by Danielle Clode
As the plane tilts on its final descent, a sharp gasp is drawn in unison from the passengers as we catch an unexpected glimpse of our destination in the late afternoon sun. Angular volcanic peaks jut almost vertical from a green plateau, ringed by glistening white beaches in a sea of the most astonishing blue. Ripples of reef enclose viridian bays protected from oceanic breakers. In its pristine isolation in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Mauritius presents a picture-postcard image of idyllic tropical beauty.
By the time we land, night has fallen with sudden equatorial surety. The warm darkness gusts through the open-plan airport, redolent with the earthy aromas of fecund humidity and decomposition. Tourists struggle to pile overloaded suitcases into taxis, en route to beachside hotels and villas and trailing the scent of coconut sunscreen and holiday indulgence. I lower the window of the taxi, enjoying the warmth. We slip between rows of thick vegetation and I catch glimpses of the vast sugarcane fields through a tangled regrowth of guava, eucalypt, lantana and privet. Weeds, I think instinctively. I can’t help myself. Tropical paradise or not, Mauritius is famous among conservationists for reasons other than its beauty. It is an island synonymous with extinction.
Dead as a Dodo. Grumpy, fat, stupid, flightless – reality has been subsumed by a wealth of fictional representations in books and movies. When humans first arrived on Mauritius, in the early 1600s, the Dodo was abundant in the lowland coastal forests. The Dodo became an easy source of food for hungry sailors, its eggs favoured by rats and its forests stripped of timber for visiting ships. The last mention of a living Dodo was in 1688. It disappeared before we even learned what it was like.
The Dodo heads a long list of Mauritian extinctions. Isolated for millions of years, the rich endemic plant and animal life of this island diversified and evolved almost without any mammals – without humans. Fruit bats were the only mammalian colonists and bird life flourished – much of it unique to the island. Yet in the 400 years since human settlement, over 100 plant and animal species have disappeared: including two giant tortoise species, a giant skink and two fruit bats, thirteen bird species, and at least thirteen endemic snails. Several of these species went extinct before even being described—probably the early victims of rats from visiting ships and shipwrecks, as well as predation by introduced cats, mongooses, and monkeys. We only know of their existence from cave deposits and subfossil records in the Marre swamp region.
Deforestation has played a major role in the ecological tragedy of Mauritius. In little more than a century, from the 1730s, more than half the island’s native vegetation had been removed. Today less than 2% of Mauritius is covered by native vegetation. The rest is cultivated by agriculture or covered with a mongrel mix of introduced environmental weeds.
It’s hard to even imagine this highly modified landscape covered in the ebony forests for which Mauritius was once famous. I wonder how many visitors even notice the loss. Ebony once provided the highly prized black timber for piano keys, furniture and jewellery. The largest trees were thousands of years old, their stocks soon exhausted by harvesting. Today, the remaining protected forests are dominated by small trees and harvesting is no longer possible. Almost a third of the island’s endemic plant species are critically endangered, some represented by just a handful of known specimens.
I visit the neatly manicured lawns of the Curepipe Botanic Gardens to see some of the survivors. The loneliest palm in the world, Hyophorbe amaricaulis, stands here in splendid isolation, encased in cyclone mesh and scaffolding, subject to increasingly desperate, yet fruitless, efforts at cultivation. No-one knows if it grew here wild or was planted in the garden, but it stands in mute testimony to the untimely extinction of many of the islands unique plants and animals.
This terrible legacy may not appear to bode well for Mauritius. By the 1970s, many of the endemic land birds of Mauritius were critically endangered. The once-widespread population of Mauritius Kestrel had been reduced, largely by pesticide use, to the rarest bird in the world, with just four known individuals in the wild. The Pink Pigeon population had been reduced to just ten individuals. The striking Echo Parakeet numbered a mere twenty-five and rarely bred successfully, while the tiny red-headed Mauritius Fody and exquisite Mauritius White-eye were similarly on the brink of extinction. And yet, despite this dark ecological past, Mauritius today is looking to set a new, and altogether brighter, record in modern conservation biology. Today, Mauritius can boast of having saved more species from near extinction than any other country.
