The ornate day gecko, found only in Mauritius (Ling: “Even their geckos are beautiful.”)
A continuation of Mauritius diary 2: On race
When Ling first told me she was enrolling in a conservation course in Mauritius, I was half expecting to meet older hippies, perennially high, with puzzling attitudes towards personal hygiene. Most of her classmates, it turns out, are barely out of college, immensely driven, and with a millennial’s social-media consciousness—the guys have hair-straighteners, the girls occasional gowns.
There are eight Brits, three Australians, two Malagasies, two Mauritians, a Canadian and a Dutch (Ling is the only Asian). It’s been a lot of fun hanging out with them. I’ve learned about everything from bat behaviour and Newfoundland to Black Stone Cherry, an American rock band I’ve started listening to.
This is the generation for whom conservation is an actual, mainstream career choice, not something esoteric pursued by uniquely talented animal-lovers and jaded mid-career professionals. Yet the industry is still very immature and many of the students’ daily concerns revolve around the scarcity of paid jobs and project funding.
People who work in conservation, it seems to me, need to be comfortable oscillating between two mood extremes—on the one hand, the hope from rehabilitating a species, and other local victories; and on the other, the despair that whatever they do is never enough, amid global challenges, such as deforestation, that are immense, complex and relentless.
I know that many people consider a “conservation course in Mauritius” to be a holiday. Yet Ling’s six-month diploma in endangered species recovery seems to alternate between the pressures of academia—with frequent essays, exams and journal papers—and the stresses of the wild.
Ling spent nine days on Round Island, which is uninhabited and where tourists are forbidden. The only water is rain, from which she had two litres for showering every day. People sleep with earplugs because the shearwaters, a kind of seabird, howl relentlessly at night.
The island has no jetty, so one has to literally jump on and off the boat from a huge rock. On Day 7, when Ling and the rest were supposed to have left, the boat made the one-hour journey from the Mauritius mainland to Round, only to turn back because the waves at the island were too big. Dreams of home comforts evaporated, just like that. Two more nights on Round.
Of course, Round is an enriching, back-to-nature, experience. Ling met birds and lizards unafraid of humans. Yet it all requires a certain emotional fortitude and mental stamina. It’s quite cool to see Ling pushing herself out of her comfort zone. I’ve actually never seen her so busy. The students seem to be perennially studying, working, or recovering from some Outward Bound type activity.
Ling studies at the Durrell Conservation Academy, founded by Gerald Durrell, British naturalist, conservationist, author and TV presenter. He kickstarted Mauritius’s modern conservation movement. Yet it is the name of his protege, Carl Jones, which is often uttered with some mystic devotion here.
Carl, among many other things, saved five bird species here from extinction. The most inspiring story, perhaps, is that of the Mauritius kestrel, a bird of prey related to the falcon. By the mid 1970s, there were just four individuals left in the wild. The handsome predator, whose puffed up white chest and brown wings are dotted with what seem like tiny bats, was considered the rarest bird in the world.
Among the four was just one breeding couple. Yet Carl somehow rehabilitated the species; today there are some 400. Unsurprisingly, “inbreeding depression” is one of the many threats it still faces.
I don’t know nearly enough about conservation, but one of the many ethical dilemmas I find quite fascinating is the eradication of non-native invasive species, which can either be predators or competitors (for food, nesting sites, etc.).
How many non-native invasive species—in Mauritius these include the likes of rats, monkeys, cats, even the goyaves de Chine, Chinese guava—do we eradicate in order to allow native species to recover? How far back do we go to establish “native” status?
I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to decide how I feel about this. What I can say is that when I listen to discussions about natives and non-native eradication, it feels like I’ve stumbled into a Trump convention.
The story continues at Mauritius diary 4: Life and Food
Ling on her first day of school
Bats are the only mammals endemic to Mauritius. The Mauritius Fruit Bat is the only of three fruit bat species still around. Its wingspan reaches one metre. For me it’s been quite incredible seeing these bats soaring over our neighbourhood in Mauritius. I somehow associate bats with caves in the middle of the forest.
The bats are a source of controversy. Locals complain about their alleged overpopulation today, saying they are pests who gobble up lychees and much else. The counter argument is that a big buffer is needed because this species is vulnerable to decimation during cyclones.
Another relatively new conservation approach is called ecological replacement, where a non-indigenous species, such as this Aldabra tortoise from nearby Seychelles, is introduced to fill an ecological niche vacated by an extinct endemic species, in this case the extinct Mauritian giant tortoises (two species: a domed and a saddleback).
Today you can see these Aldabras in captivity around Mauritius, and in the wild on Ile aux Aigrettes, an offshore island.
Dutch sailors riding a Domed Mauritius Giant Tortoise, 1598
Echo parakeets are another endemic bird species. Fewer than 25 in the 1980s; today more than 600
One of the main conservation issues for echo parakeets is complicated natural nesting due to habitat loss and predators. To boost breeding success rates, artificial nest boxes have been set up two storeys high; the box is designed to keep out predators like monkeys and rats. Ling had to learn how to use a rope to climb a tree and prepare the boxes for breeding season
Round Island is an important site for seabirds, like this baby tropic bird. Seabirds, like salmon and whales, exhibit natal philopatry—the tendency to return to your birthplace to reproduce
The Round Island Boa (aka Keel-scaled Boa). This orange juvenile will turn brown when adult
These are the shearwaters that kept Ling and her classmates up at night. (Ling: “They sound like cartoon ghosts.”) They do not return to land outside the breeding season. Turn volume up for below video.
In 1990 there were only nine pink pigeons left; today more than 400. It has a rum named after it
Mauritius kestrel (image credit: Durrell)
And finally, this is where the Mauritius Coast Guard had to drop off Ling and her classmates
A major human resource challenge stems from the steady supply of self-funded individuals—whether younger ones with time to spare or financially secure older ones—who are keen to dip in and out of conservation without ever making it their life’s work.
Cash-strapped organisations develop a dependence on this army of short-term volunteers, cycling through them, and thus never build a proper team of staff with long-term views and commitments towards conservation.
Put another, rather glib, way, the conservation of cute animals depends on the exploitation of rich tai tais. What about everybody else?