Beautiful Giant

by Margi Prideaux

From behind came a sound, swish, phwom, swish, phnom. My heart fluttered inside my chest. Could it be what I had been hoping for since the first giant gardener’s space?

Years ago, I travelled to Thailand for a semester of study and the opportunity to explore the country. I am drawn to what is tangible and real in the world – wildlife that is wild and communities living as they have for eons. For me, chance encounters with wildlife carry more colour and texture than the canned experiences people buy. On this occasion, I had found a trek to visit a Karen-Thai hill tribe community in the Chiang Mai province. Our guides were members of the community we were to visit. They vibrated with political activism and a deep pride in their people. Their energy was magnetic.

We set off from Chiang Mai in a van at dawn, winding for hours through deep valleys between steep, densely vegetated hills. Lush plants sprang from every surface. The sight of such prolific vegetation can be difficult to absorb, at times so profuse it looks artificial. It’s as if you are travelling through a dense green cloud.

After an hour or so of winding roads, we stopped at an unmarked roadside point, in the shadow of a tall hill. I am sure the spot was easy to identify for locals, but to my eyes nothing distinguished this hill from the hundreds we had just passed. Still, with trust and a prayer, we collected our packs and dissolved ourselves into the trees to begin the upwards march towards the Karen village.

Pushing through thick vegetation, we wove around tree trunks standing in tight formation. At our feet was thick undergrowth. Over our heads was a dense canopy of low-hanging branches. Without the occasional bright flowers springing forward with ridiculous iridescence, it could have been a scene from a commando movie. Birds, which I could never identify, chattered and clanged in the sun shining on the other side of the ceiling of leaves. Insects took up arms as we moved forward. Some limited their interest to noting our passing, while others investigated if our flesh offered something more. Ahead, our guides moved steadily and ever upwards, swinging their machetes from side to side, clearing a path for our climb. They never faltered, swatted, or stopped, so neither did we.

Occasionally, the forest density would suddenly evaporate and we would stumble into small clearings ringed by trees with bare trunks. Through the high manicured dome of leaves, the mid-morning light glinted in the few spaces not woven shut. It was as if a giant gardener had crafted a private cocoon to sit and enjoy. Here, our band of trekkers could sit, gulp water and devour sticky Thai sweets. There was a clear track in and a clear track out, wider than the paths we were making, and distinctly worn into the ground. A guide explained the elephants and their mahouts, known as kwarn chang in northern Thailand, had created these spaces, for moments of rest from their work in the surrounding area. At that time, the teak harvest ban in Thailand was still young and illegal activity continued.

The thrill of knowing elephants were nearby was intoxicating. I strained my hearing to catch a sound of their presence, but the cacophony of birds masked my effort.

Our trek went on for hours, up and around hills and down through deep valleys. As the day matured it became hotter and the air cloyingly still. My clothes hung wet on my frame and a steady stream of sweat blurred my vision. The water we carried was lighter by the step.

Eventually, we crested the edge of a long, meandering valley. The wild forest gave way to signs of human toil. Our path was now bordered by crops fed by lengths of bamboo irrigation pipes. In the distance were a collection of bamboo and rattan huts. Colourful fabrics billowed in the breeze. This was our destination.

After hours of shade, the sun felt ferocious, blazing in its mid-afternoon posture. Tiny midges buzzed close by; a gentle hum tuned to the beauty of the day.

Of our small band, I was slowest. This is nothing new. I have never been a natural trekker; I love the destination, but often tire at the pace of the journey. I like to stop and explore new and wonderful discoveries along the way, to have moments where there is no human sound so I can soak in the aliveness of what surrounds me.

I was alone on the path when I heard a gentle swish then phwom, swish, phnom approaching behind me.

A thrill billowed inside me and I turned to face the titan. She was magnificent.

The relationship between humans and elephants in this region goes back a long way. It is too easy to assume the practices of the past, when elephants were pressed into the service of logging, land clearing or used as transport haulers, were the terrible times – to presume the new enlightenment of tourism oversees a better world for these gentle animals. However, this judgement is tinged with western bias and blinkered vision.

I don’t mean to suggest that teak harvesting should resume – far from it. The scale of harvest caused terrible damage across Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, but unintended consequences flowed from the ban. Communities that had built generations of identity and skill around raising and training mahouts and elephants crumbled. An elephant, which may have spent its life as a member of a mahout’s family, became a burden to feed if the family’s income disappeared. Many mahouts were similarly cast adrift. Starvation for both was a very real threat. Elephant tourism – elephant rides and elephant performances – filled a gap for some. But this can be a pitiful existence for the elephants and the men, made worse by the knowledge that elephant infants, wrenched from their mothers in Myanmar, are regularly smuggled across the border into Thailand to be presented as orphans in need of care. These youngsters are the innocent victims of the tourism machine. In some ways, the situation for elephants is worse now than it was at the peak of teak harvesting.

The ears of the elephant walking towards me waved softly, eyes creased in a gentle smile, her trunk swayed with the rhythm of her long, slow stride. Swish, phwom. Swish, phwom. Swish, phnom. Each step began as a gentle touch that flowed into heavy softness.

She was more than magnificent. She was heart wrenchingly beautiful.

I knelt on the path when she was still a few lengths away and took a photograph. I knew it would fall short of her presence, but it would remind me of this moment in years to come. Even today, as I hold it in my hand, I remember each swaying stride. Swish, phnom.

