On Monday September 24, at a virtual meeting hosted by the UN Headquarters in New York, 60 world leaders signed a ‘Leaders Pledge for Nature’ to stop the loss of biodiversity. Heads of State from France, Germany, UK, Netherlands, Panama signed.
Noticeably, the embattled political leaders from Japan and Mauritius were not signatories.
The Leaders Pledge in New York was part of an important UN Summit to avoid the world heading into a major period of biodiversity collapse, as planet Earth grapples with the highest extinction rates since homo sapiens became a distinct species, in what has been called the Sixth Mass Extinction. Rather than being caused by colliding asteroids or other natural phenomenon, this new age of extinction is being caused by man.
The front lines of this extinction battle is happening live on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, which is still battling the effects of a major oil spill.
Effects of oil spill disrupting entire island nation
Two months on from the major shipping incident in the Indian Ocean, islanders on Mauritius are still reeling from its effects. Life is far from returning to normal.
The large Japanese bulk carrier, the Wakashio, hit an important barrier coral reef in the South East of the country, and started spilling heavy ship engine fuel into the pristine coral lagoon and into a network of historic and unique biodiversity sites.
125 square kilometers have been shut off in the lagoon. Over fifty whales and dolphins have died (countless more may be injured but have not been counted or have drifted offshore). Four crew members of a Mauritian tug were lost in the salvage operation, and thousands of fishermen and workers have been unable to earn an income for months.
While the social, economic and political battles rage about the cause and response to the Panama-flagged, Japanese-owned ship, The Wakashio, one group had already been working behind the scenes to save Mauritius’ rarest species from extinction and the pressures of climate change. Now they faced their biggest hurdle yet – a major oil spill directly into their coral atoll nature reserve. This reserve was home to some of the most unique and rare species on Earth and was housed on a small coral island in the heart of the lagoon, accessible only by boat, which they felt would keep the animals safe.
The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) is the leading terrestrial environmental NGO in Mauritius and has led some of the world’s highest profile projects to revive some of the most critically endangered species.
Since its founding in 1984, Mauritian Wildlife Foundation has brought back species like the Pink Pigeon, the Echo Parakeet, the Mauritius Kestrel from the brink of extinction.
There were just a dozen or so Pink Pigeons left when MWF stepped in to avoid its fate following that of the Dodo.
Bringing back species from the Edge of Extinction
Yet on that fateful day of August 6, 2020, the MWF found itself at the center of the storm. A small coral atoll called Île aux Aigrettes was home to some of the world’s rarest species, being only 2000 meters from a vessel carrying the equivalent of over 100 petrol stations of heavy ship fuel oil.
The Director of Conservation at Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, Vikash Tatayah, has spent nearly 25 years on the forefront of conservation in Mauritius. Together with his team of over 100 staff and contractors, the MWF had brought back many species from the brink of extinction. He never expected to find himself or the coral atoll of Île aux Aigrettes – which the MWF calls home – on the front lines of a major oil spill.
Here is his account of what happened, and the desperate battle to save some of the world’s last remaining species of unique plants, insects, birds and reptiles in this tropical, formerly volcanic island.
Q1. What makes Ile aux Aigrettes so special?
Vikash Tatayah: I need first start by giving the context of Mauritius, so you can see why Ile aux Aigrettes is so special within this highly biodiverse part of the world.
Mauritius has several features that make it incredibly unique in the world. There is, of course, the underwater ocean environment, which is very rich due to an upwelling of deep ocean currents from across the Indian Ocean that bring a unique set of nutrients for marine life around the island.
Then Mauritius has a unique set of high-rising former volcanic mountains where many unique plants and species evolved. With the changing of sea levels over the last 100,000 years, many species also survived on some of the 49 islands surrounding the main Mauritius island, making even biodiversity of these smaller islands unique.
Mauritius was estimated to have 691 native plants and species, 273 of which are now only found in Mauritius, and the smaller islets. And that is from what we have discovered so far on land and does not include much of Mauritius’ vast ocean area where exciting new discoveries also await.
At the center of all this biodiversity richness is the Île aux Aigrettes.
Île aux Aigrettes is a unique coral atoll that lies 800 meters from Mauritius’s shore in the southeast of the country. It is 26 hectares in size and contains some of the rarest plants and wildlife on the planet.
In 1965, Île aux Aigrettes was declared a protected area. In 1984, MWF took over the management of the island. MWF also works on several other coral islets near Ile aux Aigrettes which are all form part of a critical, interdependent network of protected areas that some of our rare species depend on.
Over several centuries of European colonization, many endemic species, such as giant tortoises, trees, and wildlife, have disappeared. Mauritius is most renowned for the disappearance of the Dodo.
