Dead as a duodo

Dead as a duodo - Mauritius experience by mauritiusdelight travel adviser
. . . and then God made man, but surely not exactly in his image. For when man entered the garden, he tore it limb from limb. Witness the Eden that was Mauritius.

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If you thought Mauritius was only snow-white beaches and the seven sins of holiday hedonism, think again. Once the realm of the dodo, today Mauritius is a living laboratory of endangered species conservation. Given its history, it has to be. Justin Fox stayed at Labourdonnais to find out why.

Our Air Mauritius Boeing banked over the Indian Ocean jewel whose hills, vales and shallows reflected all the greens and blues of a peacock's tail. Seeing its basalt peaks for the first time, I was reminded of what I'd read about the island's creation.

During volcanic upheavals some 13 million years ago, a great column of lava bubbled up to the surface from the ocean bed. The mountains which eventually jutted above the ocean waves were, over the ages, eroded to form the weird-shaped ranges I was seeing. Coral polyps attached themselves to the shallows and created a moat against the raging sea. Thus was paradise raised from the deep.

Much later seeds, forest bats and birds began to arrive. Tortoises and lizards were shipwrecked, exhausted from their long voyages on driftwood. Luck or chance set them ashore here.
Over millennia the creatures adapted, evolving along lines determined by the benevolent local conditions and dearth of predators. Given the absence of any big hunting mammals, there was no need for the dodo to fly, or the tortoise to remain small and easily concealed-they became the lions of their jungle.

Then, out of the deep blue, came a series of cataclysmic invasions which forever destroyed the balance. The evil genii were humans, but they brought with them a terrifying array of 'weapons' to wreak destruction: monkey, rat, cat, deer, mongoose and pig all did their share, as did invasive plants. In an evolutionary instant, a host of endemic plants and animals became extinct. Gone were the huge flightless parrot, the giant Mauritian tortoise and - most famously - the dodo.

The purpose of my trip to Mauritius was twofold. I wanted to check out Labourdonnais, the island's first luxurious city hotel, and I was interested in investigating ecotourism opportunities on this island of extinctions.

My choice of Labourdonnais as a base for ecopursuits was a good one. The hotel had recently been awarded a Green Globe certificate for environmental awareness (given to establishments showing a strong commitment to conservation).

Labourdonnais is named after the French governor who developed Port Louis, the capital, in the 18th century. It opened three years ago as part of the new Caudon Waterfront development in downtown Port Louis. The whole complex is modelled on its Cape Town equivalent and although the architecture has something of the Noddyland feel peculiar to certain branches of postmodernism, the complex has brought life back into a part of the city which died when business folk commuted back to their homes in the cooler hills surrounding the capital.

The Mauritian 'in' crowd frequent the hotel's three fine restaurants and cocktail bar, which is the 'happening place' after work on Fridays when a jazz band provides the entertainment.

The interiors are elegant, with marble floors, ornate stucco balconies which give it a sort of modern rococo feeling and a great central hall with sci-fi lifts which appear to plunge into a koi pond.

After checking into my spacious harbour-view room, I took a stroll through the busy waterfront and up the palm-lined avenue past the statue of old Governor Labourdonnais. I ambled through the market with its conundrum of smells and, passing the busy abattoir section, heard sheep bleating, fowls clucking in alarm and the grating sound of knives being sharpened. Signs reading 'Beef', 'Pork' and 'Chicken' hung over low doorways. I couldn't get the idea of extinctions out of my head.

Just past the elegant French-colonial government house I came to the town's natural history museum. It's one of those Victorian-style establishments where things aren't particularly well organised, but the place is quaint and the exhibits are fascinating. There are huge turtle shells, cases of moth-eaten butterflies, stuffed endemic birds and not-so-well-stuffed fish. It's a repository of Indian Ocean natural history: a catalogue of those which are no more . . . or may soon be so.

Among the exhibits, I came across a reconstructed dodo in a dusty cabinet. Part-turkey, part-swan, this weird descendant of the pigeon once ruled the Mauritian roost. However sailors found the plump, flightless creature an easy-if tasteless-catch for the galley pot. The name 'dodo' derives from the Portuguese 'duodo', which means stupid. Too stupid to fly or run. Too naive and too trusting of the two-legged reapers.

Mauritours, the major tourist operator on the island, had provided a vehicle and driver to assist me on my quest for vestiges of the unsullied Mauritius of yore.