Behind her head sat her kwarn chang, tenderly patting her neck and whispering soothing sounds behind her ears. I stepped from the path as her trunk tenderly reached out, then yanked a clump of grass and flowers from near my feet. I was enveloped by the rich, deep smell of her skin and wet vegetation. Her eye tracked me for a moment, pleating at the edges with delight as she placed her spoils in her mouth to chew.

My heart slowed to the beat of her footsteps. An ear and then a shoulder glided by. Swish, phnom. I glanced at her kwarn chang, now above my head, and he returned a shy nod. The round swell of her abdomen pressed the space between us, drawing my attention back to her magnificent presence. A rumble inside her body made me smile, then the switch of her tail drew my attention to her hip moving past.

I drank in another dozen swaying steps before she rounded a corner and melted into the treelike.

She was gone, but her presence could still be felt, like an echo in the space on the path.

One of the guides called my name from the edge of the village. I drew in a breath at the wonder of the world and took off at a trot to catch up with the group. The next adventure of meeting the Karen people was ahead.

Margi Prideaux is a writer, negotiator and independent academic, with a PhD in wildlife policy & law. In her 27 years in the conservation movement, she has worked on conservation projects in the Pacific Islands, South East Asia, Africa and Latin America, and always with the goal of protecting wildlife through communities. She has published three books: Birdsong After the StormGlobal Environmental Governance, Civil Society and Wildlife, and All Things Breathe Alike: A Wildlife Anthology that is co-authored with Donna Mulvenna and Jessica Groenendijk. Her fourth book, Wild Tapestry: Weaving Wildlife Survival, will be released in late 2017. She is on Facebook and Twitter @WildPolitics. www.wildpolitics.co

Kate Walters

“Kate Walters’ paintings are concerned with the interaction of the animal and human worlds; depicting in raw and graphic immediacy a relationship that is both intimate and nurturing. Deer, horses and female figures are shown co-existing in an almost primeval state of mutual, interconnected harmony. In their iconography of nurture and loving grace human and animal bodies merge and combine, as the female subjects of these works take on and adopt the character of their animal guides: the watchfulness and truth of the deer, the protection and nurture of the horse. In this new world, there is no separation between human and animal, only a porous tissue of skin that both delineates and dissolves individual boundaries.” Revd Dr Richard Davey

Kate Walters studied Fine Art in London, Brighton and Falmouth; she has worked as an independent artist for 20 years in Cornwall, showing work in Jerwood Drawing (twice), RA, RCA, RWA. A recent solo show of 2000 digital photographs, 3 films, and 30 paintings detailing & exploring a conversation with nature was hosted at Newlyn Art Gallery. She is also a speaker and has presented at many universities. Recent/current projects she has curated and organised include a fund-raising drawing show for Freedom from Torture; her next project is called “Drawing down the Feminine”. Residencies include Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens (2017-19), the Isle of Iona (2015-16), the RCA (National Open Art Resident artist) and working with students and staff at Glasgow School of Art. Kate teaches on various courses including a mentoring course at Newlyn School of Art. She also mentors emerging artists privately in her studio, and runs drumming and drawing workshops there. A book, The Iona Notebooks, will be published in May 2017 by Guillemot Press and launched at Terre Verte Gallery near Launceston on May 5th.

“Thinking of how the breath of the horse creates a kind of womb for me; holds me aloft, intact, supported, whole. A womb of air, a light-filled womb, perfumed, smelling of a horse’s grassy green breath.”

The Secret Worth a Thousand – Watercolour, 2012. This work with a title borrowed from Goethe (the phrase refers to what he believed we could gain from entering into a conversation with Nature) was central in my solo exhibition at Newlyn Art Gallery https://vimeo.com/73134126 which explored our relationship with the natural, and wild world. The female deer provides an arc over the woman, who is close to flowing water, and whose abdomen has been imprinted by a wild horse. The deer has become a sky-god, such as you can find in ancient Egyptian images.
Leaving Event – Watercolour, 2016. This work was developed after visiting The Ness Of Brodgar, where I learned about the ceremonial leaving events which are believed to have taken place there.
The Bird my Brother – This picture from around 2014 is composed of many layers of watercolour on gesso-prepared paper. It reflects on body as tree, as hands as branches, as feet as root linking one to Bird, wild bird, crow bird about to take flight; or raven dipping wings and croaking a greeting; Raven as messenger and teacher; innocence; sky-made eyes. This is the gift of wildness.
Spirit Horse – Completed in 2016, in watercolour and charcoal. The woman who blends with the heart space of the horse has become leopard-like; she sees with her navel, she is in touch with the gifts of wildness.
Trance – This work from 2014 is made of layers of watercolour and gum Arabic on gesso-prepared paper. There are traces of many journeys beneath the crystallized surface. I’m interested in how we might pray with animals, how they pray for us; how their wildness and their acute senses can enrich our lives, teach us how to track, be still, hear and be with ourselves and our instincts. It is also about mirroring, affection, and humility.

pig farm

by Gerry Boland

a sow stands short-shackled
to a concrete floor decked with
shit-smelling piss-soaked wooden slats

she shifts and struggles
wrenches with sumo neck
an unbreakable chain
lurches in slow motion
against immovable bars

her agitation over
she settles back to standing still
slurps at an iron bar for absent minerals
waits for her session on the rape rack
a term the men use with an ugly smile

ten thousand live here, from
day-old piglets to sows worn out
by never-ending pregnancy

they lie wedged between bars
slumped on their colossal sides
while regiments of newborn piglets
suckle with clipped teeth

Gerry Boland is a poet and author. He was born and lived for much of his life in Dublin and moved to north Roscommon in 1999. His first collection of poems, Watching Clouds, was published by Doghouse Books in 2011, and his second, In the Space Between (Arlen House) appeared in January 2016.

