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Saturday, 29 September, 2001, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
Seychelles under threat
Beach in the Seychelles  BBC
One of the world's most environmentally conscious countries
The Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, are home to several unique species of bird and animal life. In recent years, the islands have experienced a steady rise in temperature, which, as the BBC's Rita Payne found out, is now posing a serious threat to the country's environment.

The sea was a vivid turquoise. Tourists were snorkelling as shoals of exotic fish darted through the crystal clear waters. The sky was a piercing blue and we were on a boat anchored off an island in the Seychelles - a tropical paradise.

But the skipper of our boat couldn't contain his anger. He was still simmering over America's decision to reject the Kyoto Protocol aimed at curbing global warming.

And one could understand his indignation. For the Seychelles, global warming is not just a distant concept - it's a matter of survival. Sea temperatures locally have risen by 2C since 1998, and if the trend continues the consequences could be disastrous. The danger signs are already there.

Walk along any beach and you can pick up scraps of bleached coral washed up by the waves. The seas off the Seychelles were renowned for brilliant coral reefs. Most of the coral is now dead, a casualty of climate warming.

Giant tortoise
One of the islands' giant tortoises
Besides the coral, the islands' giant tortoises could also be at risk. Kevin, the chief warden of the marine national reserve on Curieuse island, pointed to a group of tortoises munching contentedly on leaves.

One had ambled across to have its neck stroked to the delight of visitors. At one time, the tortoises roamed freely on the islands and numbers were high, despite being a popular source of fresh meat for passing sailors.

The sex of a tortoise is determined by temperature. If temperatures continue to rise the male/female ratio could become unbalanced. And after the eggs hatch, if temperatures are still too high, the young tortoises could die from dehydration or suffocate to death.

White fairy terns BBC
Fairy terns are under threat
The neighbouring island of Cousin has been designated a bird sanctuary. Here, we found the white fairy tern, the graceful long-tailed tropical bird, and other rare species swooping and diving above the trees. The authorities have a rigorous programme to keep the island free of predators, with the result that there could be few places in the world where birds are so unfazed by visitors.

Our tour guide led us through the forest trail pointing out birds nesting on branches of trees and in the crevices of rocks, apparently undisturbed by the daily sight of tourists trudging through their territory.

The coco de mer

Within touching distance were fluffy fairy tern chicks waiting for the parent birds to feed them. Any pronounced change in climatic conditions could destroy the insects, seeds and aquatic life that keep these rare birds alive.

Perhaps one of the best-known products of the Seychelles is the coco de mer. Many myths are associated with this giant nut, which has the rounded shape of a woman's anatomy.

Coco de mer BBC
The fruit of the coco de mer is made into bowls
According to local folklore, the male palm moves across at night to the female palm to mate; anyone, according to legend, who sees the palms mating, will die - a strong disincentive to voyeurs!

In the past, the fronds of the coco de mer palm were used to make thatch roofs, the jelly inside the seed was considered a delicacy and the hard shell was carved into bowls, spoons and nick-knacks for tourists.

These days the unauthorised sale of coco de mer or any products made from it is banned. This doesn't stop some locals though from poaching the fruit to sell to tourists.

The second largest island in the Seychelles is Praslin, one of the few places where coco de mer palms can be seen growing in their natural state. The warden of a local reserve noted worrying signs that climatic changes are affecting the growth of the palm. He says the dry season seems to be longer and this could account for their stunted growth.

House, Seychelles BBC
Traditional houses rely on takamaka wood
Also under threat is another species distinctive to the Seychelles - the takamaka tree, with its thick, waxy green leaves. Because the wood is tough and water-resistant, the tree is in demand for building boats and houses.

But the takamaka tree has been struck by a mysterious disease, which is also being linked to rising temperatures. Leaves are withering and branches are showing signs of decay. In a move to stop the disease from spreading, the government has forbidden people to cut down the trees or transport them from one island to another.

Concern for the future

The Seychelles is one of the world's most environmentally conscious countries. People are acutely aware of being custodians of their natural heritage. Everyone we met in shops, hotels, or out on the streets, talked about the dangers of unrestrained tourism and climatic change.

And this awareness starts early with wildlife clubs in all school. Students are encouraged to take an active part in environment protection programmes.

A long-term resident said five to six metres of land had been washed away since he was a child. Streams are drying up and for the first time in recent years water controls have been introduced in the Seychelles.

Beach, Seychelles BBC
Natural beauty attracts tourists
Despite this, the Seychelles still retains all the features one associates with a perfect holiday retreat: a dream landscape; spectacular granite rocks; isolated, palm-fringed, silky white beaches; an abundance of fruit and flowers; rare animals and birds. But the people are also keenly aware of the fragility of their surroundings.

Back on our boat, the skipper acknowledged that his government was facing a tough challenge: how to maintain strict measures to protect the environment without scaring off tourists who are vital for the economy of the Seychelles.

We need support, he pleaded, from the rest of the world. If rich countries like the United States don't act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in a few years there will be nothing left for tourists to enjoy.

See also:

17 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Islanders press Bush on global warming
14 Jul 01 | Americas
Bush feels heat on global warming
05 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Seychelles
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