continued with tropical invasive species, actually brought to the Seychelles to help the environment.
The Seychellois environment tackles wildfires much poorer than other tropical areas, out of which many depend on fire for regeneration. In Seychelles, plant and animal is not adapted to fire as these bare occurred before human settlements. Here, a fire will cause plants and seeds to die, leaving the top soil naked for a longer time and as such create massive erosion. The top soil is the only nutritious and soft enough to accommodate typical Seychellois plants, but this is washed away after a fire.
To tackle erosion, following the expansion of agriculture and use of wildfires, colonialists were looking for some fast-growing, well rooted tropical plants without too much nutrition demands to replace the slow-growing and demanding indigenous species at places exposed to erosion. As what seem a clever answer to a growing environmental problems, the takamaka (Calophyllum inophyllum, often referred to as ballnut in English) tree introduced from South Asia and the cocoplum (Chrysobalanus icaco) shrub from tropical America.
Now, the takamaka and especially the cocoplum are becoming the real problem. They are the invasive species, beside the rat, most impossible to control in today's Seychelles. At Vallée de Mai, a relatively small national park, the large staff is able to keep out these weeds. At the Morne Seychellois on Mahé, the tall and dense forest vegetation somewhat controls the s
On Curieuse, the relatively large tracts of lands degraded by fire and the dryness of the soil have created perfect conditions for these two shrubs, especially the cocoplum. On the main path between Anse St José and Baie Laraie, one passes through such a shrub, and it is visible to all that indigenous slow-growing plants are unable to re-establish in these shrubs.
According to Mr Qautre, "the two ecosystems have now found a balance. The invasive plants do not advance further into the old forests and the indigenous plants are also unable to expand." Thoughts of cutting back the invasive vegetation have been uttered but dropped as too expensive. Earlier costly attempts to exterminate rats on Curieuse stranded on their re-introduction via unregistered boats six months later. Since that, the SNPA has more or less dropped terrestrial conservation on Curieuse, totally focusing on the marine environment.
In the eyes of the environmentalists, therefore, the damage done to the reefs, mangroves and beaches since the 1980s therefore is even harder to swallow. The worst disaster to marine ecology took place in 1998. This was the year of the great coral bleaching event all over Seychelles, with the Curieuse marine park especially hard hit.
Coral bleaching occurs when sea water temperatures get too high and is often seen as a consequence of global warming. For corals in the Seychelles, the stress level begins at 26º C. Warmer than that, and the first coral species start dying, with the reef "bleaching" as it whitens. A combination of local and global weather conditions heated up sea water for a long time, far above the 26 degree mark.
"Some 95 percent of the corals around Curieuse died," Mr Quatre tells afrol News, with the number of species feeding off the reefs almost equally affected. "During the first years after the event, re-growth was very slow, but by now, most of the reefs outside the island have recovered and started growing again."
However, Mr Quatre adds, many of the original coral species ar
As coral bleaching was not enough, the 2004 tsunami, originating in Indonesia, indeed had a great impact on marine and terrestrial ecology on Curieuse. After crossing the entire Indian Ocean, the tsunami hit Curieuse and many other parts of Seychelles with a height of 1.5 metre.
At Baie Laraie, this was enough to completely change the ecosystem as it broke large wholes into a wall that had been constructed in 1910 to seal of the bay by making a brackish pool for commercial turtle breading. The wall had helped the beach against erosion and the mangroves from being covered with sand. As the tsunami broke the wall, everything changed, and the shifting of this ecosystem can be seen today, in live action.
Now, the southern shore of Baie Laraie is being quickly eroded by the ocean, and you can see the roots from old threes hanging in the air as a new terrace is eating its way inland. This kind of beach erosion unfortunately is seen many places in Seychelles, even on "commercial" beaches such as Anse Kerlan on Praslin, triggered by events like tropical storms or by human action and land use. This erosion threatens to eat up Seychelles' main resource; its beaches.
At Baie Laraie, it is doing even more. Much of the sand is washed onshore further within the bay; an area now dominated by the key mangrove ecosystem. "Sand will eventually kill the mangroves," Mr Quatre says, as they need clay and the resulting mud to spread and thrive. "And the mangroves are the cradle of life further out in the reefs, being the place where most nutrition is created," the environmental s
Further, the brackish marshes of the mangroves filter the water, preventing too many detriments reaching the sea and polluting the reefs. With this filter disappearing, reefs further outside most probably will be damaged, or at least change its ecology.
While Mr Quatre and his team are trying to help the mangroves by spreading seeds and layers, he is not really so worried about the profound changes in habitat at Baie Laraie as consequence of the tsunami. "It is natural change happening after a natural event," Mr Quatre says. The SNPA had considered repairing the collapsed wall to stop the active processes, but as the price tag reached rupees 3 million (euro 175,000), government said no.
Mr Quatre is much more worried about the possible pressure of tourism in future. There are many wanting to establish a guesthouse or even a big hotel on Curieuse, but environmental regulations are stopping all these initiatives. However, developments in recent years in Seychelles has demonstrated that enough money and direct contact with President James Michel can make environmental regulations disappear in the most curious manner. A nasty example of this can even be seen from Curieuse: the monster project of Raffles Resort on Praslin, which already has destroyed all reefs off its coast, within the marine park.
Even small-scale tourism development on Curieuse would severely damage the island, other SNPA staff and research tourists gathered at Baie Laraie agree. One thing would lead to the other: A guest house leads to a restaurant. There will be need for new infrastructure: water, electricity and, most important, sewage, which could pollute the reefs. Then there is transport. And when the dynamic starts, more people will come and demand will further increase.
Confronted with the observation by afrol News staff that Curieuse's beaches were the best seen in Seychelles, Mr Quatre first agrees, but than turns scepctial. "I hope you will not write that," he says, fearing that the pressure on developing Curieuse will become even bigger. R
Every visitor to Curieuse island and the marine national park and the adjacent marine park needs a permission, which is issued at the site by park rangers for a fee of rupees 200. Tour operators normally pre-pay this landing fee for you as part of their daytrip package. If you are not a Seychellois resident, you are not allowed to camp or otherwise sleep on the island, unless particularly invited by the SNPA (additional mooring fee: rupees 250).
There is no ferry service. You either go on your own yacht or rented boat, or you join an organised tour. You will find help to get to Curieuse at any accommodation on Praslin, either directly through the owners or via a local tour operator. If going on your own, please do also remember to bring all the food and drinks that you will need, as there is nothing to be bought on Curieuse island.
If you go with a tour operator, activities will probably include a grand barbecue and picnic at one of the two main beaches. It will probably also include some minor guided walks, snorkling on the reefs and looking at giant tortoises (Baie Laraie). All these activities are indeed worthwhile.
If on your own (bring something to grill), you will be freer to go on a longer walk. There is a good trail between Anse St José and rangers' headquarters Baie Laraie, providing for a lovely and interesting hike through very shifting landscapes. The 2-kilometre walk crosses the island, passing through forests, degraded lands, viewpoints, mangroves, swamps and beaches. The walk is highly recommended. There is also an additional hike to Anse Badamier, which can be somewhat dangerous and difficult to find.
There are complimentary guided hiking tours available twice a day for visitors, organised by the park management. These take place in the morning and in the afternoon, starting at Baie Laraie.
By staff writers
© afrol News
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