Posts Tagged ‘giant tortoise’

Nick Smith’s feature on wildlife conservation in Mauritius – ‘Miracle Workers’ – as published in Geographical magazine, October 2009

September 22, 2009

Miracle workers

When Gerald Durrell helped establish the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation 25 years ago, few could have predicted the overwhelming success of many of the organisation’s conservation projects. Words and photography by Nick Smith

Sitting in his office, windows flung open against a blisteringly hot day, Vikash Tatayah points to a painting of a bird of prey on the wall behind him. He explains that the copper-coloured kestrel is the symbol of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) of which he is the Conservation Manager. He’s just about to depart for neighbouring Mascarene island Rodrigues and can’t be late. He’s also writing his doctoral thesis and there’s a steady stream of colleagues knocking on his door asking detailed questions about various aspects of field science. He’s obviously in demand and the MWF headquarters in Vacoas is a busy place.

I’ve come to visit Tatayah to find out about the origins of the MWF that’s currently celebrating its 25th anniversary. It’s a story revolving around the legendary British author and wildlife conservationist Gerald Durrell. But as Tatayah says, in order to understand what was happening on Mauritius a quarter of a century ago, you need to understand what happened 400 years ago, when the country was first discovered and colonised. Over the past four centuries there has been large-scale clearance of the native forest to make way for agriculture and human development. Sugar was the king crop and from the word go every conceivable pocket of land that could be found for its cultivation was exploited. All that remained of the forest were tiny fragments high up in the mountains: in fact there is now less than 1.5% of native forest left on Mauritius.

Deforestation, hunting and introduced species all had their effect on the biodiversity of Mauritius, which now has one of the highest extinction rates of birds, mammals and reptiles in the world. The lowest point for biodiversity was in the 1970s when the country could boast the rarest pigeon, parrot and bird of prey. But it wasn’t just birds that were on the brink. There were also habitats that were seriously degraded, including Round Island that, while rich in reptiles, had lost most of its forest to introduced goats and rabbits. Meanwhile the Rodrigues fruit bat become rare and had declined to perilously small numbers.

At this point the Gerald Durrell enters the story. He and his assistant John Hartley arrived on Mauritius in 1976 originally with the intention of – according to Tatayah – ‘lying on the beach, drinking lots of tea and whisky, smoking a lot and writing a book.’ But the government invited the naturalists to review their conservation projects. They are shown the pink pigeon, the Mauritius Kestrel, taken to Round Island and to see the golden bats of Rodrigues (later immortalised in Durrell’s book Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons). Upon being shown the extent of the decline of biodiversity on Mauritius, Durrell offered to start a captive breeding programme for some of the rare birds at his Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey (as Durrell Wildlife was then called).

By the 1980s it was clear that there was a pressing need for an NGO dedicated to wildlife conservation on Mauritius capable of raising funds internationally. Durrell was the catalyst and the Mauritian Wildlife Appeal Fund was created in 1984. A quarter of a century and a name-change later the organisation employs around 130 staff (including volunteers) making the MWF not only the largest conservation NGO in the region, but the sole terrestrial wildlife conservation body for Mauritius and Rodrigues. The MWF is working on more than 20 bird, reptile, education, eco-tourism, habitat restoration and rare plant conservation projects and runs eight field stations: five within the Black River Gorges National Park and one apiece on Rodrigues, Round Island, Ile aux Aigrettes.

Birds, bats and giant tortoises

Although there have been other pink pigeons endemic in the Mascarenes, the Mauritian Pink Pigeon is the only survivor, and only just. The reason it’s become rare is because of habitat degradation and there are only a few pockets of suitable habitat remaining. The pink pigeon conservation project takes place on Ile aux Aigrettes, a tiny island on the southeast corner of Mauritius that has been cleared of predators and where the habitat has been restored.

When Durrell first came to Mauritius there was only one pink pigeon population, and that was at the appropriately named Pigeon Wood on the mainland where there was an estimated 12-20 birds in total. Although this total may seem low at its all-time low in 1990 there were only nine birds in existence. A PVA (population viability assessment) was done which concluded that the most likely outcome was that the pink pigeon would die out by 2000. Today, there are six sub-populations, with a total of 420 regularly observed birds. This success means the bird has been down-listed on the IUCN Red List from ‘critically endangered’ to ‘endangered’. Tatayah says that the MWF is talking to Birdlife International about down-listing the pink pigeon further to merely ‘vulnerable’.

