Experiencing Mauritius’ Conservation Stories Through Ecotourism Adventures
By Angie Aspinall
Mauritius is an island whose history tells the world a lot about the need for conservation, with the number of native species – most notably the Dodo – becoming extinct here. Our main reason for visiting Mauritius was to learn about the nature conservation being carried out on the island. It was, therefore, with a great deal of excitement that we learned we had been granted special permission to visit the conservation areas of the Frederica Nature Reserve in Bel Ombre: areas which are not open to tourists, but are the preserve of conservationists – and rare bird species.
Our guide for the trek was none other than Jean-Claude Sevathian, co-author of ‘The Native Plants and Animals of Mauritius’. Jean-Claude works for the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and he was happy to help us in our quest to see four of the rarest bird species in the world: the Mauritian Kestrel, the Mauritian Zosterop, the Echo Parakeet and the Pink Pigeon.
Despite the undoubted beauty of the reserve, the ratio of non-indigenous to indigenous trees is still a great concern to the Foundation which is working hard to tip the balance in favour of the indigenous species by a massive eradication and re-planting programme. During our trek we saw first-hand the number of termite nests whose inhabitants were wreaking havoc on the ebony and other trees, leaving them hollow and at the mercy of high winds.
Learning from Local Experts
We visited La Vallée de Ferney, where our guide, Sergio, effortlessly flowed between English and French – as almost all Mauritians seem to do – explaining to us and the French couple on the walk all about the indigenous, endemic and invasive species. Apparently, all of the Travellers’ Palms on the island came from just four specimens planted at Pamplemousses (the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanic Garden). They are now a major problem in all the woods and forests and have become a most troublesome invasive species.
Happily, the Black Ebony trees we saw on this walk were all termite free. Sergio introduced us to a tree which is even rarer than the Ebony – the last of its species to be precise. It’s a male tree so it doesn’t produce fruit – although it may be possible to take cuttings and produce ‘clones’. We were told another tree has suffered without the dodo to eat its seed, which, once digested and passed through the bird’s system, readily germinated. Scientists are trying to find another bird to do the same job.
Anyone visiting Mauritius can visit the public areas in Frederica Nature Reserve (for a small fee) but those staying at the Heritage Telfair and Awali hotels can feel content that some of the revenue from their holiday will be going towards the upkeep of the reserve, for it is all owned as one large estate. The hotel staff are very proud of their connection to the nature reserve and guests are encouraged to visit and learn more about the wildlife and conservation efforts on this part of the island.
Similarly, when we moved across to the Eastern coast to stay at Anahita The Resort, they were proud to share with us their ecotourism credentials in the form of two impressive nature reserves: La Vallée de Ferney and Domaine de l’Etoile, which are, like the resort, owned by The Deep River Beau Champ Sugar Estate.
Witnessing Rare Birds in Nature Reserves
Walking up towards the wooded slope to the first conservation area, we saw our first rare species of the day: the Mauritian Kestrel in all its glory. Could spotting one of the world’s rarest birds really be this easy? When our driver later told us that he’d been working on the reserve for four years and this was his fourth ever sighting, we realised just how lucky we’d been. Would our luck hold? We hoped so as we made our way up the hill.
As soon as we arrived at the house used by the conservationists for their research, we saw a Pink Pigeon, sitting on a bird feeder right outside the conservation house! Apparently, the birds are quite lazy and are often found by the bird feeder.
After getting some great shots of the pigeon, we headed up the hill, passed a nest box for Kestrels, and the traps to catch the mongoose who threaten the nests of the parakeets and pigeons.
Jean-Claude beckoned us to join him in the area where the Echo Parakeets are sometimes seen by the conservationists working up there. What had he seen? Not one, but two, Echo Parakeets – a pair in fact, canoodling on a branch right above us. I watched spellbound. This was what the trip was all about; these parakeets were the ones I had come to see.
Then, Jean-Claude indicated that there was a Zosterop in another nearby tree. These charming little Mauritian White-eyes are also very rare as well as being utterly beautiful. Another lucky sighting for us: where would it end?
The next day, we went on a slightly more demanding trek, at Domaine de l’Etoile. Our visit started with a sumptuous Mauritian buffet in the restaurant which is set in the most scenic gardens. Visitors were then met by various guides depending on their chosen mode of transport – quad biking, horse-riding or, in our case – on foot. Before leaving the grounds, our guide, Gerard, showed us some pigmy fruit bats way up in a tree; we were going to be in for some good wildlife-spotting.
The scenery was breathtaking and I had to keep stopping to take it all in. This was a long walk but the rise was very gentle and it was an ‘easy’ walk. Just as we were nearing the highest point of our walk, we spotted a Mauritian Kestrel. This time, would we be able to get the all important photo we needed? It circled overhead and then soared off into the distance: “close but no cigar,” as they say. We rounded the next bend, continually on the look-out for the bird’s return. Our patience was rewarded; there he was in a nearby tree! We managed a good five or ten minutes’ viewing and managed to get a few good shots.
More Mauritius Eco-Adventures
Whilst staying at Anahita, we were also fortunate enough to have a speedboat trip to the uninhabited island of Ile aux Aigrettes, where we were given a personalised tour to help in our quest for the last of the rare birds we wanted to see: the Mauritian Fody, which only lives on this tiny island. Not only did we manage to see – and photograph – a Fody but we also saw the very rare Telfair Skink.
Ile aux Aigrettes is also home to some Giant Tortoises. These are not a native species as, unfortunately, the Mauritian Giant Tortoise is now extinct but, these were originally from the Seychelles. The tortoises play an important part in the ecology of the island by grazing on certain plants and helping their seeds to germinate by passing them through their digestive systems. Exciting as it was to see some Giant Tortoises in the wild, the highlight of the visit for me was the close encounter I had with the colourful Geckos.
So, if your idea of a holiday in Mauritius was all about lying on a beach in the sunshine, think again! There is a whole host of things to see and do and if you visit the Mauritian Winter, you’ll find the temperatures pleasant enough to do some really good walks and it’s not humid then either.
Mauritius is a great destination for eco tourists: you can have some amazing wildlife encounters, learn about the island and know that you are supporting conservation projects. Why not try it?
Photos by Angie and Richard Aspinall
Angie Aspinall is a freelance journalist and photographer, specialising in travel journalism. She also writes for a range of websites on other topics, including her blog for the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, where she writes about her life, her local WI group and pet chickens. Angie also writes for The Limping Chicken, the UK’s independent deaf news and views website.
Richard Aspinall is a professional photographer, journalist and underwater photographer. He is the Editor of Ultramarine Magazine and is also a regular blogger on marine topics. He produces articles and photographs on a range of topics including conservation, travel, wildlife, countryside management and scuba diving.