Nuts for coco de mer: islanders rally to save world’s biggest seed

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“The coco de mer is a much-loved cultural and botanical icon of the Seychelles,” says Katy Beaver, a plant expert on the islands who has been studying the rare palm for many years. The coco de mer, also known as the sea coconut or double coconut, is endemic to the islands and produces the largest and heaviest seeds in the world, a fascinating case of island gigantism. The suggestive shape of the seed has also earned it plenty of attention. Shrouded in folklore and legends, the palm is found growing naturally on only two of Seychelles’ 115 islands – Praslin, the second largest island in the country after Mahe, and nearby Curieuse. With only about 8,000 mature trees in existence today, the plant is named as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list.

Young coco de mer palms in the Vallee de Mai nature reserve, a Unesco heritage site on Praslin Island, in Seychelles.

The coco de mer palm is dioecious – it has separate male and female plants that can take up to 50 years to reach sexual maturity, depending on environmental conditions – and its extremely slow growth rate has contributed to its endangered status. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there was also a thriving black market for the shell, which led to poaching in protected areas. Other threats include forest fires, erratic rainfall because of climate breakdown, and pests and disease.

Now conservationists have turned to the islanders to help secure the palm’s future. Under a scheme launched last summer, residents were invited to apply for permission to plant up to five coco de mer seeds each on their property.

“At the start of the pandemic last year, our field workers noticed that germinating coco de mer seeds were being carefully removed from the ground outside Vallee de Mai, one of the nature reserves we manage,” says Dr Frauke Fleischer-Dogley, chief executive of the non-profit organisation Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF), which launched the scheme in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, Climate Change and Environment (MACCE).

A female coco de mer tree (Lodoicea maldivica) with several nuts, on Praslin Island.

Poachers were discounted, as there are easier ways to steal the seeds and, with tourism on hold, there was no demand for the coco de mer shell, a popular tourist souvenir owing to its suggestive shape. “It seemed like the handiwork of someone who just wanted to plant the coco de mer,” says Fleischer-Dogley.

The hope is that the new scheme will provide the islanders with the chance to legitimately grow coco de mer plants – and help preserve them for the future. “Having a coco de mer plant growing on their property gives Seychellois shared ownership of the species,” she says.

The fleshy kernel inside the coco de mer is removed for sale in east Asia, where it is believed to have aphrodisiac properties

Since 1978, the trade in coco de mer nuts has been controlled via a permit system. Anyone growing the palm on their property, or trading the nut, has to be registered with the MACCE. Each nut is numbered and tracked. Even the coco de mer shells, which are sold to tourists for anywhere between 5,000 to 6,000 Seychellois rupees (about GBP170-GBP200), come with a permit.

For most of Seychelles’ nearly 100,000 residents, the coco de mer is not accessible at these prices. Nor are the souvenir nuts viable, as the fleshy kernel inside the shell has been removed and processed separately for sale in east Asia, where it is believed to be an aphrodisiac.

Fleischer-Dogley says: “We reasoned that if we give away viable nuts in a planned manner, then the incentive for stealing them is not there.” The nuts for planting would be sourced from Vallee de Mai and the Fond Ferdinand nature reserve (also managed by SIF), where about 50 fallen fruit are harvested from the forest floor each month.

Under the scheme, SIF asked residents to submit a detailed form along with a payment of 500 Seychellois rupees to qualify to plant the seeds on their property. Applicants also had to meet several criteria. As the palm grows to a height of 25 to 35 metres (80-115ft), their property had to have a minimum area of 10 by 10 metres available per seed. SIF staff would visit each property to evaluate the size, as well as the soil type, and decide if the applicant was eligible to plant, and how many seeds could be accommodated. They also made sure that the planting site was not accessible to poachers.

A picture shows a billboard reading: 'Together we can stop coco de mer poaching' near a coco de mer palm on Praslin Island. The fruit only grows wild on the Praslin and Curieuse islands in Seychelles.

“Initially, we thought there might be interest for about 30 nuts,” says Fleischer-Dogley. But the response exceeded all expectations. At the close of the application period in December, SIF had received 104 requests for 422 nuts.

Ninety-four of the applications were from the main island of Mahe, seven from Praslin and three from La Digue. Since the programme’s launch, SIF has completed 60 site visits. All were successful, but in a few cases the number of nuts had to be reduced owing to lack of space or poor soil quality. Ninety-six nuts have been planted on 26 properties so far.

In December, the remaining site visits and seed planting were put on hold because of Covid-related movement restrictions.

Alix Esparon plants a coco de mer seed on his Mahe property, with Ronny Rose from Seychelles Islands Foundation, in October 2020.

As the germination process takes several months, SIF staff will visit planted seeds after six months to monitor their progress. Fleischer-Dogley says: “Not only have we recorded the parcel number from the cadastral [a detailed map of ownership], we have also noted the GPS coordinates of the place where each seed is planted. In case a nut fails to germinate, we can replace it if the property owner so desires.”

The plant’s extremely slow growth rate means that not all of the approved property owners will get to see a coco de mer palm reach maturity in their lifetime. Plant expert Katy Beaver says: “This is a very long-term project.”

Lindsay Chong Seng, head of the Seychelles’ Plant Conservation Action group, adds: “This programme will widen the coco de mer population base, which is useful from the biodiversity point of view. It will help keep the coco de mer as a cultural highlight without destroying its habitat. In the long run, it could reduce the pressure on the last remaining wild coco de mer forests on Praslin.”

A coco de mer shell on display in a souvenir shop in Seychelles International Airport, Mahe.

Challenges do remain, says Beaver. “The majority of these palms will be outside their natural habitat, where pollination takes place unaided. So artificial fertilisation will be necessary and will have to be timed correctly.”

For now, Seychellois with coco de mer seeds planted on their properties are thrilled. Heather Adams and her artist-husband Michael Adams recently had five seeds planted on their property in Mahe. Heather is hoping all five will germinate. “I’m sure the generations to come will treasure them,” she says.

A sculpture of a coco de mer shell in front of a post office on Mahe island, Seychelles, November 2019

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