Recovery

by Michael Engelhard

The scene on the highway’s exit ramp caught me off guard. A stout woman, in her sixties perhaps, with glasses and frizzy brown hair, dressed in sneakers, jeans, and a sweat-shirt, stood near her parked truck, transfixed by something in the grass. Bicycling closer, I noticed she was Native American and the object of her attention was a bird plump as a chicken and glossy as obsidian. Fascinated by all wildlife and fond of aerobatic corvids clowns in particular, I stopped on the gravel shoulder. The raven’s left wing dragged; feather tips skimmed the grass. The chisel bill hung ajar, as if its owner were panting, displaying the mouth’s soft lining. With each blink, white nictitating membranes closed on the bird’s eyeballs like camera apertures freeze-framing the world.

“It’s injured,” the woman offered, stating the obvious. “I’m trying to take it to a vet.”

I asked if she needed a hand, and she went to the truck, returning with a sweatshirt. Noon sun ironed my back, undeterred by clouds like gray paunches that sagged toward the horizon. As cars sped by, curiosity flickered across the drivers’ faces. Oblivious to the streaking of traffic and pain, the bird focused on the more imminent threat we represented. Each time the woman approached, it hopped beyond reach, tucking the hurt wing close to its body, as a person would a dislocated arm. Circling around, I distracted it long enough for the woman to throw the shirt over it. She stooped, nimbly for somebody so compact, and scooped up the raven before it could wiggle free.

We walked to her truck and I opened the door.

“Would you like to come to the vet?” she asked. “You could hold it while I drive.”

I wedged my bike and backpack full of groceries into the truck and got in. En route to the opposite end of town, she rang a friend who had worked in bird rehabilitation. She already had called that friend for advice as soon as she spotted the bird.

“I got it and am driving to the vet now. A guy is helping me.”

Through fabric my fingertips sensed the bird’s heart. Unable to tell terror from resignation, I listened to its labored breathing, worried that it might suffocate or overheat. A scaly leather foot, tipped with lacquered claws, had escaped from the wrap, and pressed against my belly. Occasionally, as frost heaves or cracks in the pavement shook the truck, wings brushed against my breastbone like spruce boughs or a book page. I had never been that close to a raven before.

My grandmotherly accomplice, Margaret, recalled how she had trapped a raven by accident when she still lived in her village up north. She had been setting snares to catch rabbits; to her surprise a raven stepped into one of her loops. She released it and, getting stabbed in the process, came to respect the bird’s moxie and imposing bill.

Research for a school paper she had to write turned up little scientific information about corvid-human interaction, but Margaret unearthed a wealth of raven lore, knowledge rooted deeply in time, accounts and beliefs that branched far beyond North America into Siberia and Europe.

She could have learned about charcoal sketches in the caves near Lascaux that depict corvids and imply their importance to early humans as messengers or even as human souls. Or that, in Norse mythology, two ravens named Thought and Memory perched on Odin’s shoulders, gleaning news of the world on daily excursions. And that without stars to guide them through summer’s nacreous midnights, Norse settlers released hrafnar and trailed the black scouts landward in their single-mast ships.

Illustration from an 18th-century Icelandic manuscript depicting Huginn and Muninn sitting on the shoulders of Odin. Courtesy of Árni Magnússon Institute, Iceland / Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the northern hemisphere this bird attended shamanistic flights of trance. It was teacher and totemic ancestor. It stared bug-eyed from the limbs of family trees along the Pacific Northwest coast, populating genealogies hewn into cedar trunks. Kwakiutl dancers acknowledged the bond by wearing masks with four-foot-long bills that closed with whip crack sounds. Crow-walking under the spell of gourd rattles, they became birds. Other raven masks split like seedpods, revealing a second mask and thus the deception of first impressions, the hidden nature of things. In the mythology of Margaret’s own people, the Gwich’in of the Yukon and northeast Alaska, Raven acted as trickster and transformer. In the course of his exploits, he often suffered violence or deformity, comparable to the bird I was cradling. Vulgar and petty, scheming and greedy and often not very smart, he embodied the sacred and the profane, the light and the shadow inside each one of us. At the beginning of “Distant Time,” he created not only humans, but also animals, some of which looked after people as guardian spirits. As part of a bargain between species, people honored obligations, obeyed unwritten rules, and offered gestures of attentiveness, feeding dried fish to a wolf they had killed, or not disturbing a raven on its nest, lest the weather would turn cold. In a mythical age that for believers is present to the same degree that it is past, Raven stole daylight for his creations, which until then scrambled around in the dark. Inspired perhaps by the bird’s love for shiny objects or by a solar eclipse, one tale told around midwinter fires recounts Raven’s theft of the sun. A chief in the sky had given the orb to his child as a toy. When the toddler dropped it and it rolled into the room’s corner, Raven covered its glow with his wing. Then he flew back to earth with it, illuminating the world of people. His benevolence is believed to assume the form of actual ravens that guide hunters to fresh wolf kills, moose or caribou, the bounty of which feeds entire families. Villagers in Alaska pay close attention to the living environment, and a raven rolling onto its back in midair is “dropping a package of meat,” announcing good fortune for the observant.

