Mauritius turns wildlife clock back 400 years

ILE AUX AIGRETTES, Mauritius (Reuters) - Giant tortoises doze in the shade as rare lizards slip under bushes and endangered birds chatter in the sunlit trees overhead.

Ashok Khadun, from the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, shows a baby to an Aldabran giant tortoise on Mauritius' Ile Aux Aigrettes, a small, wooded island less than one kilometre (0.6 miles) from the Mauritian mainland's southern coast March 8, 2007. Mauritius evolved without humans, and the arrival of the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British from the 16th century onwards was a disaster for wildlife including the world?s most famous flightless bird, the dodo, and other animals. Mauritius did once have two species of its own giant tortoises, but the gentle beasts on Ile Aux Aigrettes, weighing an average 200 to 250 kilogrammes, are from the Seychellois island of Aldabra. REUTERS/Ed Harris

On a small wooded island off southern Mauritius, environmentalists are trying to turn back time to an era before humans ever set foot on the volcanic Indian Ocean archipelago.

“We want to turn the clock back 400 years,” says Ashok Khadun, a conservation expert with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF), a local non-governmental organization.

Sadly, they are too late to help the Mauritius giant skink -- a type of large grey lizard -- its broad-billed parrot, scops owl or lesser flying fox, and many other species now extinct.

Separate from the continents since it emerged from the seas some eight million years ago, the island developed hundreds of unique species of flora and fauna that evolved in isolation.

But the arrival of Europeans led by the Portuguese in the 16th century triggered an ecological disaster with the slashing of forest habitats and the introduction of predators like rats.

By far the most famous victim was the flightless dodo bird, which is believed to have died out in the late 1600s.


About 98 percent of the island’s indigenous forest has been cut down, most of it to grow fields of sugar cane.

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But on Ile Aux Aigrettes, in sight of the mainland, experts are now trying to recreate the environment of those bygone days and provide a haven for species in danger today.

The archipelago once had two types of giant tortoises, but the gentle beasts -- each weighing on average more than 200 kg (440 lb) -- on Ile Aux Aigrettes today were imported from the Seychelles.

Conservationists have removed rats, cats, goats and the hedgehog-like tenrecs from the small island. And the importance of tight “biosecurity” means boats or equipment coming to the island and its straw-roofed buildings are checked for stowaways.

Once a rat made it across from the mainland and set up home in a thatched roof, workers said. It took days to catch.

After the flurry of excitement, the conservationists went back to their duties of monitoring the birds, animals and reptiles that share the roughly one kilometer-wide island and its ebony forests. Their findings have been encouraging.

Safe from predators, the numbers of two critically endangered species -- the small orange-headed Mauritius fody bird and the large pink pigeon -- have shot up to a few hundred each from just a handful in recent years.

“It’s addictive,” says Ruth Cole, a British ornithologist who has lived on the Ile for four years. “You can see results.”


Now the bird teams have added the Mauritius olive white-eye to their list, hoping to add to the string of successes.

The island nation has a strong track record: both the Echo Parakeet and Mauritius Kestrel were also down to just a handful of birds before being rescued from the jaws of extinction.

The Mauritius Kestrel was the world’s rarest bird: with just four examples known to exist in 1974. Now there are about 1,000.

But the Ile Aux Aigrettes project isn’t just about birds.

Some 260 skinks -- a forearm-length grey-brown lizard -- have been taken from another island where they are plentiful and returned to Aigrettes, where they lived hundreds of years ago.

Some 10,000 visitors are expected on the Ile this year, up from 8,300 in 2006, including many local schoolchildren.

The priority for the future, the conservationists say, is to raise awareness across Mauritius -- particularly among hotel developers keen to cash in on government plans to boost tourism.

“Mauritius is very green but the green should not be mistaken for native vegetation existing before,” the MWF’s Khadun said, referring to the sugar cane plantations.

Environmentalists say many landowners have shown enthusiasm for sustainable development programs, and activists have also waged a successful campaign in 2005 to stop the construction of a major road through the mainland’s wildlife-rich Ferney Valley.

“We are winning, but the progress is very, very slow,” the Khadun said.