Mauritius is one of the most beautiful tropical islands on earth, ever popular as a honeymoon, holiday and golfing destination. But the development of the island has come at a huge environmental cost, with wildlife extinctions among the highest anywhere in the world. Bay’s Nick Smith flew to Mauritius to find that it was the great writer and zookeeper Gerald Durrell who played a major part in saving the island’s endangered species…
Flying over Mauritius, one of the first things you notice is a range of jagged volcanic mountains right in the heart of this tropical island. As I watched this spectacular land-scape unfold below me, I had no idea that within a few days I’d be climbing these mosquito-infested peaks in search of fruit bats, rueing the day I was born as I laboured in the merciless heat and operatic thunderstorms carrying a backpack stuffed with camera gear. But for now I was loafing in business class with a glass of chilled Chianti, reading Gerald Durrell’s ‘Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons’ in which he casually mentions that Mauritius was once home to the extinct dodo (a distant relative of the pigeon). As the flight attendant brought me another one of those small bottles you get on aeroplanes, I started to see the irony in landing on the island of legendary flightless birds in a manmade flying machine weighing more than 100 tonnes.
Of course, most of us will remember Durrell for his comic autobiography ‘My Family and Other Animals’, in which he tells the tale of how he spent his youth on the endlessly sunny Mediterranean island of Corfu, catching butterflies in nets, putting scorpions in matchboxes and getting into all sorts of jolly scrapes.
Long before he became the world’s most famous zookeeper, Durrell had cut his teeth as a conservationist in a childhood that featured little in the way of formal education, and yet propelled him into the world as a fully-fledged man of letters. I was reading his book because this was his account of his part in saving the wildlife of Mauritius. Published in 1977, it paints a picture of how he went to the
Republik Moris (as the locals call it) to lie on the beach drinking whisky while drafting his new bestseller, but ended up saving the pink pigeon from extinction. This was some achievement. At the time, there were only nine in the world.
These days we’re bombarded with bucket lists and terrible books claiming there to be a magic number of places that we must visit before we die (as if we could save some until after…) But, when I was a school kid roaming the untamed forests of Sketty with my collecting jars and note-books, going to places such as Mauritius wasn’t just a tick-box adventure to secure pointless after-dinner bragging rights. It was a dream: in fact, it was the impossible dream. Back then, I simply idolised Durrell who, to me at least, represented the last of the great explorers, a superhero prepared to go anywhere on God’s green earth in the name of protecting its wildlife – especially Mauritius. He was a modern Noah (he even called his zoo on Jersey a ‘Stationary Ark’), saving the world’s animals two-by-two if need be, bringing them back from the brink of extinction. Perhaps this was all too much of a responsibility for the maverick conservationist who, despite laying down a blueprint for the way we protect endangered species in the 21st century, was to tragically die of alcohol-related liver problems long before his time was due.
And so to be on a plane following in the great man’s footsteps was a thrill. For the record, I was on assignment for the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society, commissioned to produce an article on the 25th anniversary of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation that Durrell helped to establish. But what I really wanted was to see Mauritius the way he had seen it and to photograph the pigeons, bats and kestrels that he had saved for the future. I was also hoping to have an encounter with a giant tortoise or two. The last animals I expected to bump in to were lions. But they come into the story later.
To understand why the wildlife of Mauritius was in such a mess back in Durrell’s day, we need to go back more than 500 years to when the country was first discovered and colonised. Ever since the Portuguese arrived in 1507 there has been systematic clearance of the forest to make way for humans and agriculture. Over the centuries, nearly every scrap of land that could be turned over to sugar cultivation has been commandeered, meaning that there’s only about 1 per cent of native forest left on the island today. With humans, came hunting and the introduction of species in the form of rodents, goats and rabbits, which meant that the original mammals, reptiles and birds of Mauritius didn’t have much of a chance. With the forest gone and new predators on every side, the indigenous biodiversity of Mauritius reached an all-time low in the 1970s.
Enter Gerald Durrell, who at the request of the Mauritian government left his whisky and manuscript on the beach and got stuck into establishing captive-breeding protocols for the pink pigeon, Mauritius kestrel and golden bat. And while his memoir of these early days of conservation on the island is often hilarious, the outcome and prolonged influence of his stay is deadly serious. Today, we have the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation employing more than 130 volunteers, working on 20 bird, reptile, habitat restoration and rare plant conservation projects. It also has several scientific field research stations, one of which I visited on the nature reserve at Île aux Aigrettes.