I told a few anecdotes of my own. On a snowy Fairbanks sidewalk I once found evidence of a raven meal: a scuffle of rune prints, banded feathers, and at the display’s center a grouse foot. During a Grand Canyon trip, fat twin marauders in search of food hacked into my backpack and pulled out smelly socks. (I had been mad enough to fling rocks at them.) Similarly, a mile above timberline on Denali’s buttressed heights, ravens had made the connection between bamboo wand markers and the food caches climbers left in a snowdrift, excavating peanuts, cheese, and beef jerky with great gusto. While many climbers consider them flying rats, many other Alaskans, like myself, have a soft spot for them. In downtown Sitka, I saw car drivers wait patiently for ravens to grab a meal on rain-slicked Harbor Drive instead of honking their horns or trying to squeeze by or to run over them.

As our conversation progressed, Margaret and I realized we had common acquaintances in a city of seventy thousand that can be as tight as a village, among them my former Native-language teacher. Our conversation, which had begun as a trickle, meandered from the invalid bird to its kin until the current widened, roiling raw stuff to the surface.

Between raven stories nestled Margaret’s confession that she was a recovering alcoholic. She hinted at divorce, at a step- or adoptive parent. Her children and grandchildren lived as far away as Tucson, and she rarely saw them. Beadworking had given her strength to pull through. “It keeps my hands and mind busy all the time,” she told me. She talked about her style, how she kept seeing images and patterns in nature, which she then translated into art. Craft and expertise ran strong in Margaret’s family. Her mother had passed on the gift; at age fourteen, she had fashioned a fringed, shell-and-bead-encrusted hide shirt for Margaret’s great-grandfather, a chief. It now hung in a display case at the university museum on the hill above town—a snippet of culture enshrined.

When we finally reached the clinic, the raven felt heavy and warm, like a swaddled, if damaged, foundling. The bird’s weight on my belly released feelings that, for a non-pet person sworn to childlessness, welled up unexpectedly. I imagined how easily an observer could have mistaken our trio for a family rushing its infant to an emergency room.

There was an entrance for dogs and another for cats, but none for birds. We stood in the air-conditioned office’s neon glare, with sterile surfaces and posters that advertised pet health care. I sweated where the cotton bundle touched my body. Margaret tugged on her T-shirt, admitting coolness to her skin. While a receptionist had her fill out some paperwork, my arms tired and I braced them on the Formica counter. The bird squirmed again and let out a rusty squawk; I tried to keep a good grip, mindful not to break feathers or injure it even more. Before long, a veterinarian’s assistant took it into another room. She returned to hand Margaret her soiled sweatshirt.

“I’ll have to wash this,” Margaret said calmly.

“What will become of the bird?” I asked the receptionist before we left.

“The vet will see what she can do,” she said. “We’ll check with a rehabilitation place here in town, and when the bird is ready it will be released where you found it.”

Back at the truck, Margaret volunteered to drive me home. On the way there, we talked some more. I wondered aloud if it was even legal to pick up or keep wildlife. “Let ’em come find me, if they want,” was all she said. Before I stepped from the truck, Margaret showed me photos of her traditional yet innovative beadwork, paraphernalia of many-hued glass that she sold at church bazaars: garlands offsetting inspirational poems, necklaces culminating in bear pendants, tanned-hide discs blushing with floral designs, and wall hangings embroidered with the sign of her people’s adopted faith. I asked for her phone number in case I ever needed a customized gift.

I intended to let Margaret know the outcome of our rescue mission, but, for personal reasons, I also needed to follow this story to its end. At the time, my writing, if not my curiosity, had almost ground to a halt. The world did not seem to provide any new plots. Words did not come easily anymore and, when they did, mimicked flowers pressed in a book more than the green fertile mess that threatened to swallow my yard. But the minute I closed the cabin door, I grabbed pen and paper, and sentences began to form.

The next day, I rang the clinic to inquire about the patient’s condition. The diagnosis was bleak and the outlook even more so. As the result of heavy trauma, typically caused by collisions with cars or windowpanes, the raven had broken a wing bone and dislocated a shoulder and would never fly again. It shared the fate of many residents-turned-trespassers, an opportunistic lot that includes ants, magpies, rats, coyotes, deer, and here in Alaska, gray jays, bald eagles, and bears. Often lacking familiarity with technology’s traps, as well as the luck to dodge development, these camp followers glean from our tables, our henhouses, our backyards, our interstates. We’ve created predator-free havens filled with tidbits and trash, and they flock to them. An attentive observer can witness a trick bag of raven slyness outside of supermarkets, or marvel at how they dive into greasy Dumpsters, haggle over scraps, or, heads cocked sideways, gauge the speed of traffic before dashing onto asphalt to peel off mangled rabbit flesh. Such scavenging devalues them in the eyes of some people who regard them as vermin. But is the ravens’ defiance of human plans and conventions not a kind of wildness?

