Since the 1770’s, the Seychelles have undergone a significant amount of landscape and wildlife modifications due to human settlement and exploitation (Gerlach, et al., 2013; Kueffer, et al., 2013).Prior to the arrival of European explorers in the 1770’s, no human presence was documented throughout the Seychelles (Minority Rights Group International, 2007). In less than a century, the Seychelles was almost completely deforested, and the exploitation of these islands continued until the 1970s, when tourism became an economic booster and a key driver promoting the restoration of the Seychelles (Kueffer, et al., 2013). Efforts to preserve the islands became one of the main drivers for the reintroduction of giant tortoises to Frégate, Cousine, and North Island. The Aldabra Tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantean), and some recognized subspecies (A. g. hololissa and A. g. arnoldi) were almost driven to extinction in the Seychelles.
The first historical account recorded of the Tortoises was in 1609 on the Granitic islands of Seychelles, and there was another record from around 1742 describing the presence of giant tortoises within the Aldabran Atoll ( which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) (Bour, 1984). They are an endemic species of reptile on the Seychelles that was at one time on the brink of extinction until historical figures, such as Charles Darwin and Albert Gunter, sought for the protection of all the Giant Tortoise species in the Indian Ocean around 1874 (Bour, 1984; Nicholls, n.d.). This can be considered one of the earliest modern conservation cases (Bour, 1984).
These populations were in need of protection, as ships visiting the Seychelles frequently removed Aldabra Tortoises as a source of food that was delicious and that kept especially well during voyages(Cheke, et al., 2010) (Chambers, 2004). Colonial settlers were utilizing tortoise populations as a source of food, while also logging hardwood areas –destroying habitats that the tortoises depended on (Bour, 1984).
By the 1870’s these creatures had been virtually driven extinct and only a few remained in the Seychelles and Mauritius (Chambers, 2004). Chambers (2004) writes on an account from Günter, in which the loggers were about to move into a remote area on the Aldabra Atoll, where the tortoise population had survived untouched and he was worried would be decimated. He contacted Darwin and others to petition to save these Tortoises. At this time they were called the“Indian Tortoise” and Günter and others wrote a letter to the Governor of Mauritius to ensure there was no imminent extermination of these species (Chambers, 2004). After a lengthy fight this mission was successful and it led to tortoises being transferred “to the central Seychelles, [to which] then [they had] possibly mixed…with the last remnant endemic specimens” (Bour, 1984, p. 282).
Over time, the giant tortoise has become recognized as a species facing significant risk and has been since protected and re-established successfully on many of the islands of Seychelles, however, these population continue to face challenges presented by predators, climate change and human activities such as poaching and habitat degradation (Gerlach, et al., 2013; Hambler, 1994).