The first time a tortoise walked through my hut at Middle Camp on Aldabra Atoll, I was amazed. I grabbed my camera and carefully positioned myself to capture this wildlife encounter. The second time: same thing. The third time: I picked up my phone and took a snapshot. By the fourth or fifth time, I didn’t even look when I felt something bump into me. I knew what it was.
I was there to shoot a story about island restoration in the Seychelles, far off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. Until roughly the middle of the past century, the small island nation showed signs of real environmental carnage—indigenous vegetation cleared to make way for coconut and cinnamon plantations, invasive rats and mice running rampant, native sea turtles and giant tortoises being exploited. Biodiversity seemed doomed.
But then the country experienced a shift in conservation consciousness—and the giant Aldabra tortoises are among its most visible signs. These massive reptiles lived on most islands in the Indian Ocean until 17th-century sailors discovered that they were the perfect source of fresh provisions on long voyages because they can survive for months without water or food. The mariners filled their holds with hundreds of tortoises at a time, flipping them on their backs to prevent them from wandering on deck. Little by little the tortoises on islands throughout the Indian Ocean were eaten to extinction—except on Aldabra, which was the only island in the entire ocean basin where a few thousand of these tortoises survived.