I was recently lucky enough to visit Madagascar for a month in October/November 2015. Madagascar is a country I’d longed to visit for about six years and what an amazing trip it was. I’ll be posting blogs about the different areas I travelled to soon. When, sadly, it came to an end I was lucky enough to fly home via Mauritius. I once spent two weeks in Mauritius back in 2009. Although it is a beautiful little island, it doesn’t take long to see the devastating effect man has had on the environment and the wildlife. Apart from the Black River Gorges National Park, almost the entirety of the country has been taken over by hotels, golf courses and sugar cane plantations.
The country is home to some of the world’s rarest plants and animals. As the island of Mauritius is isolated and from volcanic origin it is home to a biodiversity of fauna and flora not usually found in such a small area. Unfortunately the arrival of man on the island brought about the introduction of invasive species (such as rats and cats etc) which predated on the endemic inhabitants. Before man, and with no terrestrial mammals on this island, many bird and reptile species evolved without need of much defensive physiology. When these invasive species arrived, as well as man, the natural inhabitants of the island proved easy pickings. Perhaps most famous of all, the national animal of Mauritius, is the Dodo. As with most island animals able to live away from the fear of predators the Dodo lost the need and ability to fly. It didn’t take long before the Dodo became extinct.
This is where the importance of Ile aux Aigrettes comes in. Exploring the island is like travelling back in time to see what Mauritius would have looked like before the arrival of man, over 400 years ago. While small, around 27 hectares and located 800 metres off the south-east coast of Mauritius, it is a stronghold for the endemic species of the area. It wasn’t always this way though. Deforestation and the introduction of invasive species almost wiped out the native fauna and flora. Only in 1965 was it declared a nature reserve and, with the amazing efforts of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) since the mid-1980s, the island became a sanctuary for the reintroduction of rare species.
The MWF was established in 1984. It is the only non-governmental organisation exclusively concerned with the conservation of Mauritius’ endemic wildlife. Trips to the island go towards its protection and donations can be made via their website - www.mauritian-wildlife.org
It is amazing how many different species you can see just in one morning or afternoon walking around the island. I only had a day to soak up Mauritius before boarding my flight back to the UK so I chose to spend as much of it as possible on Ile aux Aigrettes. Aldabra Giant Tortoises have been introduced to replace the extinct giant tortoise species once found there on the island.
They were introduced from the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles to fill the niche the extinct giant tortoise once had. The giant tortoises, and now the Aldabra Tortoises, ate the fruit of the trees on the island, spreading the seeds. Without these fruit-eaters around, the trees could no longer disperse. Young trees would only grow directly below the adults.
Although unverified, Aldabra Giant Tortoises are thought to live over 200 years of age.
Day geckos get their name for their diurnal nature, whereas most geckos are nocturnal. Day geckos are only found on the islands in the south-west of the Indian Ocean. Whilst I saw many amazing species in Madagascar, the Ornate Day Gecko wins the crown for me. It is beautifully coloured with turquoise blue in the tail and head, emerald green on the body, and covered with a delicate pattern of vibrant red. I’m slightly biased in that it is the first day gecko species I saw in the wild.
They’re one of the smallest day geckos, growing up to 12cm in length and feeding on insects and nectar. Geckos have always fascinated me for their ability to climb surfaces with seemingly no grip at all. This is accomplished by a staggering feat of evolution - at the end of their short limbs are expanded toe pads with scales (known as ‘lamellae’). These scales are covered by countless microscopic hair-like bristles (known as ‘setae’). At the tip of each bristle there are around 100, sometimes up to 1000, tiny suction cups which allow the gecko to walk across these surfaces, even along a glass window.
Fodies are small passerine birds. The Mauritian Fody, an endemic species, was once common on the island. Due to habitat loss it became restricted to the Black River Gorges National Park. They were released on Ile aux Aigrettes in 2003 with the hope they would gain another stronghold within which they could thrive. Fortunately, it proved a success - it only took a year before they were breeding on the island.
They’re small birds reaching 14cm in length, and are very similar to the introduced and very common Madagascar Fody. The difference being, in the breeding season, the male Madagascar Fody develops a completely red body, where as the male of the native species developes the orange-red colour only on the head. The Madagascar Fody is also known as the Red Fody, Red Cardinal Fody and the Common Fody.
The Telfair’s Skink was once widspread throughout Mauritius. Unfortunately, due to the introduction of, you guessed it, invasive species by man it was restricted to Round Island off the north-east coast of Mauritius.
Skinks are a group of reptiles that look similar to lizards but have no obvious neck. They, like some other reptiles, have the ability to shed their tails to escape from predators. They then have the amazing ability to regenerate them. They dig burrows and eat a varied diet of fruits, insects and small lizards. They have even been known to eat their own offspring.
The MWF, along with the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT), are working to help save this species fighting extinction. Gerald Durrell, founder of the DWCT, was a man ahead of his time. He worked tirelessly to save endangered species from extinction through education and the setting up of a wildlife park to raise populations in captivity before releasing to the wild. He wrote a book on his time in Mauritius called ‘Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons’ which I strongly recommend reading.
In 2006 and 2007 the MWF released 260 individuals on Ile aux Aigrettes. Unfortunately the population on the island hasn’t grown as rapidly as hoped. However, in a similar way as the Aldabra Tortoise, they’re helping restore the natural plant life of the island by dispersing seeds. They are also contributing in removing problematic introduced animals by eating them.
Although at first glance it might not look particularly amazing, the Pink Pigeon is one of the rarest birds in the world. Just 12 Pink Pigeons remained in 1986, and of the five nesting attempts recorded that year none were successful, following predation by introduced species. Bleak seemed the chances of long-term survival for the Pink Pigeon.
An intensive conservation programme was introduced in the 1980s by the MWF and the DWCT. The DWCT released the first captive-bred Pink Pigeon into the wild in 1984. It is a success story for both conservation groups - in 2005 the population had reached a stable, albeit rare, number. In 2010 the population had reached around 400. Although it is still classed as endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, it is the only Mascarene pigeon that has not gone extinct.
The MWF works vigorously to continue to save the species. Every Pink Pigeon is ringed with its own metal ID band so they can identified. They regularly check the Pink Pigeon’s nests, give supplementary feeding and work to eradicate introduced predators.
The Mauritius Olive White-Eye is classed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In 2002, less than 120 pairs of these songbirds were thought to be left on Mauritius. Similar to the Fody in that it is from the passerine bird family, it is distinguished with it’s olive colouration as well as a white ring around it’s eye, hence it’s name. They reach 10cm in length and feed mainly on nectar but also fruit and insects.
Together with the MWF, the DWCT introduced a programme in Mauritius to protect the Olive White-Eye over 30 years ago. Between 2005 and 2010 a total of 38 pairs were reintroduced to Ile aux Aigrettes. There, they had the chance to rebuild populations safely away from predators.
Conservation efforts for the Olive White-Eye are now focusing on monitoring the breeding activity of the birds. Also, the MWF has been examining whether rat control by poison increases nesting success.
If you ever get chance to travel to Mauritius you should definitely visit this island. A trip to Mauritius isn’t complete without it. Thanks for reading!