The Mauritius Kestrel shares with the pink pigeon a steep decline and almost miraculous recovery, although the reason for its near extinction is quite different. In the twentieth century, one of the biggest health problems on Mauritius facing the human population was malaria and during the Second World War it was discovered that the synthetic pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (or DDT) was extremely good at eradicating the mosquitoes that transmitted it. And so DDT was sprayed in high concentrations all over Mauritius. It wasn’t until decades later that scientists came to realise that it was also extremely good at eradicating birds of prey (although other organophosphates had also played their part). As a result the Mauritius Kestrel became the rarest bird in the world – in 1974 there were only four left (with only one breeding female). With the aid of the Peregrine Fund, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Fund and the ICBP (now Birdlife International) the MWF set up a captive breeding programme that reared and reintroduced several hundred hatchlings into three mountain ranges on the island. It’s estimated that there are now more than 600 free flying kestrels in the wild, making it as Tatayah claims ‘the most successful bird restoration project in the world.’

Originally, the only herbivores in the Mascarenes were tortoises and the highest density anywhere in the world was on Rodrigues. When the first settlers arrived they found the island covered with them and in some places you could walk a hundred paces on their backs without setting foot on the ground. The settlers over-harvested them for food, and within a few decades the entire population became extinct.

Tortoises have a significant influence on botanical ecology by controlling grasses, and dispersing seeds through their droppings. After their extinction in the Mascarenes the ecological functions they served such as selective grazing and seed dispersal, were not taken up by any other species. According to Tatayah, for a number of years the MWF debated what species could be introduced, not to replace the tortoise, but to plug the evolutionary gap left by the species. ‘It’s like a jigsaw puzzle’ he says. ‘It’s sad if you lose a piece, but if you can find a replacement part that maintains the integrity of the puzzle then, so long as it’s not an invasive species, why not?’

The MWF has experimented with the introduction of two different Indian Ocean tortoises: the Giant Aldabra from the Seychelles and the Madagascan radiated. Trials on Ile aux Aigrettes have shown that these tortoises are important in maintaining the low swathe of grass and are helping biologists to understand the co-evolution of plants and animals in the Mascarenes. Currently there are 20 tortoises on Ile aux Aigrettes, free roaming and breeding well. ‘It’s like having twenty labourers on the island’ says Tatayah. ‘They do the weeding and plant seeds. We’ve found that seeds dispersed by tortoises germinate better than those that simply fall off the tree and grow.’ Tatayah believes that tortoises can eventually return to the mainland – possibly to the Black River Gorges National Park – where they could play a part in controlling invasive plants.

Facing the future

What Mauritius needs, says Tatayah, is a halt to the invasion of exotic species. ‘We have a large number of plants and animals that are causing great havoc and so we need for an effective quarantine policy so that no more invasive species enter into the country.’ But alongside deceleration of the invasion it is also a requirement to restore the native forest.

The MWF estimates that 6,000 hectares of forest are needed to establish a self-sustaining ecological balance on the island. The sheer scales of such a project presents a huge environmental challenge for Mauritius. One of the ways of achieving this is to reclaim so-called marginal land. In Mauritius most of the sugar plantations are planted right up to the foothills of the mountains. These lower-yield areas are no longer profitable for agriculture because of the fall in global sugar prices, but would assist in reclaiming the forest, which is rich in indigenous biodiversity, including many species of critically endangered snail. The top third of the island’s mountains have been kept as forest fringe due to a law passed in the French colonial days. ‘But one of the things we would like to do’ says Tatayah ‘is to go down-slope. We need to see if we can reverse the trend by reclaiming these marginal areas. So instead of the agriculture encroaching we want the forest to reclaim the land.’

The MWF has been pushing for a policy to restore the marginal lands and it has become one of the highest recommendations in the National Forestry Policy Action Plan. But the big question is whether there is the political will for this to happen. ‘It’s very difficult to convince a politician that a snail on top of a mountain is important. If the snail could vote, that would be a different thing.’

