One of the other great ornithological rarities in the Seychelles is the brush warbler, which is found only on the tiny nature reserve island of Cousin. My host there was the resident scientist, Michael Brooke. He met me on the beach as I waded ashore off the motorboat from Praslin—a shy young man who in a barely perceptible voice informed me that he was too busy to show me around. His assistant would do so. I must have looked startled at the thought of being "busy" on that small patch of island (it comprises only 67 acres), for he told me that he was studying the behavior of the ghost crab, a pale, almost transparent creature. In particular, he was studying the male's practice of strumming its big claw against its chest—what is called stridulating. It is much the sort of thing. Brooke explained, that the cricket does in rubbing its limbs together. Unfortunately, it was just the right time for ghost-crab observation; he apologized, but he had to be on the job.
I set off with his assistant, a Seychellois named Robbie. He turned out to be a scientist as well, his particular interest being the behavior of the enormous millipede of the Seychelles. I had seen a number of them—mahogany-colored and often six or seven inches in length, the myriad stiff-hair legs moving the cigar-sized body in a progression over the ground that was at once delicate and formidable. In East Africa, Europeans call this millipede the "Mombasa Train" after the slow-moving local that chugs up the single rail line to Nairobi. The dried-out, sun-bleached husks of the millipede lay everywhere on Cousin. The schoolchildren who come out to Cousin break them into ring size and slip them on their fingers as decorations.
Wildlife on Cousin flourishes to such a degree that it is almost overpowering to walk amidst it. I felt as if I had been set down in a habitat group in New-York's American Museum of Natural History, into one of those spectacularly overcrowded dioramas in the Oceanic Birds wing, and that everything had suddenly started moving. Lizards were everywhere. Geckos and skinks scurried off the path by the dozens as we walked along. We saw the brush warbler almost immediately. Down by the water's edge the crabs watched us through stilt eyes (it pleased me to think that Michael Brooke was staring at them with all the intensity with which they were inspecting us), and we saw a moray eel slither up onto a granite outcropping, mouth panting—after crabs, Robbie said. But the birds, the sea-birds in particular, were what left the lasting impression; the island was so much their domain, their numbers and variety so striking, that one seemed very much an intruder. Noddies, shearwaters, white-tailed tropic birds, different species of tern were everywhere in the air, wheeling so close at hand that I found myself walking in a slightly crouched position to avoid a possible collision. The squat Casuarina trees were heavy with roosting and nesting birds. On the ocean, just out from the rocks, two huge frigate birds maneuvered on gaunt angular wings.
The noise was deafening. At' night, Robbie told me. it was even noisier, especially from the enormous racket produced by the wedge-tailed shearwaters, which seem to call to each other more often in the darkness, their cries punctuated by the high little whine of the smaller shearwater, the Audubon's, which sounds exactly, so Robbie said, like a telephone ringing. Anyone spending his first night on Cousin, he suggested, would thrash out endlessly, reaching for non-existent phones.
Visually, the dominant bird on Cousin is the lovely fairy tern (see photograph atop page 61), a pure-white bird with a black bill, a bit upturned, which gives its head a slightly lopsided, foolish look—an impression that is heightened by being able to get within inches of one if it is sitting on its egg. The bird appears so tame because the single egg is laid in a most haphazard way on a tree branch or a seaside rock without a vestige of a nest to hold it in place, balanced so precariously that the tern's flying off the egg might well dislodge it. Thus, as one approaches, the tern stays in place, looking nervous and occasionally emitting a shrill alarm note. Nowhere, to my surprise, did I find evidence of smashed eggs, but I did wonder what the chick must make of its first horrifying glimpse of things, emerging as it does from an egg balanced on a limb with all the stability of a coin set on edge on a tabletop; fortunately, the young bird is born with enormous feet, with which it doubtless grabs and holds on as it steps into the world.
The fairy tern is everywhere on Cousin, but Robbie told me it had had a hard time of it on Mah�. Until man appeared, the only native birds of prey on Mah� were the miniature-sized scops owl and the beautiful little Seychelles kestrel, neither of which preyed on the tern. But in 1951, East African barn owls were introduced to reduce the considerable rat population. The owls flourished, but not on the rats. They preferred the endemic avifauna, especially the fairy tern, which were common (or were until the owls got into high gear), and being pure white were very conspicuous at night when the owls hunted. Now it is a rare sight to see a fairy tern on Mah�. Finally the government realized that the owl experiment was a disaster and began offering a bounty of 30 rupees for every owl carcass brought in. Robbie had heard rumors that speculators were raising owls in big hidden pens up in the hills—owl crops—to cash in on the government's offer.
Because Cousin is a nature reserve, the rules of conduct there are very strict. Bathing and picnicking are not allowed, and even smoking is restricted—so I was told by Robbie—to an area near the "boathouse." This attitude of preservation is to be found everywhere in the Seychelles. Like Cousin, many of the islands have been designated as nature reserves, and one lands to find in the dunes a tastefully done-up sign announcing that the islands belong to the birds and that visitors are their guests. The scuba-diving instructor at the Reef Hotel on Mah� will not let a swimmer into his boat if he catches him holding a shell or even a piece of coral picked off the reef below. Nation runs a banner notification across the bottom of its front page pleading with its readers to BE TIDY, MAKE USE OF DUSTBINS PROVIDED.
The government itself is very much in the forefront of maintaining the unique quality of this varied island group. Regulations affect every level of the tourist trade. Even Mancham—for all his ideas about the islands as a paradise for lovers and hedonists—stipulated that a hotel would never be built "higher than a coconut palm." Mme. d'Offay told me that the official emphasis would always be on "tourism" rather than "mass tourism," with the government's position being that the lure to the islands would rest with their natural resources—the bird and marine life—rather than the entertainment and casino elements so common in the Caribbean. The government projects a limit of 5,000 "beds" for tourists—about twice the number at present. "We don't want the big charter flights coming in and 1,000 people milling around the streets of Victoria asking for fish and chips," she said.
What will probably save the islands even more than government regulations is their remoteness. I saw only one American couple there—the girl an airline hostess on the kind of junket that airlines provide their employees as perquisites. Of the few Americans who turn up, most work in the Middle East's oil fields. They arrive with money to burn; often they charter a fishing boat and go out after sailfish or the three varieties of marlin. In 1975 a 1,140-pound black marlin was caught off the Amirantes, which lie 150 miles from Mah�. My friendly guidebook opens with sentiment about the remoteness of the islands. "Paradise and the Seychelles have two things in common: both are beautiful and everyone wants to go there. But there's that confounded problem of how. So many people can't manage it—either to Paradise or to the Seychelles."
For a long stretch of their history the Seychelles were thought of as primarily a place to send undesirable exiles. The French dispatched a boatload of Jacobins in 1801 after they tried to blow up Napoleon and Josephine outside the opera with an "infernal machine." The English have packed off any number of unworthies—among others, the Sultan Abdullah Khan of Perak ( Malaysia), who was banished to the Seychelles in 1875 for murder; Mwanga, the king of Buganda, who was responsible for the massacre of the "40 Martyrs of Uganda," arrived on Mah� in 1901. About the same time, Prempeh, the young king of the Ashanti nation, now a part of Ghana, whose ruler sat on the Golden Stool, was sent into exile with 56 tribesmen, their families and a number of wives. He brought along his personal headsman, and was very miffed when he was told by the authorities that he could not execute a servant who had misbehaved. In 1922, Winston Churchill, then the Secretary of State for the Colonies, wondered if the islands could handle up to 5,000 political prisoners whose retention in Ireland was "embarrassing," but then thought better of it.