Some creatures become so familiar that our perception of them dulls. They blend into the landscape as if plumage or fur were a camouflage coat. When we do take notice, we sometimes label them “common” or consider them vulgar, but there is nothing common about this rogue bird, except for its manners. Of all my wild neighbors, it is the one that seems the most human.

Raven at the Headwaters of Nass hat, Seattle Art Museum attributed to Kadyisdu.axch’, Tlingit Kiks.ádi clan, active late 18th – early 19th century. There are human figures crouching within Raven’s ears. Photo by Joe Mabel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At Prudhoe Bay’s oil fields, ravens begin to nest in late March, at minus thirty degrees. With no twigs free of snow, they requisition unusual nest-building material: welding rods, plastic cable ties, copper wires, survey stakes. Some assemble to meet incoming cargo, waiting at the airstrip for the plane’s arrival. During the unloading, they raid food crates, rip open the packaging, and sometimes hide loot in industrial structures, away from patrolling foxes. As soon as the snow melts, they waddle after lemmings; they pilfer eggs and chicks from migratory birds. They mostly ignore oil field workers but will avoid a researcher who previously trapped them, recognizing the enemy even when she wears borrowed coveralls and a hard hat in disguise.

Ravens handle cold snaps of minus fifty degrees or below far better than they do cars. Their physiology enables them to prosper anywhere between the Sonoran Desert and the Arctic Ocean. Reminiscent of Raven’s mythic coup, they capture minute amounts of sunlight with their dark, absorbent plumage and fluffed up retain precious body heat. Sheer size, combined with stockiness, helps these largest of passerines to preserve life under winter’s harsh cloak. On clear winter days, you can surprise ravens with spread wings that are sunbathing on the ground or rolling exuberantly in heavenly down. If you sit still enough, long enough, in a Fairbanks parking lot, vignettes of urban raven life will accumulate: Seven birds aligned on the back of a truck, eyeing its garbage-strewn bed and clucking at the sudden bonanza. A pair locked together in midair, tumbling tails-over-heads, scattering feathers as if in a pillow fight. A scruffy loner extracting ketchup packets from a plastic bag, stashing them in snow piled around the foot of a parking meter for future consumption. They live like street bums or heroes fallen from grace; some people take this as a sign that the ancient spirits no longer care for their animal manifestations. But not me. Fledged under Alaska’s raw skies, the birds still belong more in this place than I, a transplant from afar.

In Distant Time stories, Raven as the trickster and culture hero often tripped over his own appetites. Left alone, its descendant, the specimen Margaret and I had brought into the clinic, also was likely to meet a bad end. Without the use of a wing, it would starve or fall to the next predator crossing its path. The vet was still trying to contact the only qualified bird rehabilitator in town. If that person could not give it refuge, the raven would be euthanized. Appalled by the news, I wanted to take it home but discovered I needed a permit and an appropriate setup for keeping a wild animal. The vet refused to free the bird and, detecting my frustration with clinic protocol, reminded me that I had interfered with nature’s workings when I helped retrieve it. But, I wanted to shout into the phone, I’d stepped in only because our kind caused the accident in the first place.

I called again the following day, a Sunday. The receptionist kept me in a limbo of Muzak laced with commercials. When she came back on the line, she informed me that the bird had been put down. I pictured the vet thrusting a syringe through the iridescent mantle into warm flesh I had held. As jet black button eyes lost their luster, I wished for one less story to tell.

When I phoned Margaret at work the next morning, she had already heard about the mercy killing. “Too bad,” she said while I gripped the receiver. Regret and compassion colored her voice, and an entire people’s weight rested upon those two words.

Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon and of the essay collection American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, from which this essay has been excerpted. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic. michaelengelhard.com

 

Header image – Raven at Dawn. Photo by Bryant Olsen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On Sighting a Bald-headed Eagle

by Julie-ann Rowell

Steep above me, on the handle
of a red cedar, sits white-haired
fish eater, steering for a chance.

I wait for his drop
to the rocks, flash of brown feather,
giant yellow feet, comic

in a jagged sense. This art
of danger I’ve never
learned, this turn, this complete

dependency on prey. A flurry
of effort and his wings are flapping
flat on the surface of the creek,

as if broken, but he lifts his body
off and up, his talons empty,
to wing to the stem he chose.

Julie-ann Rowell’s first pamphlet collection, Convergence, published by Brodie Press, won a Poetry Book Society Award. Her first full collection, Letters North, was nominated for the Michael Murphy Poetry Prize for Best First Collection in Britain and Ireland in 2011. She has been teaching poetry in Bristol for ten years.

POW

by Ian McLachlan

Shaking palms snap
buzzing machine heart
thwack of wheels
shouts
under red skies;
in hiding.
Are they born
mad? We say
they are born mad.
They bare their
white teeth.
Bang.
Staked out
on log stretchers
each a bag of meat
a black purse
of meat my kin.
The plain torched.
Their war
on the world.
They show me off
a prisoner of war
rap the glass
to get me
looking
shuffling forward
into the light.
Closer. Click
click, click
is their sound.
Look my hands
are like theirs.
I catch the tang
of animal on them
how ignorance
also cages.

Ian McLachlan’s writing has been published in a number of magazines including The Rialto, Magma, Aesthetica and Under The Radar. He has a cat named Calcifer who likes to put mice in his trainers, and tweets @ianjmclachlan.