For further information on, or to make a donation to, the Mauritian Wildlife foundation visit

Nick Smith’s ‘Going Green in the Galapagos’, as featured in Organic Life magazine (full version)

June 19, 2009

Going green in the Galapagos

Travelling to the Galapagos need not mean a guilt trip. There are environmental issues to consider, but your cruise around these equatorial islands to view the stunning array of  wildlife will do far more good than harm. By Nick Smith

There can’t be a single traveller who doesn’t dream of going to the Galapagos. Cast adrift 1000km west of Ecuador, this remote archipelago is perhaps the ultimate wildlife-watching destination. Visited by Charles Darwin in the early 19th century, the Galapagos provided the inspiration for his theory of evolution by natural selection, often said to be mankind’s greatest intellectual achievement. With National Park status, these volcanic islands teem with birdlife, from the impossibly rare lava gull (barely 400 left) to the trademark Blue-footed boobie. The Galapagos is also a living laboratory, home to some of the more bizarre quirks of evolution, from the giant tortoise to the marine iguana. In short, this lonely Pacific eco-system is a symbol of everything that’s right with the planet, and the cradle of conservation.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Darwin barely set foot on Galapagos, and the endemic reptile populations have been unstable ever since mankind discovered the islands and introduced predatory mammal species (the most dangerous of all, of course, being Homo sapiens). The only reason conservation is a word synonymous with the islands is that there is a pressing need for it.

Annexed by Ecuador in 1832, Galapagos has a chequered history, which has come to a head in an almighty ecological tug-of-war over what is the best use of the region. The main players are the science and conservation lobby, the tourism industry, settled Ecuadorian nationals, fishermen and farmers. Each is a powerful group with its own agenda, and each applies pressure to a government itself under pressure from the international community to return the islands to their pristine condition.

Whatever balance is eventually achieved, both tourism and wildlife conservation will play a major part in the islands’ future. Although conservationists will debate the point, there is no need for today’s responsible tourist to feel any guilt about going to the islands – a visit and the revenue it generates can only be a force for good. Despite the fact that scientists want to relieve the pressure on the local environment by reducing tourism, visitors substantially fund their research and provide revenue for the government, while volunteers on projects run by bodies such as Earthwatch even provide the labour. Simply by turning up to the Galapagos and paying your National Park entrance fee, you’ve invested US$100 in the future of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Although tourism accounts for 90 per cent of the human traffic on the islands it is not the tourist who causes the most pressure on the environment. The uncomfortable truth is that it is the islands’ settlers – past and present – who have done the most damage. Even though the residents take up only 3% of the land area of the archipelago, ruins of abandoned farms, airbases, factories, salt works and even a football pitch can be clearly seen from San Cristobal to Fernandina, while environmentally friendly cruise ships chug about in the distance keeping the luxury tourist literally at bay. Residents keep dogs, cats, goats and cattle, all of which could have devastating effects on the local wildlife.

For the tourist, the island’s main attraction is of course that wildlife, which is abundant, camera friendly, and quite unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else. For many visitors, the sheer novelty of all these little ecological niches filled from unexpected angles will be the abiding memory of a trip to the Galapagos: lizards that can live in the sea; tortoises that belong to a subspecies dependent on which volcano they inhabit. At the moment the tourism impact is kept to a minimum by there being only 45 landing spots throughout the entire park, which means that much of it never gets visited. In fact, one of the real criticisms of a trip to Galapagos is how regulated the experience is and how little you’re allowed to see. The ‘hiking’ routes are seldom more than a few kilometres along well-marked and well-trodden paths. Guides are with you at all times, and as official park rangers they have the power to arrest you for any transgression of park rules. You cannot linger to take photographs, you will at no time be left alone, and – most importantly – you cannot stray from the path. It’s their job not to trust you, which is frankly annoying when the only possible motivation for visiting these islands is a sincere love of the environment and its wildlife.

