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The lagoon of Aldabra atoll.
Photo: Chris Johnson

April 5, 2004
"Losing Aldabra"
  Real Audio

This is Roger Payne speaking to you from the Odyssey.

The world is getting down to its last few wildlife spectacles. One of the most extraordinary of them is the Indian Ocean island of Aldabra. Part of the island nation of Seychelles, it is the largest, raised coral atoll on earth, and boasts a giant lagoon that would comfortably hold Manhattan Island. It is home to countless nesting birds, and sea turtles, and its grassy plains are grazed by 100,000 giant tortoises - making it the reptilian equivalent of the Serengeti Plains. There is also a species of flightless rail - the only flightless bird left in the Indian Ocean - and there are many other endemic birds, plants, and insects. Only eight human beings live on the island, seven are rangers and one is a warden. They are all there to protect the island's status as a World Heritage Site.

However, the expense of maintaining this presence has caused the Seychelles Island Foundation - the government body that funds the Aldabra research station—to seek alternative sources of revenue, and that has resulted in a proposal to build a luxury hotel for ecotourism on Aldabra.

In his book The Song of the Dodo, David Quammen says: [and I quote] "The story of [the Aldabra giant tortoise] is complicated, but at its core is one simple fact: geographical isolation. In the case of Aldabra, that isolation is extreme. And it isn't measured only in mileage. In the era of the shrinking planet, Aldabra's margins of isolation haven't shrunk. Its remoteness is uncompromised… It's the place you can't get to from here... [But] the wild tortoises of the Indian Ocean have been harried enough. Let them have their refuge, their privacy, on that one, little, desolate atoll. If Aldabra is the epitome of isolation, I figure, then what better way to highlight that fact than by staying the hell away from it..." [endquote]

The hotel that is being proposed will have six rooms and offer five-star service. I can see how building such a hotel could be done in an environmentally sensitive way, but housing the roughly 36 support staff needed to cater to the tourists poses a serious threat that I can see no way of avoiding.

Although at first the support staff would probably come without their families once the hotel had been running for a few months or a few years the pressure to bring families would be great. And once they arrived and the services necessary to provide for them and their children were added, it would swell the number of people by perhaps two or three times.

An Aldabran Giant Tortoise.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Pets, of course, would be strictly forbidden, but I'm afraid I have seen too much of life to take seriously the possibility that a cat, or junior's hamster, or his beloved snake wouldn't occasionally be smuggled in, once everyone had relaxed a bit and the place was running smoothly. And if human nature in the Seychelles is like human nature everywhere else on earth, after a while, a few people, and then more, would start to slip off at night to catch a few fish on the reef to eat. After all, the reef is thick with fish - no harm done - and a bit of fresh fish makes everyone's life a lot nicer.

And after a while, the facilities originally designed to handle the disposal of sewage for the island, would become taxed and start to overflow and that would interfere with the water supply which would necessitate a new catchment installation clear of the affected area, which would bring in more development, requiring a new road to the new pump house.

And eventually, inasmuch as it is always human nature that deals the cards, there would come a point when continuing that nightmare the support staff had to face each year in order to educate their children - sending them back to Mahe 650 miles away - would become intolerable, and the parents would demand that a school be built for the kids who would otherwise be running wild on the island (well they would be running wild on the island anyway, because they are, after all, kids). And if the school was not built, as it definitely should not be, all that coming and going of children and their families, would increase pressure for building an airport-just a small one... which definitely should not be built because the Aldabra islands are not just home to an estimated 100,000 tortoises, but to thousands of nesting birds. (By the way; if you hit a tortoise at 100 miles an hour, your plane feels it, so you would have to fence the tortoises off the runway to prevent that, but that would be a disaster for them since the runway would occupy most of their grazing land).

Also, a plane landing and taking off a couple of times each day will put up and off their eggs, all of the birds that nest along the runway and its approach paths-something likely to have a devastating effect on hatchling and chick success since in places like Aldabra the chief benefit parent birds provide for eggs and hatchlings is to shade them from the searing midday sun which otherwise coddles eggs (and chicks) in a few minutes.

And of course once an airport is built, fuel will get spilled - fuel is always spilled in every airport built anywhere. And plane noise will disrupt the peace of the place, and everything that the remoteness of Aldabra represents will be weakened, and compromised.

And at some point there will be grave, collective concern over some injury sustained by some worker or tourist and a groundswell of pressure for building a clinic will start (which, once built will require more personnel to man it).

And eventually the people working in this ever-growing outpost who have no churches to attend will want them since after all, their fellow workers of other faiths have their places of worship. And that will add new clergy... and their families, all of which will require more maintenance personnel to keep the finicky gas refrigerators, emergency radios, computers, solar cell arrays, satellite dishes, and delicate, wind-powered home power plants working. Which will also mean the need for more merchants to stock and sell supplies that the hotel had to give up stocking long ago.

