Ile Moyenne, a Voluntary Robinson Crusoe, and the World’s Smallest National Park
Please Respect the Tortoises. They are probably older than you.
Despite the remote location, Seychelles has become a popular tourist destination, as white sand, tropical weather, and gorgeous granitic landscapes lure hordes of travelers. The islands are perhaps the foremost location in the world where the constant struggle between development and conservation plays out in an observable frame. Infrastructure in the form of five-star resorts has undoubtedly brought wealth to the nation, but the population strives to maintain a more-than-healthy natural state. What good is attracting tourism if development and materialism run rampant, overcoming the landscape people came to see? The people of Seychelles responded by transforming more than 40% of the country into National Parks, the highest percentage of any nation in the world.
Despite these rosy statistics, this balance wasn’t always the case (and isn’t guaranteed to continue). One impetus toward conserving the natural beauty of the islands came from an outsider, an Englishman looking for a new home.
Brendon Grimshaw worked as a newspaper editor in England in the 1940s, before moving to eastern Africa to become one of the most influential newspaper moguls of the region. In 1962, he went on holiday to Seychelles, where he fell for the picturesque nation. During his stay, he decided he wanted nothing more than to own an island and live out his days there. Islands aren’t exactly easy to procure and Grimshaw nearly went back to his old life. As fortune would have it, a person approached him on the second-to-last day of his trip, asking if he wanted to own a tiny spit near the main island of Mahé. Jumping at the chance, he motored to a place called Moyenne Island (Ile Moyenne, en français), named after the French word for “middle.”
Originally, Phillipe Georges, the owner of Moyenne, did not want to offload his land. However, he and his wife did not live there. In fact, Moyenne had been uninhabited since 1915. Eventually, Grimshaw convinced Georges to sell for £8,000 (about $10,000; approximately $100,000 in 2023). Suddenly, Grimshaw lived on an island.
One major factor kept Grimshaw from existing happily ever after on Moyenne. Despite the connotation of island paradise, Seychelles had been ridden hard by human development in the 19th and 20th centuries. Though uninhabited, Moyenne bore the scars of human overdevelopment. Pristine forest had yielded to an undergrowth suffocated by weeds. Only four of the native tree species still grew there. Gone were native tortoises. So overgrown in an unnatural way was the flora that coconuts couldn’t hit the ground when they fell. Native birds abandoned the island. Rats ruled the understory.
Not only would no one really want to live in such a place, but Moyenne couldn’t really be called a bastion of native ecology.
So, along with a local man named René Antoine Lafortune, Grimshaw undertook the harrowing task of rehabilitating the island. At first, the point was to make Moyenne livable for Grimshaw. But the two quickly realized they had a much larger opportunity.
As the islands around Moyenne continued to develop, Grimshaw opted to make the island a wild place. They planted 16,000 trees, including species native to Seychelles that had been driven from Moyenne. The birds started to return. They procured and bred Aldabra giant tortoises, native to Seychelles but driven from many of the islands by humans. They did all this without electricity or other modern trappings. Essentially, Grimshaw had turned his purchase into a nature preserve, one that focused on restoring the native grandeur of Seychelles.
Instead of keeping humans away, Grimshaw invited people to visit. He and Lafortune cut nearly five kilometers of hiking trails, so a tourist could take in the entirety of the island. As they did so, they discovered two gravesites, potentially the resting spots of pirates from days yore.
For three and a half decades, the pair acted as guardians of Moyenne Island.
During their tenure, Seychelles blossomed into a hip destination. This transformation led to many offers to buy the island. Grimshaw received a bid in excess of $50 million from a Saudi buyer. This figure is particularly astonishing when one considers the size of Moyenne: 0.25 miles in length, 0.2 miles in width, with just more than a mile of coastline. Add it up and Moyenne features 0.038 square miles of area.
Each time, he asked why the potential purchaser wanted to buy the land. They inevitably cited development and hotels. So, each time, Grimshaw turned them down. Moyenne sits in a group of five small islands. On the other four sprung up major resorts.
In 2007, Lafortune died, leaving Grimshaw to tend the island on his own. As he aged, the question of what would happen to the island preoccupied him. He had no spouse and no children to carry his torch.
Grimshaw established a trust and recruited a board to run it after he passed, with the purpose of funding the wildness of Moyenne in perpetuity.
Though Seychelles continues to develop its overall tourism infrastructure, the people and government also continue to value the environment. In 2008, Grimshaw and the nation came to an agreement that made Moyenne Island a National Park. According to various sources, this declaration made the island the smallest National Park in the world.
Grimshaw could have cashed in on his investment many times. Instead, he created a spot where trees, birds, and free-range tortoises could live without the immediate threat of losing habitation. When he died in 2012, aged 87, his dream for the future of Moyenne seemed secured. Not only would it stay wild, but it now belonged to the people of Seychelles.
Tourists from around the world can visit this tiny park and mingle with its tortoises, though signs remind people to respect the shelled ones as if they were their elders. Most likely, they are. Aldabra giant tortoises can become ancient. In 2012, Desmond the tortoise was 76.
Usually, the only person on the island who wasn’t younger than the tortoises was Grimshaw. It’s not often someone chooses to maroon on an island for decades; it’s likely far less frequent for a person to pass on tens of millions in cash in order to keep a piece of our planet pristine.
Further Reading and Exploration
Moyenne Island – Official Seychelles Website
Moyenne Island: The world’s smallest national park – BBC Travel
Moyenne Island – Atlas Obscura
Moyenne island declared a national park – Seychelles Nation
An 86-year-old, real-life Robinson Crusoe – BBC