Yet, through the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation’s work for over three decades, we have managed to turn the corner and make the island the foremost example of rewilding in the world.
Rewilding is the term where you don’t just maintain the status quo but try and restore a habitat to the way it used to be. This approach is now being adopted around the world, and Mauritius is one of the foremost pioneers in this field.
The most successful example in the entire country had been on Île aux Aigrettes. It is the crown jewel of rewilding for the world.
It is estimated that there were hundreds of unique species living on Île aux Aigrettes, and we are still making new discoveries every day.
Despite the island being so well studied, in the last few years, we had recently found a previously undescribed Ile aux Aigrettes Cave Cricket that we were in the midst of having classified scientifically when the oil spill hit us. This was so humbling as it shows how much about nature we still have to learn about.
We receive scientists, researchers, and visitors from all over the world who come to study what we have built here. In the past thirty years, we have had scientists from over 40 nationalities come and stay with us and formally engage in detailed scientific studies.
We warmly welcome visitors from all over the world, and are excited to see them learn about our unique species. Specifically on Japan, given the focus of the Japanese Government’s involvement in the oil spill response, there has not been any formal engagement historically between Japanese scientists and the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation on any scientific work with the unique species of the region, although we have had individual Japanese tourists once in a while to our eco-tourism visitor’s center.
I do know that Japan’s development agency, JICA, had funded the island visitor’s center in 1998 and the Ile aux Aigrettes mainland booking center in 2003.
So Île aux Aigrettes wasn’t just an islet – our workers lived on the island. We had aviaries, nurseries, and laboratories from which we could monitor and analyze these unique creatures.
Q2. What sort of wildlife did you have on the island?
Vikash Tatayah: Oh, so many! This was one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the country and even the Indian Ocean. Here are just a few of the species that make the atoll unique.
Unique terrestrial birds
There were several endemic birds on the island, such as the:
Mauritius Olive White Eye (Zosterops chloronothos) – there were only 65 birds that existed only on Ile aux Aigrettes following a reintroduction program. There are less than 250 on mainland Mauritius for the most threatened bird of Mauritius.
Mauritius Fody (Foudia rubra) – there are now over 400 individuals that live only on Ile aux Aigrettes due to a successful reintroduction program. The mainland island of Mauritius holds probably fewer individuals than Ile aux Aigrettes.
Mauritius has dozens of native seabirds. While large hotels had impacted some of the coastal habitats, their substantial nesting grounds were on some of the smaller islets along the coral lagoon such as Ile aux Vacoas, Ile Fouquet, Ilot Marianne, Ile de la Passe, and the islands to the north of Mauritius.
Our program to restore seabird communities in the outer islands using Ile aux Aigrettes has been internationally recognized for its ambition and success.
Some of the most notable native seabirds are:
Scientific name: Phaethon lepturus and its birdsong can be heard here.
Scientific name: Phaethon rubricauda and its birdsong can be heard here. This bird, known locally as Paille en Queue, is the symbol of the national airline, Air Mauritius.
Scientific name: Onychoprion fuscatus and its birdsong can be heard here.
Scientific name: Ardenna pacifica and its birdsong can be heard here.
Scientific name, Anous tenuirostris, and its birdsong can be heard here.
Scientific name of Anous stolidus, this bird had a large population around Mauritius and its birdsong can be heard here.
Round island Pestrel
With a scientific name of Pterodroma arminjoniana, they are classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN and there is only a population of around 2200 estimated left in the world. The population around Mauritius has evolved into its unique genetic subset. Its birdsong can be heard here.
Scientific name of Sula Sula, this bird had a large population around Mauritius. Its birdsong can be heard here.
Mauritius is also an important location for many migratory birds. Two out of the eight major global migratory bird flyways pass over Mauritius. Mauritius is also an important stopover for regional migratory birds that hop along the chain of unique islands across the Indian Ocean.
These migratory birds pass through Mauritius at various times of the year and their feeding and nesting grounds are usually in the more natural parts of Mauritius. These make the offshore islands in the Southeast particularly important, as these have more endemic food sources, are better protected and are away from some of the more crowded tourist areas.
Unfortunately these were the areas that were impacted the most by the oil spill.
The most common migratory birds that visit Mauritius each year between October and April include the:
- Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica)
- Crab Plover (Dromas ardeola)
- Common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia)
- Common tern (Sterna hirundo)
- Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea)
- Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola)
- Lesser Sandplover (Charadrius mongolus)
- Little Stint (Calidris minuta)
- Sanderling (Calidris alba)
- Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)
- Striated Heron (Butorides striatus)
- Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)
- Terek Sandpiper (Xenus cinereus)
- Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)
Here are some of the other birdlife seen around Ile aux Aigrettes by staff of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation this year.
