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September 25, 2017

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Climate change threatens idyllic Seychelles habitat

VICTORIA -- Bursts of torrential rain lash the idyllic white beaches of the Seychelles, where conservationists fear that rare species such as the giant tortoise are at severe risk from climate change.

As changing season patterns bring harsher storms and much longer dry spells, international organizations are helping fight climate change in the tiny nation, the only one in the world where 50 percent of the land is a nature reserve.

"The seasons are merging, there's more rain but in short bursts, with long dry periods. Drinking water dries up and the climate plays havoc with breeding and feeding patterns," said Seychelles climate change expert Rolph Payet.

Recognizing the risks, the United Nations Development Program and Global Environment Facility have approved US$8.7 million this year for climate change adaptation projects in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

While part of the funds will go to tackling issues affecting Seychellois people such as drought, the rest is earmarked for further research into protecting the vast array of species from the fallout from global warming.

"We have a range of animals at risk, from the rare turtles and tortoises which lay their eggs on our beaches, to mountain frogs and birds such as the Black Parrot, which are endemic to the Seychelles," Payet said.

On the remote Aldabra atoll, a UNESCO World Heritage Site more than 1,100 kilometers (685 miles) from the main Seychelles islands, more than 100,000 wild giant Aldabra tortoises lumber and doze together in groups in the baking sun.

One of the biggest tortoises in the world, the Aldabra is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as at risk of extinction, and small but notable shifts in the climate have sparked concern among experts.

"Climate change causes storm surges and higher tides, both of which erode the coast. As the sea warms up, it also kills off the coral reefs, which provide food for fish but also protect the coast from the waves," Payet said.

The Aldabra atoll lies only a few meters above the turquoise waves of the Indian Ocean and the fear is that rising sea levels and tropical cyclones may eventually swallow it up, taking the giant Seychelles tortoises with it.

"It's not only the Aldabra which is at risk," said David Rowat from the Seychelles marine conservation society, which heads up a program to tag and monitor critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtles on Mahe Island's beaches.

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