Shelter

by JoeAnn Hart

White caps rolled in sideways from the ocean, little waves hello from a storm tossing around in the Bahamas. A chill wind pushed a mist over Port Ellery; not enough to make Duncan close his truck window but enough to soften the world. It might be mean weather for early October, but inside, he was radiating a tropical front. Orders for the spring season were pouring in from nurseries around the country for Go Kelp! fertilizer, his new mix of dehydrated fish waste and seaweed fertilizer he’d created at his family business, Seacrest Ocean Products of Maine. This bounty, this unexpected burst of sales, this lifesaver thrown to him as he was going down for the third time, he owed to a seagull. They’d saved one another. The bird had a six-pack holder wrapped around his neck, strangling himself on the beach, but Duncan was able to catch him in a feat of daring that had been caught on camera and posted on YouTube, making them both minor celebrities, the bird a symbol of hope in hopeless times. The gull was still convalescing at Seagull Rescue, where Josefa had named him Kelp, inspiring the name of the fertilizer. Seacrest’s marketing consultant was considering putting the bird’s picture on the label since their fate seemed spliced together now. Fans had been leaving offerings at Seacrest’s for Kelp and Josefa’s other rescued gulls: Cases of sardines, medical supplies, stuffed animals, and most important, checks. Leaf peepers swung through town to see the beach where Kelp had been saved, with hopes of meeting Duncan, the gull’s savior. His maintenance man, Wade, kept them out of the factory, but profited by selling photo-copied directions to Josefa’s for $2.00 a pop.

“Don’t take advantage of their devotion like that,” said Duncan.

Wade mocked insult. “A public service,” he called it, and perhaps it was. The city’s streets had been laid out in the 1700’s on top of mule paths, then randomly marked as one-ways, so getting into the center of downtown was a challenge even for natives. Duncan wished he had one of those maps right now as he found himself trapped on multiple dead-ends or driving against one-way traffic as he tried to navigate the inner world of Port Ellery, a grim corrective to its public face of beaches and clam shacks. Narrow streets rose up sharply from the water, joining at the top to create a high mound of old brick buildings. Altitude had protected them from the sea over the years but the salted wind and reflected sun had aged them. A wet day like this gave them a dark luster. Josefa lived on the other side of the hill where the newer housing—meaning built sometime in the last century—looked older still. Vinyl clapboards were chipped and bent back exposing foil innards, and satellite dishes sprung from eaves like warts. Dirt yards were landscaped with swing-less playsets and the only color in the neighborhood came from plastic flowers at the Madonna bathtub shrines. As he circled the streets, lace curtains opened, then closed, and he felt himself being scrutinized. With some sense of accomplishment, he pulled up to Josefa’s at last, a single-family home that was this side of complete dilapidation and had the acrid smell of penned birds. The lawn was white with droppings. On the locked, chain-linked gate, there was a sign: “Sshh, Kelp is sleeping.” Josefa was nowhere to be seen but he heard her dogs barking inside. In the course of looking for sick gulls, she often picked up other needy animals, especially in the weeks after Labor Day when the summer people left, abandoning their pets. She found homes for them all eventually, but this time of year she still had a full house of dogs, cats, cockatiels, guinea pigs and even a ferret. When he climbed down from the pick-up, a half dozen cats were sitting in the branches, as solid as sandbags, staring at him.

He took his cell phone out of the zippered pocket of his windbreaker and dialed Josefa. She opened the upstairs window and even though they were only twenty feet apart they continued to use the phone. Josefa had a mild speech impediment which caused her to talk in stops and starts, and raising her voice would only make it worse. “Mrs. Delaney called to say you were … on the way over,” she said. “So did Mr. Potts. Guess you were driving around. In circles.”

Duncan looked down the street. If they all knew where he was going, why didn’t anyone bother to show him the way? “And then you locked the gate?”

“Oops,” she said. “Forgot I did it. They won’t leave us alone.”

“They?”

“Kelp’s admirers. Dear souls. Money’s pouring in through the web site. If this keeps up …. I’m going to have my dream. A proper seagull rescue home.” She looked wistfully down at the yard. A blinding white cockatiel came up behind her with a flurry of wings and settled on the windowsill. Josefa, a child of the 60’s, did not believe in cages and even the ferret ran free.

“I have checks for you,” said Duncan. “Does that let me in?”

“Goody,” she said, and she clicked off the phone. She brushed the cockatiel back in the house with her arm and closed the window.

As he waited for her to come down he examined the yard. A few gulls were in cages, some stood still, hunched up, deep into themselves. The healthier ones limped around trying to maneuver around the piles of flotsam Josefa had assembled over the years, a maze of buoys and lobster pots, tangles of driftwood and buckets of seaglass. There was a mountain of seine nets—ghost nets, she called them, the ones that floated free to entangle whales and diving gulls. She took what she could off the beaches so they could not be washed back out again, then found homes for them during tomato season as trellises.

The door to the house opened in an explosion of dogs who stormed the gate. When Josefa swung it out, two little ones still clung on for the ride. Duncan stepped in and Josefa pushed the dogs back with her foot as she latched the gate again. “What are you wearing?” he asked.

She pulled the bottom edge of her baby blue sweatshirt out so he could admire the words “Go Kelp!” superimposed over a soaring gull.

“Nice advertising for both of us,” he said. “I’ll sponsor the next batch.”