Although independent travel around the islands is possible it can be an expensive lottery, and given the restrictions imposed at every turn, this is one of the few times where it can be an advantage to be part of a scheduled package tour. These take the form of boat cruises, which have the important benefit of providing tourists with floating hotels. Although the traditional view of cruising is negative – a pastime of the ‘newly wed and the nearly dead’ – it could have been designed for a sensitive eco-system such as the Galapagos. With draconian regulations regarding waste disposal within the national park, operators are kept on their toes, and many boast of their ‘open bridge’ and transparent environmental policies. Cruises are getting greener and greener. And while the purist will say that these ships leave a huge environmental footprint, their impact is negligible compared with the effect that building a luxury hotel and its required infrastructure would have.

For a start, the number of boats visiting each of the landing sites is carefully monitored to ensure that there isn’t too much traffic at hot spots such as Floreana, Espanola and Bartolome (where Master and Commander was filmed). Secondly, tourists are kept off the land for most of their visit, reducing pressure on the wildlife. They are fed and watered off the islands, the waste gets taken back to mainland Ecuador, and there are no unwanted fires, raves, or fishing or hunting expeditions. Lastly, and by no means least, visiting the Galapagos is an enormously expensive project, well beyond the means of budget travellers, which means that the operators generate high per capita revenue while tourist numbers are regulated by their own disposable income.

The whole Galapagos question is one of compromise, and the future of the islands is in the hands of organisations such as the Galapagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Foundation, which manage the park and advise on scientific issues. If they can manage the competing pressures on a sustainable basis, then the endemic wildlife will flourish. If the endemic wildlife flourishes and the right balance between tourism and conservation can be found, then the future of these crucially important islands will be secure.

Heading for Galapagos? Nick’s travel hints…

1. Take a fleece. Even though the Galapagos Islands are on the Equator they can be surprisingly cold due to the cooling effect of the Humboldt current coming up from the Antarctic. In the garua season (June to November) the islands are grey and rainy.

2. If you are taking a film camera calculate how many rolls you think you’ll need for the trip and then double up. Take spare batteries, a tripod and, if using digital equipment, spare memory cards. Wild animals don’t like flash photography.

3. Time spent actually on the islands themselves will be relatively short, perhaps as little as a couple of hours per day. The rest of the time you’ll be chugging between islands, which can be tedious. Make sure you take plenty of books with you.

4. In fact, take everything with you. Don’t rely on ship libraries or on-board shops. They won’t have the right film/sunblock/maps/guidebooks/novels/batteries. And if by some slim chance they do stock what you need, it will be hideously expensive.

5. Do not bring any live material such as seeds, soil or animals to the islands. You will be searched on arrival and offending items will be confiscated, but after that you should be especially careful not to transport plant seeds from island to island.

6. Take good walking boots. Even though you will at no point be allowed to walk far, you will need them to protect yourself from goat’s head or puncture weed (Tribulus cistoides). The spiky seed pods are agony! Remove them from your soles regularly.

7. Keep a diary. In an all too short a time, you’ll see such a variety of islands, birds, endemic plants and other natural wonders that you’ll never remember it all. But you will have plenty of time to keep a diary that will become a treasured possession.

8. If you are going to the Galapagos from the UK you will have made at least SIX flights by the time you get home. You have very little choice in the matter. But you can repay your debt to the environment by carbon-neutralising your air travel.

9. Be an eco-warrior. Not everyone will share your conservationist views on plastic bags, chewing gum, loud noises, flash photography, graffiti and souvenir hunting. You have a duty to obey National Park rules and to explain them to others if need be.

10. Remember to get your passport stamped on the way out by the Galapagos National Park officials at the airport. It’s not an official entry stamp, but it looks cool and is a reminder that you contributed $100 to the conservation of the Galapagos.

Contacts and further reading

Organic Life travelled around the Galapagos Islands on board the Celebrity Xpedition, one of the most environmentally friendly small cruise liners. For further details on cruising the Galapagos visit

The best general wildlife guide to the islands is the Collins Safari Guide Wildlife of the Galapagos by Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter and David Hosking

Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos, A Novel will while away the hours on the boat

Jonathan R Green’s Galapagos: Ocean, Earth, Wind & Fire is an excellent coffee table book with outstanding wildlife photography

Offset your long-haul carbon emissions at Climate Care

Become a Friend of the Galapagos by joining the Galapagos Conservation Trust

Find out more about the Charles Darwin Foundation on