I was thinking about Charles as we set off, and about just how fit - and how duodo - we humans were. Darwin's theory certainly accounted for the devastation I saw around me. The fittest had survived, and with concrete and sugar cane had decimated the homes of the unfit. Evolution is a blind and amoral force: it is up to us to imbue it with morality, but on Mauritius it was clear how far short of the mark our species had fallen in this regard.

North of Port Louis the countryside was blanketed with plantations, the road verges with exotic banana, oleander and bougainvillea. Almost every patch of earth had been sacrificed to the sugar god or taken over by exotic species, leaving not a scrap of lowland indigenous flora.

I also noticed that roadside walls were painted with slogans venerating Manchester United Football Club. Did the local soccer team not deserve graffiti? Mauritius has had a bad track record of cherishing its own.

We pulled up at the famous Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanic Garden at Pamplemousses to have a look at indigenous plants. But I was saddened to discover that much of the flora came from outside the Mascarene island group (of which Mauritius is part). Indeed, our garden guide enthused about species from Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, China and Venezuela, but looked uncomfortable when I questioned him about indigenous flora. It became clear that in the 18th century horticulturist Pierre Poivre had largely cleared the site in order to introduce exotics. If only he'd nurtured the endemics, I thought.

Next up was a visit to Yemen Nature Reserve on Médin Sugar Estate where 4x4 tours are offered in a wild area of the farm not colonised by plantations. Unfortunately it's also used for hunting. Monkeys, hares, mongooses, deer and feral pigs abound, but there was no sign of endemics - other than a lone, soaring kestrel.

The down side of keeping deer is that they trample and eat seedlings, strip bark from trees and munch the grass right down to the ground, which prevents regeneration. The up side is that hunting areas keep sugar out and the slopes remain forested, giving the bird life a breathing space.

Back at the reserve office the walls were trophied with the heads of roan, gemsbok and kudu, and our guide spoke enthusiastically about importing these species to give the hunters a bit of variety.
As we were leaving the estate a bakkie bounced past us with a pair of horns on the passenger seat, deer heads in the back and blood dripping from the tail gate. Yemen was not at the cutting edge of species protection.

We drove south to La Vanille Crocodile Park, a zoo for Mauritian fauna. But again I was disappointed. Between the cages of locals, I found the enemy: monkeys, deer, wild pigs and goats. The zoo did, however, give me a chance to see endemic species such as Telfair's skinks, Guenther's geckos and Mauritian fruit bats up close, as well as a vast dawdle-or whatever you'd call a bunch of slow reptiles-of Aldabran tortoises. These amazing creatures live up to 300 years. Early settlers in the Mascarenes found them so numerous that one chronicler noted "you may go above a hundred paces on their backs . . . without setting foot to ground."

The Aldabran is identical to the extinct Mauritian externally-only the internal organs differ slightly. It was reputedly Charles Darwin who suggested that Aldabran tortoises be brought to Mauritius to replace the exterminated endemic, and the governor received permission to do this from Queen Victoria.

During my stay at Labourdonnais I was put in touch with Clare Towner-Mauremootoo, public relations officer and organiser of education programmes for the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF), a non-governmental organisation involved in saving endemic fauna and flora from extinction. We met at Le Pétrin, the information centre of the island's only big national park, Black River Gorges. The park is home to more than 150 species of indigenous plants and nine species of endemic birds. This was much more like it!

But even here the locals were under threat. Clare pointed out how Chinese guava and privet were taking over the forest and choking out the endemics. We did come across a few tall hardwoods, but they were lone survivors of a forest canopy that was no more.

Because of the prevalence and resilience of exotics and imported fauna, the solution has been to conserve certain habitats by fencing off sections of forest, clearing them of threatening species, removing deer and monkeys and laying traps for the predators. Endemic birds naturally gravitate to these cleared areas, which have become fragile islands offering a window on Mauritius before the advent of humans.

We stopped at a breathtaking lookout point with views down to the sea where fruit bats (the island's only indigenous mammal) slowly beat their leathery, umbrella-like wings across a gorge towards a waterfall. If you seek tropical paradise, look no further. But also no deeper. For if you scratch the surface you'll see the rot and soon realise how much is in jeopardy.

Eventually we came to Plaine Lievre-one of five research stations administered by MWF - where we met Lance Woolaver, the field manager. Lance is a Canadian with a passion for the environment. "We're primarily involved in pink pigeon and echo parakeet research at the moment," he explained. "Many of the techniques being used to save these species were learnt in the last-ditch effort to rescue the Mauritian kestrel from extinction."