“Look who’s talking… money,” said Josefa. “Sponsoring no less.”

“It’s good having money again,” said Duncan. “I just hope it stays this way. You’re doing pretty well yourself.” He pulled a wad of envelopes out of his pocket, all filled with checks.

Josefa took the envelopes and splayed them out like a hand of cards before putting them in her back pocket. “My daughter, Lavinia … the architect? Wants to come home. Plans to make her name designing my ‘facility,’ as she calls it. She sees a white building with arched wings to create shade for the outdoor cages.”

“Seems like a lot of design for a place gulls come to die,” said Duncan.

“You’ll be glad for good design when it comes your time,” she said. “Maybe it’ll be all that matters.” She pushed the dogs back into the house so Duncan could bring the supplies in. “We’ll even have a crematorium …. which should warm your heart. We won’t have to dispose of them at Seacrest’s.”

Josefa could not possibly dig enough graves for all her failed rescues, so she sometimes threw them down Seacrest’s waste chute that led to the grinder, the first step towards dehydration. It was more nitrogen for the fertilizer mix but it made Duncan very uneasy.

“In the end, it’s all about disposal, isn’t it?” he said. He filled his arms with cases of sardines and carried them over to the storage shed. He put them down and picked up a sign. Buoys, $10.00. “Since when have you started to sell your collection?”

“When people started to buy it,” she said, pawing through a bag of stuffed animals. She pulled out a red plush crab and tossed it to a wiry dog who caught it mid-air. “I’m selling eel heads these days too.” She pointed to a white five gallon bucket that sat up on a cage, out of reach of the dogs. Scrawled on the bucket were the words, Eel puppets—2 for $5.00.

“Gross,” said Duncan, peeking in.

“I get them for free down at the dock … dry them out in the sun. The kids love them. The heads don’t hardly smell after a while.” She picked one up and stuck it on her finger. “Hi Duncan,” she said in an eely little voice. Then she gave it a good sniff, but there was no trusting a nose that lived with that many animals. She put it back and picked up a box of white and gray feathers. “Their favorite is still seagull … feathers” She lowered her voice. “I say they’re all from Kelp.”

“How is my boy?”

“Oh, he’s fine.”

“Can I see him?”

“Duncan, when you’ve seen one seagull … you’ve seen them all.”

This was not like Josefa. Usually she bombarded him with minute differences between individuals. He looked over by the fence, and in the finest of her cages was a gull and a thickly-lettered sign saying “Kelp.”

“There he is,” he said, and walked toward him.

“Oh … Duncan,” she said, then turned to busy herself with creating order in the shed.

Duncan squatted next to the cage and greeted the bird, who stood in profile, looking rather noble with its blunt beak. He thought of the bird’s beginning, its dramatic break out of its isolating shell to discover itself in a cozy nest with other young gulls and doting parents who brought food, and in time, freedom, showing it how to lift its wings and leave that nest, off to lead the life of a bird, floating over land and sea, swooping like an angel over this earthly existence. To think that a creature so intricate and grand could be brought down by a lowly piece of plastic.

“Hi Kelp,” he said. The bird looked at him with a dark eye, turning its head from side to side to bring him into its vision, appraising him with no recognition. Some gratitude. It moved a step closer to the wire and tilted its head with a look that read: Food? When it saw that Duncan had none it turned its back. Its feathers were dirty and the injured wing still hung limp by its side. There was not much that could be done for badly damaged birds. If they weren’t already in shock when they were picked up, aggressive treatment might stress them into it, a point from which very few returned. Sometimes the only thing to do was to give them a quiet place to wait it out and hope they would heal themselves, which seemed to be the ticket for Kelp’s head. Around the beak where the six-pack holder had dug in was completely healed over. In fact, the feathers were fully grown in. A miracle.

“Maybe too much of a miracle,” he said out loud. He considered the wing hanging by the bird’s side and thought back to the month before when he held Kelp under his arm. He was sure the bad wing had been on the left. This was the right. He stood up and turned to Josefa.

“That’s not the gull I saved,” he said.

“Isn’t it?” she asked, continuing to stack boxes.

“No,” he said. “It’s not. Unless he healed one wing and then broke the other.”

She put her finger to her lips, leaving her work to join him by the cage. She looked around and spoke in a whisper. “I have something to tell you Duncan. It didn’t heal. Kelp died.”

Duncan looked at the bird and felt a stab of sadness. Even though he knew the chances were slim, they were chances nonetheless, and now they were gone.

“Then who’s that under the sign that says ‘Kelp’?”

“Let’s call him …. Kelp the II. You have to swear, Duncan. Not a word. People will lose enthusiasm. I won’t ever get the new place.”

“You’re lying?” Duncan asked. “About a seagull?”

“People have gotten very attached. No one can know.” She reached her hand through the cage and the gull pecked at it. “I’m on the alert for gulls that looks like Kelp … or can be made to look like Kelp. Like this one. I’m going to need a really good bird in a few weeks that’s only a little injured. I can tidy him up and set him free. I’ve talked to the mayor about calling it Kelp Day. A national TV station wants to cover it.”

“Josefa, I’m sort of surprised.”