Mauritius has some of the world’s rarest reptiles. The reason for this is during the last Pleistocene period (which covered the period from 3 million to the last 10,000 years), the oceans were between 80 and 100 meters lower. This meant that animals could walk across to what are islands today. As the oceans rose, some of those populations became isolated.
So over 10,000 years, they evolved into genetically different pathways. This means that even creatures that started as the same species initially, have started evolving differently in the South Eastern islands from the Northern islands as diverse populations with their own unique genetic characteristics. This is the same time period that humans would have evolved from their Neanderthal cousins.
This means that it is not just Île aux Aigrettes, but the four South-Eastern Islet National Parks around the Ile de la Passe, Ile aux Vacoas, Ile aux Fouquets (also known as Ile au Phare), Ilot Marianne. These are islets that fall under the responsibility of three Government Departments – Mauritius’ National Parks and Conservation Service, Mauritius’ Forestry Service, and Ministry of Arts. The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation works closely with these Government departments. We have a strong working relationship that allows the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation to work extensively on the conservation of the unique species on these islands.
In the 1990s, MWF surveyed all the 70+ outlying islets of Mauritius and Rodrigues. We discovered that on these South Eastern Islets of Ilot Vacoas, three species of endemic reptiles had miraculously survived on these islets that are each some two hectares in size or less. The three species were the Bojer’s Skink, the Lesser Night Gecko and the Bouton’s Skink.
So for hundreds of thousands of years, unique reptiles had been evolving in the islands off Mauritius, including:
Mauritian Ornate Day Gecko. The Mauritius Ornate Day Gecko is one of the smallest day gecko, growing to a length of 12cm. They can be found in trees and bushes in the drier areas of Mauritius including the outlying islands, such as Ile aux Aigrettes.
Bojer’s Skink. We were able to take the populations of Bojer’s Skink and start to introduce to other southeast islets, Ile aux Fouquets and Ile de la Passe.
Lesser Night Gecko. We took the population from the Ilot Vacoas and re-introduced them to Ilot Marianne. The night species of geckos have evolved particular vision so that their color vision in low light is 350 times more sensitive than human color vision.
Bouton’s Skink. This is unique to some of the islands and extreme coastal areas around Mauritius and La Reunion – the Mascarene islands. They have naturally recolonized Ile aux Fouquets.
Telfair Skink. Another rare reptile found on the outlying islands and being bred on Ile aux Aigrettes. Scientific name Leiolopsima Telfairii. The Telfair Skink is related to two now-extinct species, the Giant Skinks of Mauritius and Reunion Island.
We have also conducted genetic analysis and have only just realized just how unique each population cluster is of each species.
The Keel-scaled boa was on the brink of extinction and it survived for over a century only on one of Mauritius’s outlying islands that is only 2 km square in area. Since the 1980s, habitat restoration and active management of this species has led to a rapid population increase of the boa and the establishment of an additional subpopulation on another recently-restored outer island of Mauritius. Before the oil spill, the global population approached 2,000 individuals by 2018 and was increasing, with the population predicted to increase further as additional island restorations took place.
Round Island Boa
The Round Island Boa (scientifically known as Casarea dussumieri) is a medium sized harmless snake that averages 110 cm in length. Juveniles of both sexes are bright orange or brick red, with occasional faint adult markings and black tipped tail. Males are smaller, about two thirds the size of females, have a much more slender head and body, but relatively longer tail. The adults are predominantly terrestrial (live on the ground), although do occasionally climb the palms to feed and take refuge. Juveniles are mostly arboreal (live in trees) and frequently use the lower branches of scrub or palm fronds to escape predation by Round Island Ground Skink, Leiolopisma telfairii. They are mostly nocturnal.
Île aux Aigrettes contains a unique type of forest that has disappeared from the rest of the planet. The island is home to the world’s last population of low lying Île aux Aigrettes Ebony Trees. This last remaining forest made up of coastal ebony trees, named after Île aux Aigrettes (Diospyros Egrettarum) exists only on Île aux Aigrettes. Coastal ebony trees have evolved their own characteristics to survive in the more saline environment and groundwater.
There are several other unique plants as well that lived on the island.
Bois Jaune otherwise known as Yellow Wood (Ochrosia borbonica). There are only four remaining plants in Mauritius. Three are in highland locations and only one in the lowland. It is on Île aux Aigrettes.
Bois de Boeuf (Polyscias maraisiana) is a type of sponge wood. The world’s only population lives on Île aux Aigrettes.