The kestrel is the island's big success story. Deforestation, introduced predators and pesticides had reduced them to a wild population of just four individuals in the 1970s. Today there are more than 600 kestrels soaring on Mauritian thermals. Their salvation is largely due to the determination of Carl Jones and his team. This fiery and indefatigable Welshman's work has provided the blueprint for captive-breeding and release programmes of endangered species across the world.

Lance took us walkabout in Brise Fer, one of the last decent tracts of native forest on the island. Mauritian cuckoo-shrikes flitted through the trees chasing insects flushed by olive white-eyes. We heard phelsuma geckos scampering along branches and the loud call of wild echo parakeets, the last surviving parrot in the Mascarenes and reputedly the rarest of its family on earth.
The MWF team is working on a soft-release system whereby these birds are still fed and monitored after being freed and slowly become accustomed to the wild. The total population today stands at about 120.

"Echo parakeets are real characters and can be quite mischievous," said Lance. "It's not uncommon to see a toothbrush or valued possession flitting off over the forest canopy."

In a fenced-off area where the ferns grew tall and the hardwoods still stood proud we came upon a pair of pink pigeons. True to form the creatures continued browsing on the ground as we approached, evolution having taught them nothing about the wiles and hunting prowess of aliens.

The birds had a reddish-brown plumage with a cyclamen-pink blush on their necks and breasts. I'm not partial to pigeons, particularly the city slicker variety, but these were handsome fellows indeed.

Clare explained that an effective way of protecting an endangered species like the pink pigeon was by translocating a few individuals to one of the small islands off the Mauritian coast. Some of these isles are free (or are being cleared) of exotics, predators and pests. She promised to organise a visit to just such a 'nursery' island the next day.

Ile aux Aigrettes gets its name from another extinction: the egret. It's a small circle of coral set in vodka-clear water. The isle possesses a unique flora representing the last remnant of a coastal forest that once surrounded much of Mauritius.

Joining us on the MWF boat was Anthony Cheke, renowned Mascarene ornithologist from Oxford. He's an Evelyn Waugh character-an Englishman dressed for the tropics in baggy khaki shorts, sensible walking shoes and big floppy hat. As you'd expect, he's nuts about indigenous fauna and flora. One incident summed him up. We were waiting for the dinghy on one of those postcard-perfect beaches staring at the beauty before us. Anthony, however, remained crouched over a small, grey, nondescript plant, totally oblivious to the beach and its lures. I suppose Oxford does that to one.

When we landed on the isle, Clare pointed out a stand of aliens (false acacia) currently being eradicated. Indigenous flora from the island's well-stocked nursery was being planted on the newly cleared ground. (A gene bank is being established at the nursery to secure genotypes of selected rare lowland plant species.)

Wandering the island, we came upon a rare ebony tree (Diospyros egrettarum) and Anthony piped up: "Did you know that probably the biggest concentration of Mauritian ebony - the blackest wood on earth - is in the Western Cape?"

I scoured my memory, trying to recollect where I might have seen a Mauritian ebony. Kirstenbosch Gardens maybe, but I doubted it.

"In old Cape Dutch furniture, of course," he said bitterly. Another extermination to tick off on my list.

As our dinghy headed back to the main island, I pondered our boundless stupidity, our dodoness. I could not help thinking that perhaps the extinction of Homo sapiens would best serve evolutionary justice (if there were such a thing). Certainly we had eaten of the fruit and proved ourselves unworthy of the Mauritian garden.

But I comforted myself with the knowledge that there were some shimmers of hope on the island of extinctions. Firstly, there were establishments like Labourdonnais Hotel preaching the eco-gospel - small but significant cogs in the conservation machine. Then there's the MWF which is restoring parts of the island to something resembling their original state. With the introduction of total exclusion fencing (currently being pioneered in New Zealand) it will be possible to maintain viable populations of endangered plants and animals in relatively large 'mainland islands'. And of course the translocation of indigenous species to offshore 'laboratory' islands - notably Ile aux Aigrettes and Round Island - was beginning to get the endangered numbers up.

Biological conservation increasingly has to favour this 'in situ' approach. Ecosystem conservation (rather than species-specific conservation) is certainly the best option in the Mauritian context. So it's islands within islands-and offshore isles-which hold the key, through restorative ecology, to preserving the last vestiges of paradise.

- mauritiusdelight travel adviser

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