The conservation crisis on Mauritius came to public attention in 1976, when British naturalist Gerald Durrell described the wildlife of Mauritius as ‘hanging on to its existence by its fingernails’ in Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons. He was underwhelmed by his first view of the rare Pink Pigeon, but having captured one to take back to his Jersey Island Zoo for captive breeding, he changed his mind. On closer inspection, he noted the ‘vivid and beautiful’ colours of pale chocolate, rusty red and cyclamen-pink.
‘It was a remarkably handsome bird,’ he later wrote. ‘Gazing at it, feeling its silken feathering against my fingers and sensing the steady tremor of its heart-beat and its breathing, I was filled with a great sadness. This was one of the 33 individuals that survived; the shipwrecked remnants of their species, eking out a precarious existence on their cryptomeria raft.’
Without intervention, many Mauritian species would face the same sad future as the Dodo. Durrell’s Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust took up the task of promoting conservation and captive breeding efforts for Mauritian wildlife which had already begun locally. The establishment of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation in 1984 provided a focus for local and international conservation efforts.
Early work concentrated on saving those species most at risk, even when such efforts seemed in vain. The chances of the Mauritius kestrel recovering from a population of four seemed unlikely and, to some, not worth the effort and cost of trying. Initial efforts to artificially incubate eggs failed. But the conservationists persisted, removing eggs from the nests of wild birds and providing supplementary food to the pairs, encouraging them to lay replacements. Slowly the number of young produced each year increased, both in captivity and in the wild. By 1984, there were 50 kestrels in the wild and today there are estimated to be around 400 in three populations on opposite corners of the island. With bans on the pesticides that precipitated their rapid decline, the Mauritius kestrel is no longer considered to be critically endangered, merely vulnerable.
The story of the last surviving parrot in Mauritius follows a similar path. At the time of human arrival, the Mauritian forests were home to three parrots. The Broad-billed Parrot was a large grey-blue parrot with a heavily crested head and a raucous crow-like cry. Thirioux’s grey parrot was similarly coloured, and described by early visitors as being exceptionally tame and social, with large flocks of birds apparently coming to the call of a single captured individual. By 1764, following widespread forest clearances, both parrots were extinct.
Only the bright green Echo Parakeet has survived on Mauritius—and only just. Despite being extraordinarily abundant, the population was reduced to fewer than 12 individuals by the 1980s. Unlike their introduced cousins, the ring-necked parakeets, Echo parakeets are forest specialists, rarely feeding on the ground or in the open. Having survived intensive hunting by humans, they found themselves in an ever shrinking habitat as forest clearance radically altered the Mauritian landscape.
At the time conservation efforts began, few of the known wild pairs of Echo parakeets were breeding successfully in the wild. Some individuals were taken into captivity as an insurance policy. Eggs were collected and hand-raised and malnourished juveniles were rescued and rehabilitated before re-releasing into the wild. Artificial nest boxes were provided to replace the old-growth cavities, lost to logging, on which parrots depend for breeding. Supplementary feeding near nest and release sites significantly increased the breeding success of the birds and by 2011, more than 500 individuals were recorded in the wild.
The program has not, however, been without its setbacks. In 2004, conservationists attempted to create a new subpopulation. Of the 36 birds released, 32 died in an outbreak of beak and feather disease. This was not due to lack of genetic diversity (often blamed for such problems). Echo Parakeets have retained high genetic diversity despite their population crash. But they do suffer from an excess of males in the wild population, the cause of which remains a mystery.
Like most mainland species, recovery of both the Mauritius kestrel and the Echo parakeet continues to be limited by a lack of suitable habitat and the impact of introduced plants and animals. The birds are vulnerable to mongoose, rat, cat and macaque predation on adults and young, while invasive plants choke the tiny pockets of forests to which they are largely restricted. Greater success, however, seems to be had on some of the offshore islands, where predators can be removed and native vegetation restored.
A glimpse of what Mauritius might have looked like before Europeans first arrived here four centuries ago, can be seen on one such island, Ile aux Aigrette. I took a short boat ride across the clear green waters of the sandy Mahebourg Bay, to the island, perched precariously on the dark pockmarked rocks of coralline limestone, Here, the thin sandy soil supports a regrowth dry coastal forest of spindly ebony trees, spiky dracaenas and elegant palms. It is not so lush, less welcoming, as a holiday-brochure image of a tropical forest, but it has the palpable candour of authenticity about it. It feels real – like all the components belong.
