Hundreds of kilometers off the coast of Madagascar exists a special place, which has remained relatively untouched by humans.
There are numerous islands scattered in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa, and among these is the Aldabra Atoll. This island ecosystem—which belongs to the Seychelles—consists of four islands surrounding a large shallow lagoon. Aldabra is the world’s second largest coral atoll, and the largest raised coral reef in the world reaching up to eight meters above sea level. At 34 kilometers long and 14.5 kilometers wide, Aldabra isn’t that big, but it boasts the largest giant tortoise population in the world.
An Inhospitable Land - Aldabra remains virtually uninhabited by humans. There’s a ranger and staff, and a smattering of visiting scientists, but that’s it. Centuries ago, explorers thought of inhabiting the island, but with little soil and practically no fresh water, it didn’t happen. In addition, most of the land surface is made up of an ancient razor-sharp coral reef, which will shred your feet if you dare to walk on it.
It is largely for this that UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage Site in 1982.
An Ancient Creature: The Giant Tortoise -While Aldabra might not be the most comfortable place for humans—other animals thrive. Around 100,000 giant tortoises—the largest population in the world—call Aldabra home. These mighty beasts weigh about 250 kg and can easily live to over 100. In fact, Jonathan, a rare Seychelles Giant Tortoise is thought to be the oldest living animal on the planet,. At an estimated age of 182, Jonathan has seen a total of 28 British governors come and go since he was brought fully-grown from the Seychelles to the island of St. Helena in 1882. Jonathan was estimated to be approximately 50 years of age at that time, and was likely an exotic gift for then-governor Hudson Ralph Janisch.
Here are some other tidbits about the giant tortoises:
They belong to an ancient group of reptiles appearing about 250 million years ago.
Some individuals have been known to live over 250 years.
They have long necks so they can stretch and tear branches from trees.
Other Wildlife - Giant tortoises aren’t the only splendid creatures living on Aldabra. Coconut crabs—the largest land-living arthropod in the world—can be found scurrying around. These giants can have a leg span of one meter.
Or you might glimpse sharks, manta rays or barracudas swimming in the shallows. There are large seabird colonies on the island and 13 species of terrestrial birds, including the Aldabra rail—the last flightless bird in the western Indian Ocean. Boobies and frigate birds also abound.
Flora is abundant as well, with 273 species of flowering plants, shrubs and ferns on the atoll, including the tropicbird orchid—the national flower of the Seychelles.
Dangers Dodged - Isolation can be a saving grace, but even way out in the middle of the ocean, Aldabra has had its share of threats. In the 1960’s the British military had an outlandish idea to set up an air-staging outpost, with an airstrip and support facility on the atoll. Fortunately, this idea faced massive national and international opposition and was soon dropped. At one point the BBC even considered locating a transmitter on the island. Today, the atoll enjoys much protection, but there are still dangers. Efforts to get rid of non-native species continue. Goats were finally eradicated in 2012 after years, but cats, rats and introduced birds still cause some problems on the islands.
Planning a Visit - Aldabra Atoll is not a place you accidentally visit. It takes some planning. It’s 1150 km southwest from Victoria (capital of the Seychelles) and 420 km north of Madagascar— so it’s out there. The island doesn’t have tourist accommodations but you can visit. First you need permission from the Seychelles Island Foundation and then need to figure out how you’ll get there. Once on the island, you must be accompanied by an Aldabra staff member at all times. Because of its remote location, the expense of getting there and the threat of piracy, not many are fortunate enough to visit. But that’s what makes it so special.