“Why? A little lie to benefit an entire species? It’s not like I’m taking the money to live in Aruba. Keeping Kelp ‘alive’ is going to help … everyone. New clean housing, medicine, veterinary care, a flight cage. All the things I could never afford. Hard to be in a position to want to help only to have your hands tied by lack of money. We’ll bring seagull rescue to a whole new level. I have a crew of volunteers now who search the beaches and help feed and clean. I’ve been swimming hard to keep up with the tide … now I want to float in with it.”

Duncan put his hands in his pockets and made fists. Of all the people he knew, Josefa had seemed the most honest and trustworthy. What did it say about the human species if even she could be tempted by money and fame? “It’s the thin edge of the wedge, Josefa.”

“Think about the greater good. Speaking of which.” She turned away, back to the storage bin and took out a lumpy trash bag. A webbed claw broke through the plastic. “Could you dump this at Seacrest for me?”

“No!” Duncan said. “With all those tourists hanging around waiting for me to rescue another gull and you want me to dispose of one?”

“Two,” she said. “It was a bad day. That’s why I put the ‘closed’ sign up … so I could move bodies around. Go ahead. Do it after closing, who’s to know?”

“I’ll know,” he said. “And lately everything that I do the world seems to know. I couldn’t even drive here today without a constant report on my progress. I can’t do it.”

And yet he followed Josefa out of the yard and through the gate to his pick-up, where she dropped the bag on the ground. “Duncan, I’ve never seen a man fret so much over the silliest things … It’s a couple of dead gulls. Give them a useful afterlife.”

“Josefa, I’m worried enough about the new mix as it is. My lab guy tells me he’s finding traces of plastic.”

“Plastic?”

“The fish eat plastic granules thinking they’re food, and then the plastic ends up in the guts I process for fertilizer. Now we have to somehow separate these microscopic bits out, because if the fertilizer is used in food production, the plastic continues to break down and causes hormone disruption. You’d think fish and seaweed would be completely clean but there’s nothing pure in this world anymore.”

“I don’t think nature can still produce a pollutant free fish,” said Josefa. One of her seagulls squawked and they both turned to look at it. “Goodbye, Duncan … do what I say. Take care of that bag.”

The mist had changed to spitting rain and he put his hood up. Josefa went back into the house, joyfully welcomed by the dogs, with their muddy paws and muzzles caked with seagull dung. She loved them anyway, and her love for them would find them homes. He looked over the yard to the cage that held the false gull. It was love that fueled her lie about Kelp. After all that effort to save him and he’d died anyway. It was hard to pin too many hopes on life, considering the competition. He stood for a moment as the wind tunneled up the hill from the harbor, whistling around him. High above, seagulls wheeled in the air, crying like lost souls. He picked up the bag of dead birds and threw it in the back of the truck. “There’s nothing pure anymore,” he said to the lifeless bag.

“Nothing pure but death.”

JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novels FLOAT and ADDLED, and her short fiction, essays, and articles have been widely published, most recently in Orion magazine and Design New England.

Endless

by Lisa Kemmerer

Activist-philosopher-professor, Dr. Lisa Kemmerer is the author/editor of nine books, including Eating Earth: Dietary Choice and Environmental Health; Animals and World Religions; and Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice.  Known internationally for her work, she has most recently been invited to speak in Europe, Asia, and South America, as well as across the United States.  To learn more about her work, visit lisakemmerer.com.

Mauritius – Paradise Regained

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.

Aldabran Tortoise. Image courtesy of Danielle Clode.

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

Requiem

by Karen Lloyd

In the spring I’ll travel to the valley –
a witness to the sky-dance
of the last Golden Eagle, writing
his own elegy across the clouds.
Riggindale’s cragged bridal nest,
a heathered double bed
in which each year the female laid
another barren egg. Each year
the eggs collected, bequeathed
to the museum; archived, boxed,
retained behind the scenes.
An unproductive cist of eggs,
one, bone-white, an elongated moon,
cratered by its own demise.
Another, brindled gold. A third
the patina of umbered valley earth.
Another splashed with a stain like
rain, mountain-dripped,
slowly seeped beneath the feathered
warmth. One more, marled sienna
as if marked by the sun itself.
A hollow case of promises,
of reasons not to be.

There were rumours of others,
hidden in the west.
Defended day and night
by men in camouflage – but still
the eagles failed.
A box of golden eggs, a fairy-tale;
a curation of what might have been
and what was not. Then this
the sixth, drawn with a looping
calligraphic script; a code
we are unable to read –
forecasting the end?

In the spring I’ll travel to the valley.
I’ll watch our Goldie launch himself
from Eagle Crag or Kidsty,
signalling to a mate that never comes.
The landscape holds the memory of flight.

Note:
In February 2016, The RSPB announced that England’s last Golden Eagle was dead. No corpse has ever been found, and sightings are still reported. But perhaps, fed up of waiting for a partner, the eagle simply moved on. In his compelling book, ‘Call of the Eagle,’ Dave Walker details his own efforts to keep the Riggindale eagles fed; without sufficient trees and scrub cover, there is little infrastructure to support small mammal life. The story is representative of much that is wrong in our uplands.

Karen Lloyd is a Cumbrian writer whose work in both non-fiction and poetry centres on the natural world and our relationship to it. Her prize-winning book, ‘The Gathering Tide; A Journey Around the Edgelands of Morecambe Bay’ is published by Saraband. Her next book, ‘The Blackbird Diaries,’ discusses the loss of England’s last Golden Eagle, and is due to be published in 2017.