March 7, 2008 / 12:44 PM / 10 years ago

Virgin Comoros island sees hope in ecotourism

FOMBONI, Comoros (Reuters Life!) - Rare bats, green turtles and unspoiled beaches are top attractions on the Comorian island of Moheli, where the jungle spills onto the road and the craggy hills are covered with bush and trees.

“It’s about 80 percent virgin,” Mohamed Ali Said M‘sa, president of the least developed island in the Comoros, told Reuters. “We think we can profit from this,” he said.

Lying off Africa’s east coast, the three tropical islands which make up the Comoros have a history of coups and inter-island bickering. Political instability since independence from France in 1975 has deterred tourism. But now Moheli is hoping to cash in on its environment.

An endangered green turtle flaps her way down a short, sandy beach before slipping into the sea. Another turtle, its shell the size of a suitcase, scrabbles away into the undergrowth, looking to lay her eggs on the island.

The island is home to many species ranging from the critically endangered hawksbill turtles to dugongs, a marine mammal whose closest living relative is the elephant.

“For the green turtles, Moheli is one of the 12 most important nesting sites in the world,” Melissa Hauzer, from a non-profit conservation organization, C3, told Reuters.

Once widespread in the Indian Ocean, dugong populations have been slashed by fishing, she said.

“CAN‘T LIST THEM ALL”

On the other side of the island, guide Jean Ahmed Said uses a machete to slash back the dense undergrowth, pointing out the trees -- fruits, spices, hardwoods, and medicinal plants.

“I can’t list them all,” the 32-year old said.

At the end of a sweaty 45-minute hike across streams, up hills and through thick bush, a group of Livingstone’s bats hang upside down in a tree nearby.

One of four bat species found in Moheli, the nocturnal animals have a wingspan of about 140 cm (55.12 inches) and are endemic to the Comoros archipelago.

Tourists can expect to pay a fee of about 2,000 Comorian Francs ($4) to see the bats and turtles. The money provides a living for the island’s residents and an incentive to protect the wildlife.

“If we really look after this species, it could create wealth in the future,” said Muzidalifa Yusuf, a local resident.

“But above all our children will be able to see them,” he said by a smooth, sandy beach encircled by rock and forest.

Turtle poaching is a very real concern, he added.

The Indian Ocean archipelago, whose population is about 700,000, was first settled by Arab seafarers 1,000 years ago and later became a pirate haven.

Visitors to Moheli are still rare, said Hamada Tourki from the House of Ecotourism, even though they can stay for just about 6,000 to 17,000 Comorian Francs ($12 and $34) per night.

“It’s not every day, or every week (that we receive tourists),” he said. “Sometimes we go for a month without.”

Editing by Jack Kimball and Paul Casciato

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