Why the Comoros?

The Comoro Islands are a chain of four volcanic islands lying at the northern end of the Mozambique Channel between the tip of Madagascar and the East African coast. The BCSF Project works in three of the islands. Grande Comore is the youngest and largest island, dominated by Mount Karthala, which has the largest crater of any active volcano in the world; Mohéli is a small tropical paradise with beautiful beaches and reefs; and Anjouan, where the BCSF Project is based, is notable for its steep mountain slopes and ravines.

Since they emerged out of the sea, the islands have never been joined to any other landmass. This isolation meant that animals and plants which arrived on the islands by air or sea were then cut off from the rest of their kind, and many evolved independently into new species unique to the Comoros (endemic species).

Over time, dense tropical forests full of endemic trees, lianas and orchids developed and covered the islands. Fifteen different bird species evolved here which are found nowhere else in the world, including the Anjouan scops owl, which is now classed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN’s red list of endangered species. Different species of bat evolved, including the Livingstone’s fruit bat (now classed as Endangered). With a wingspan of up to 1.4 metres, it is one of the largest bats in the world and found only on Anjouan and Mohéli.

The Comoros’ unique biodiversity and habitat are now under extreme pressure. During colonial times, most of the forest on the lower slopes was cleared to make way for cash crops such as cloves and ylang-ylang (a perfume essence, for which the Comoros is the world’s largest producer). Since the three islands gained independence from France in 1975, ongoing poverty, institutional problems, and population pressures have meant that deforestation has continued into the higher slopes, and over the last 20 years, the islands have suffered from one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world according to official statistics from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation.

This deforestation threatens the endemic biodiversity through habitat loss, but also the livelihoods of the Comorian population. Once the trees have been cut down, the spongy topsoil which holds onto water is swept away as tropical rains wash straight down the steep mountain slopes to the sea. The subsequent erosion has caused a marked decrease in soil fertility, and agricultural yields are declining as a consequence. It also means that water courses are drying up: fifty years ago there were around forty permanent rivers on Anjouan; now there are fewer than ten, and the local people have recognised this as one of the major problems they face.