The island has nominally been a nature reserve since 1965, and since 1986 has been the subject of intensive restoration efforts by the Mauritian Wildlife Trust. The nursery on the island produces 6,000 plants a year for revegetation work on the island and in other reserves. After years of work removing invasive weeds, the island began to recover, but it was not until rats were eradicated that the ebony trees began to regenerate. This forest is now home to the only wild population of Pink Pigeons, whose numbers have been restored from just ten individuals in 1990 to over 400 today, although not without some difficulties. In 1994, a newly hatched pigeon chick was taken by a Mauritian kestrel in an improbable case of the imperilled eating the endangered. As we walk through the forest, our guide points out the Mauritius Fody, characterised by their red-headed males in the breeding season, while tiny Mauritius White-eyes flicker and zit with irritation through the bushes and trees around us.
A wrinkled neck emerges from the undergrowth. Smooth polished shell and elephantine legs follow. The giant tortoise turns to watch our approach with equanimity, the remains of a leafy meal slowly masticating in its jaws. The guide motions us around, putting his hand on the animal’s head. Its eyes widen, pushing against the man’s hand like a cat soliciting affection. It moves closer, clearly enjoying the attention as he strokes its shell which, we learn, is sensitive to touch.
Both species of Mauritian giant tortoises, once so important as herbivores and seed dispersers in the lowland forest ecosystems, have been extinct for almost as long as the Dodo. When the Dutch first established a regular stopover point in the harbour now known as Port Louis, they called it Rade de Tortue – Harbour of Tortoises. The large tortoises provided meat, oil and entertainment. One barrel of oil could be obtained by boiling down 500 of these creatures. Their ability to survive without food or water for up to six months meant they were a valuable source of fresh meat on long sea voyages. And their broad backs and sturdy determination lead to tortoise racing, carrying up to four people on their backs. By the early 1700s both the Domed and the Saddleback Tortoise were extinct, along with their cousins on the other Mascarene islands of Rodrigues and Reunion.
Without these giant tortoises, there was little hope of the Mauritian forests being authentically restored to their original ecological balance. And so the last surviving species from the region, the giant Aldabran tortoises now take their place on Ile aux Aigrette and Round Island, providing an additional refuge for this endangered species and providing both the island, and its visitors, with a replacement for the species which have been irreplaceably lost. Since their arrival, the tortoises have brought many non-native weeds under control and significantly increased the germination and dispersal rates of the ebony trees. These gentle natured beasts are the gardeners of the Mauritian forests, slowly and steadily returning the islands to their natural glory.
Other reptiles have also found refuge on predator-free offshore islands. Bright-eyed geckos, in brilliant green or mottled camouflage, scuttle through leaf litter, sunbathe on posts and slip silent into shadows. Several species of night geckos have made their home in the reserves of Ile aux Aigrette and Round Island as well as Guenther’s gecko, Telfair’s skink and the only Mauritian snake, the Round Island boa. Seabirds too, whose breeding colonies on the mainland have been devastated by predation, are also being relocated to Ile aux Aigrette and other protected island locations as fledglings, in the hope that they will one day return here to breed in safety.
Despite a long history of extinction and over-exploitation, and the ongoing economic issues of a small, isolated, resource-poor economy, Mauritius is attempting to build a future in sustainable development and tourism. The hard-learnt experiences of Mauritius have taught us the value of combining captive breeding, hand-rearing and in-situ breeding strategies to bring species back from the brink to which we have pushed them. With further habitat restoration and the continuing conservation efforts of a small band of dedicated researchers and wildlife staff, perhaps one day Mauritius will be better known for the fairytale story of the species it has saved rather than the species it has lost, and its great natural beauty will be reflected, not just in its white beaches and blue seas, but also in its revegetated forests and rich biodiversity.
Danielle Clode is a zoologist and author of several natural history books covering topics as diverse as co-operative killer whales, bushfires, Pacific exploration and prehistoric creatures. She is also an essayist and fiction writer. Details of her work can be found at danielleclode.com.au