Image courtesy: Cheryl Sanchez

By Liz Mwambui

I saw the bird even before I heard the telltale sounds of dirt striking foliage. I knew a sea turtle was inside the vegetation that stands between the beach and the path, which runs around this side of the island.

The bird was a Seychelles magpie robin and the sea turtle, the hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata). The bird, drawn by the promise of termites and worms exposed by the digging turtle, was waiting on a branch above the reptile. They made a photogenic pair, and had the turtle not been facing me and at risk of being distracted by my presence, I would have indulged my shutterbug impulse and taken a picture.

It is Christmas Day and this is my first turtle today. The tide was just right and I expected more encounters. But for the moment I had to attend to this one, before I moved on towards the rest of the beach. If she prepares an egg chamber and lays, I would collect her data including her identification tags, carapace measurements and number of eggs. If she’s unsatisfied with the spot she picked and decides to head back to the sea, I would intercept her and read her tags — evidence that she had been on the beach, even though she didn’t nest.

All this information would enlarge the long-term dataset collected since 1972 for this species on Cousin Island Special Reserve in the Seychelles. This is the most important nesting site for the Critically Endangered hawksbill in the Western Indian Ocean, and a proven success story in sea turtle conservation. I am on Cousin to volunteer on its sea turtle monitoring programme.

There are no words to describe the feeling of being next to a nesting turtle. One pitch black night the previous week, as a lone star made the effort to provide light with the help of a little bioluminescent plankton in the sand, I attempted to describe the magic of it all to my sister by way of a whatsapp message.

At a distance from the turtle and hiding the bright light of my phone, lest I confuse the turtle, I told her this: Imagine a very still night broken only by whispering Casaurina trees and breaking waves. The birds are at rest, their calls silenced by the night. The wedge-tailed shearwaters might be a-stir in their burrows on the hill, but down here on the beach their desolate and haunting call cannot be heard. In the forest’s leaf litter, lizards slither past. Ghost crabs vibrate their front claws in the sand; hermit crabs sniff you out with their antennae.

Egg-laying starts

There you sit, one of ten people on the island, with stretches of beach and endless ocean your temporary kingdom. You hear the steady thud of flippers hitting the ground and pushing sand out

of the way. Thirty minutes may pass, maybe more. Eventually the flippers will stop, there will be silence and you’ll know egg-laying has started.

But as it is daytime on this Christmas day, I have the advantage of sight and I can see the turtle; her flippers are at rest, readying her to deposit her precious load into the earth.

I wait for her to enter into a characteristic trance-like state before proceeding with my data collection. She has chosen a spot where a few days ago, the branches of a Pisonia tree uprooted by a storm fell onto a laying hawksbill turtle, which was happily unharmed. I look warily at the rest of the trees — they are reassuringly steady.

Just short of a metre at 92cm in length and 81cm in width, the turtle is strikingly beautiful. She has a gorgeous olive-brown shell. The shells were the cause of this species decline in the past, as people hunted them worldwide to collect highly valuable carapaces used to make jewellery and such items as combs and spectacle frames.

Since 1994, Seychelles law prohibits the harvesting and commercial trade in all turtles, while the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) bans international trade in all sea turtles and their products.

From her metal tags, applied previously on this island, I later confirm that she has been here 3 times already this season. She might come back a fourth and fifth time.

The pristine environment of Cousin Island still provides suitable grounds for nesting turtles. Scientists in 2010 recorded an 8-fold increase in annual nesting numbers since the turtle programme was started in 1972.

The island is managed by Nature Seychelles, a leading not-for-profit conservation organisation and the BirdLife Partner in Seychelles. Previously a coconut plantation, the island was purchased by BirdLife in 1968 to save the Seychelles warbler from extinction. Efforts to save that and other endemic bird species have turned Cousin into a thriving home for varied wildlife including Aldabra Giant tortoises, endemic skinks and geckos, and thousands of nesting seabirds.

Around its 27-hectare area, Nature Seychelles science staff have demarcated beaches used by the hawksbill to help in monitoring turtle emergences and nesting.

The Hummingbird tale

I enter the latest nest number into my monitoring sheet and the beach where it is located. As I watch the turtle conceal her nest and head back to sea, I marvel at how lucky I am to be here, doing something worthwhile for one of the species that shares this planet with me.

My heroine, Nobel Peace Prize Laurete and environmental activist, the late Wangari Maathai, once told this story about the Hummingbird. It is about a forest that is being consumed by a great fire. As other animals watch, including much bigger animals like elephants with their big trunks,

the Hummingbird flies to the nearest stream and takes a drop of water. Up and down and back and forth it goes, as fast as it can. The other animals say to the Hummingbird, “what do you think you can do? You are too little. This fire is too big. Your wings are too little and your beak is so small that you can only bring a small drop of water at a time.” The Hummingbird answers, “I am doing the best that I can.” She concludes by saying, “And that is always what all of us should. We should always be like a Hummingbird.”

In the face of overwhelmingly pessimistic news about the loss of species in Africa and the world, there’s still something each one of us can do. I came to Cousin Island as a layperson who was given the opportunity to help. This past Christmas, I am happy to say, I was a Hummingbird.

About Cousin Island

* Cousin is a 27ha granitic island located 2 km west of Praslin Island in the Republic of Seychelles.

* It is a special reserve under Seychelles law and an IUCN Protected Area Category 1a, which is a strict nature reserve where people’s visits and their impacts are controlled to ensure protection of the conservation values.

* A designated Important Bird Area (IBA) – an area recognized as being of global importance for the conservation of birds – it is one of the sites of highest ornithological interest in Seychelles.

* Self-financed through eco-tourism, the island is open to visitors Monday to Friday excluding Public Holidays, from 10.00am – 12.30pm.

* Visits to Cousin are undertaken by local tour operators on Praslin. A contact list is available on http://cousinisland.net/visit/how-to-get-there

* To take part in Cousin Island’s exciting new programme – ‘The Conservation Boot Camp’, send enquiries to nature@seychelles.net

Liz Mwambui is a communications specialist who loves telling feel-good conservation stories. She was previously with the Kenya Forests Working Group as outreach officer, before she joined Nature Seychelles, the BirdLife Partner in Seychelles, as communications manager. She currently provides communications consultancy services for environmental non-profits and social enterprises.

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