GOLDEN BATS AND PINK PIGEONS (and giant tortoises and lions)
In my time I’ve taken plenty of photographs that have required something in the way of pushing myself beyond previously unvisited physical or mental limits. But photographing the pink pigeon was not one of them. These days, they live sedately on the Île aux Aigrettes, a small, protected island to the southeast of the mainland. And as I weaved my way there easily on a tiny speedboat I spent a moment mentally preparing myself for my encounter with one of the rarest animals on the planet. To be exact, I was mentally preparing myself for an encounter with what used to be one of the rarest species on the planet. This upturn in the pigeon’s fortunes is due to the conservation efforts of the Foundation being so success-ful that the bird is, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, now no longer ‘critically endangered’ but simply ‘endanger-ed’. Today, there are probably in the region of 400 individuals. This may not sound many compared with, say, the population of regular pigeons in Trafalgar Square, but the general sentiment is that they are saved. And so, with a feeling of excitement I hopped off the boat at the quay, wondering what that nondescript pinkish-brown feathery thing asleep on the branch of a tree might be. The biggest problem I had photographing these most distinctly unimpressive birds was waiting for them to wake up. The shots duly committed to the camera’s data card, I found myself with a few hours to kill before my boat returned, and so I took a stroll with one of the island’s giant tortoises. And although the aptly named Big Daddy – an Aldabra behemoth from the Seychelles – lived up to his name, he was neither fast nor frightening, meaning that his photo shoot passed serenely and without incident. Big Daddy, it turns out, was the calm before the storm.
On the other hand, there was no such calmness of spirit when I drove to the other side of the island to Casela to photograph the lions of Mauritius. If you are thinking the lion, or Panthera Leo, is distributed exclusively on continental Africa, you are entirely correct (apart from the small population of lions in northwest India). And so I was surprised to find that the King of the Jungle – to be more accurate, the grasslands or savannah – was to be found on an island 1,200 miles off the African coast and that, if you were so moved, you could go for a walk with a small pride of them. I’d been told that Casela was one of only two places on earth where such a stroll can be taken (the other is in Zimbabwe), and so off I went walking with lions.
Like I say, Mauritius has no native lions. But is does have a lion orphanage. While once the mighty lion was common in Africa – there were probably half a million of them before we started to hunt them – today their population is regarded as ‘vulnerable’. According to CITES (the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species), their number has fallen by 80-90 per cent since the mid-1970s, leaving us with a best estimate of 47,000 left in the wild. The worst-case scenario doesn’t bear thinking about, so you can see why people like Graeme Bristow set up lion conservation projects wherever they can. Graeme’s is at Casela on the west coast of Mauritius, and he knows so much about these misunderstood animals that he often consults for television programmes such as Big Cat Diary. Most of the lions at Casela come from South Africa or Zimbabwe, but some come all the way from Botswana or Namibia. Abandoned by their mothers, these animals will never be returned to the wild, although Graeme’s objective is to keep them is as near to a natural environment as possible, despite the climate being slightly different for cats.
The fact that you can go for a walk with his lions does not mean that they are safe. The ones in these photos are 18 months old and are already weighing up to 100kg, with paws the size of dinner plates. They are incredibly agile, can climb a tree in a single bound, and if one decides to chase you, say your prayers because they can run at 40kph and will think nothing of eating you. Signing my liability waiver form, I asked Graeme where his gun was. “Yeah, I don’t have one of those,” he said before explaining that if you want authority over a lion, the last thing you do is bully it. You show it who the boss is with your index finger or, if you are inexperienced, a short stick. His ranger has a gun, but he stays in the background. Before we set off, I asked Graeme if it would be possible to photograph his ‘Kalahari cats’ from the ground up. “Sure,” he said, “but if they’re in a bad mood, it might be the last thing you ever do.” We did it anyway.
After which it was a relief to be climbing one of the volcanic peaks I’d seen from the air. I was heading into the interior with my guide to photograph bats that live high up in the distance ranges. It was a long muddy journey for just the one photograph. And yet in the process I felt something of the spirit of Gerald Durrell, who’d spent his life saving them.