March 11 - Mahe, Seychelles
Getting our Bearings Again

We arrived in Mahe, the largest Island of the Seychelles, last night well after dark and following our two-day sojourn in Mauritius.

Mauritius has a dark history in connection to Madagascar, specifically through the horrors of slavery. This began under the Dutch in the 1590s when Governor Van Der Stel of Mauritius sent ships to Antongil Bay in Madagascar to look for slaves and then continued unabated for the ensuing 230 years under French and British administrations, principally in connection with the sugar crop. Now, the island is nearly completely given over to sugar cane. There are a few old cinder cones of long extinct volcanoes that dot the otherwise low, rolling landscape. One that the plane flew right by on the way in was the site of a tragic event in Mauritian history. Long plagued by the marronage (communities of escaped slaves who engaged in half a century of guerrilla warfare against their would-be masters), when slavery was abolished by the British, they sent a fleet of ships to inform the free communities. Fearing their imminent capture and repression, hundreds hurled themselves to their deaths from the top of this sheer cliff basalt dome.

To be honest, it is not much of a place to behold, though it may well have been once. For miles and miles on end all one can see is cane fields. Mauritius is of course the erstwhile home of that ultimate symbol of extinction through extirpation by human mismanagement, the Dodo. We were met at the airport by our friend and colleague Anwar who has some experience with this. Anwar was a Chapman post-doc at the American Museum of Natural History for two years where he was engaged in re-evaluating the morphological information of various galliform birds. This included his beloved Dodo (which for lack of a better analogy was an oversized flightless chicken living in Mauritius until it was wiped out by human involvement in a fragile place).

We arrived in Mauritius at an interesting time; the Hindu festival of Maha Shivaratree. This happens once a year and is the Mauritian equivalent of the annual festival in India when thousands of pilgrims make their way to the Ganges for its purifying waters. Here, the pilgrims march for days from around the island to the high point of Grand Basin and the crater lake of an extinct volcano. For three to five days in advance the streets are filled with people dressed from head to foot in white all walking in the same direction. Some solo. Some in groups of 30 or more. Some in traditional white sarees, others in white t-shirts and shorts… but white nonetheless. Still other temple organizations make enormous elaborate floats with teams of men carrying them dozens of kilometers over the rolling countryside to the site of the festival, all the while chanting songs in Hindi "Glory to Lord Shiva".

But Mauritius is an odd place in this context. The country is about 65% Hindu and is otherwise even more broadly dominated by individuals of Indian and Pakistani descent. The origins of this is in the British enticing many thousands of people from the subcontinent to settle with the promise of a better life in Mauritius. In point of fact, with the abolition of slavery, the sugar mills and cane fields were in dire need of abundant labor. Much as happened in the Durban area of South Africa (where Gandhi initiated his movement for universal respect and dignity) so too here were the peoples of India subject to the harsh labour practices of their colonial masters.

But even before the mass influx of Indian labour under the British, the Tamils from Madras in southern India arrived in the early to mid 1700's with the beginning of French occupation to build the city of Port Louis (which being mostly 10 km inland is hardly a port). One of the side effects of this is a countryside dotted with elaborate and richly colored kovils, the Tamil temples built to honor Shiva and Vishnu.

Perhaps the most incongruent observation that we made about Mauritius is that in a country, being so dominated by people of Indian descent to the extent that you might confuse the central markets of Quatre Borne for central Delhi, and where modern Indian music abounds as much as films from Bollywood, everyone is speaking French!

Our first day in the Seychelles has been one of logistics. Where will we find these leeches that have inhabited the granitic leftovers of continents wrenched apart about 100 million years ago? The Seychelles are a mix of those continental remains, with high towering cliffs of ancient granite lording over the tropical palm and coconut lined beaches, and other smaller islands of volcanic origin. The national symbol is the Coco de Mer. An enormous coconut palm with enormous coconuts, which when fully mature have grown to the size of several human heads, but resemble quite another piece of human anatomy entirely. There are 115 islands in total making up the Seychelles, of which only 30 are inhabited (by humans). Though the total land mass is closer to 450 square km, the oceanic area encompassed by the country exceeds1.3 million square km. As a result of the slave trade, the dominant language is a bizarre patois or Creole that mixes African, Malagasy and French languages.

This morning we settled into a place near the beaches of Beau Vallon, not for the beaches but in fact for the easy access to the Morne Seychellois National Park. We anticipate that if the species is still here they will be hiding out in the wetter portions on the West side of the park near a place called Mare de Cochons (or, translated, Swamp of Pigs, how nice). There is one species known from Mahe, and yet two species of Idiobdella from Silhouette. The island gets its name as a result of its appearance from shore looking westward at sunset precisely from where we currently reside. It is indeed a silhouette on the horizon and spans a paltry 20 square kilometers… all the more amazing that it is host to two separate species of terrestrial leech in their own unique genus.

A quick visit to the Ministry of the Environment at the Botanical Gardens and to IDC (which manages Silhouette) seems to have us straightened out. We will head out here in the early hours tomorrow in search of Maheobdella. All together we have given ourselves 3 days in Mahe and 3 in Silhouette to find them. We have been trying to contact Justin Gerlach of the Nature Conservation Trust of the Seychelles, but to no avail. He is the one who would know precisely where to look. Other than that, our digital camera is broken and will require some tin foil and duct tape to make it work. Like all good biologists we have both.