And all those people necessary to provide all those extra services will soon demonstrate the need for more SECURITY- Ah yes, My Best Beloved, you must not forget the perpetual need for more Security... everywhere, particularly in what will be labeled by some "The Premier Ecotourism Destination on Earth" and therefore a very desirable target for those who select very visible venues in which to perform their very vilest acts.

A Coconut crab.
Photo: Chris Johnson

And why should you listen to what I say? It is only because I am pretty well calibrated about human nature and wild places , having spent a lifetime working around the world in every ocean and on numerous islands. Also, our research vessel, Odyssey has been here in the Indian ocean for more than two years, and has spent all of that time going to every most well-known, as well as every little-known, wildlife area in the Indian Ocean region, and spent the previous ten years visiting similar places in the Atlantic and Pacific (including two years in the Galapagos). From that experience, to say nothing about my own lifetime working in all oceans, I can say, with no hesitation at all, that there is no place like Aldabra anywhere else on earth - such a place simply does not exist. And when Aldabra is gone, nothing will arise to take its place. Even the Galapagos Islands no longer approach Aldabra. During the past few years, a near total breakdown in protection of the waters around Darwin's famous archipelago has so thoroughly pillaged it of its fish that it now represents but the palest copy of Aldabra.

All of the problems I mention will have their origin in one simple fact: the lack of local villages and even the simplest kinds of familiar human distractions on Aldabra. In areas such as Botswana, where luxury EcoTourism is a success, the support staff comes from villages that lie near enough at hand for workers to visit or even return to their homes overnight. At Aldabra there are no such villages, and as a result, it is only reasonable to expect that the pressures to build them, or their social equivalents will be intense. In fact, there is already a clear indication of how stressful the rangers find their life on Aldabra - there have been two murders there in recent years.

But... there is a simple alternative to building the world's most isolated luxury hotel on Aldabra, and it would serve the same purpose but without triggering serious social problems among the support personnel, or stressing boats, and that is to have everyone live on boats. In fact, it is already being done at Aldabra, and it is working.

Tourists come to Aldabra by boat, and live on whatever vessel brings them. The boat is a self-contained world for the tourists as well as for the support staff-and when the boat leaves, everyone leaves... not just the tourists, but the support staff too. And if the pressure of the boats becomes too great for the island, licenses to visit Aldabra can be rationed or modified. The main threat from such boats is the damage their anchors do to a reef. But to avoid that is simple, you provide permanent moorings for visiting boats to pick up. A further necessary precaution is to make sure that tourist vessels don't discard trash or pump sewage overboard while moored at the islands or while steaming nearby. But existing laws already demand, and existing equipment already provides, the means to avoid such problems, boats now routinely have sewage holding tanks and trash compactors, and it is entirely realistic to hope that serious potential impacts from tourism on Aldabra can be avoided as long as boats, rather than hotels, house both the visitors and the staff.

Perhaps the most serious problem that all conservationists face is that if they are to prevail they must win every battle from now to the end of human history-be that 100 or 100,000 years in the future. On the other hand, the despoilers only have to win once and a species is lost forever. That means that whenever an idea as shortsighted as putting a luxury hotel on Aldabra comes up (and such foolish ideas come up with clocklike regularity) conservationists have each and every time to find some way to defeat it, or the island, the birds, the whales, the habitat, whatever, is lost forever.

A nesting Green sea turtle.
Photo: Chris Johnson

As human population pressure increases and people live ever further from nature, two things inexorably happen: 1) people become content with wild places that are less wild (the shifting baseline problem), and 2) because more and more people are living further and further from the wild, they want more and more keenly to visit and experience the ever fewer wild places that remain, which means that the pressures on wild places only ever increase, they never decrease.

It should be self-evident, even to the most casual observer of human behavior that a similar outcome has happened everywhere such pressures have occurred: wild places have become less and less wild, and more and more compromised by governments' efforts to accommodate tourism, until the wild places are no longer wild enough to be appealing as wild places, and the tourists shift their patronage to less-spoiled elsewheres, and the developers move in, build expensive houses on tiny lots, and that is the end, and has always been so, for all but a handful of once-wild places.

With this inescapable process in mind can we not embrace the principle that from now and forever more, people who visit Aldabra will only do so while living aboard boats, and that they will visit the island itself only on foot, and travel only along set paths accompanied by guides? Surely the money that one could charge for such access would be all that the Seychelles Island Foundation needs to maintain their eight people on that unique island.


© 2002 Written by Roger Payne

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