Heterophily – Ile aux Aigrettes is also one of the last sites in the world where one can observe the phenomenon of heterophily in plants. This is where juvenile individuals show different characters in leaf size, shape, patterns to older leaves, a co-evolution with the now-extinct endemic tortoises, that were killed by the early European settlers.
We have some of the rarest and hardest to grow endemic plants growing in our nursery there. For example:
Bois Catafaille Noir, a successful reintroduction programe for this endemic tree, which is now down to two wild individuals
Bois de Fer, a Critically Endangered plant, and Ile aux Aigrettes hosts five original trees.
Phyllanthus Mauritiana, a prostrate herb that coped with tortoises. This means it is low growing like a shrub. Ile aux Aigrettes has half the world’s population of this Critically Endangered plant.
Erythroxylum sideroxyloides, is a plant that is endemic to Mauritius and Reunion, classified as Vulnerable to extinction and is medicinal! It is known in Mauritius as the Bois de ronde, and is used for treatment of gall stones and throat infections. The bark of the stems is used as a decoction in the treatment of nephrotic colic. The stems and leaves are successfully used in the treatment of angina either as a decoction or as a gargle. In Reunion, the leaves and bark are used as a decoction or maceration against diarrhea, and there are several ways to prepare this medical plant. Some grate the bark and drink it with salt and water for sore throats and kidney stones, whereas others boil the plant and use it in a bath for skin conditions.
And there are so many more examples!
Unique insects have evolved on the outlying islands such as Ile aux Aigrettes that we are only just discovering.
For example there was an undescribed coastal cave cricket that lives in the caves and crevices and feeds on algae on Ile aux Aigrettes.
This coastal cave cricket had only just been discovered as being a novel species and was in the midst of being classified as part of scientific research on the unique species of Ile aux Aigrettes.
There are 39 species of butterflies in Mauritius, of which seven are endemic to Mauritius and its outlying islands, such as Ile aux Aigrettes.
Next to Ile aux Aigrettes is Pointe d’Esny, which is an internationally protected Ramsar site known for its coastal mangroves, has unique, native butterflies. The two most prominent ones are Phalanta phalantha and Eurema floricola ceres.
Ile aux Aigrettes also has unique, native spiders such as Golden Orb spiders and Banana spiders, scientific name Nepila inaurata. The Golden Orb spider is so named because of the color of its silk. It is thought that this color may serve two purposes: in the sunlight it will attract bees drawn to the bright yellow, whereas in shadow it becomes camouflaged into the foliage, thus ensnaring other insects. The spider is able to adjust the amount of pigment in the silk, thus changing the intensity of color of the thread.
The genetic code of such spiders are extremely valuable. Silicon Valley based synthetic biology company, Bolt Threads is valued at over $700 million based on the genetic code from five spiders from Madagascar. The silk from these particular species of spiders were found to have properties stronger than steel. Who knows what value the unique species of Mauritius may hold?
Although Mauritius Wildlife Foundation is primarily focused on the restoration of land-based species, there are many species that have a land-ocean interaction.
Even the corals and marine life around Mauritius and form an important link in an interconnected chain of islands called the Mascarene Plateau that UNESCO has recognized as a high potential area of World Heritage marine sites in the Western Indian Ocean. Species that have evolved along this chain have very distinct genetic characteristics and are part of a critical link in this 1000 mile long marine network.
There are many eels and starfish that live primarily in the lagoon around Ile aux Aigrettes. Those can be seen in tidal pools include:
Mauritius has many endemic species of crabs that live along the beaches and coastline, such as the Graspus Albolineatus.
Cowries (or sea snails)
The Southeast coast of Mauritius is famous for its large populations of sea snails, or cowries which is a type of mollusk. These populations have been well studied since the 1960s. Mauritius has its own species named after it, called the Mauritia Mauritiana.
Q3. When did you first hear about the Wakashio and what was your first reaction?
Vikash Tatayah: On Saturday night of July 25, I received an SMS from a friend that a ship had run aground.
I didn’t click how serious it was at the time, as it was late and I was heading to bed. There was no description of what sort of boat or where it was.
The next morning, I woke up and, together with my wife, saw it was all over the news. It was only then when we saw the images that we realized how large and serious this was.
We immediately drove to Pointe d’Esny beach. There were already thousands of Mauritians who were pouring to the Pointe d’Esny beach to see the boat. From the beach, it was clear how close the ship was to Île aux Aigrettes.
At that time, the boat was pointing straight at the islet. If it hadn’t grounded on the coral reefs, it would have plowed right through the islet!
In my wildest thoughts, I never could have imagined a boat so large could be so close to the place we had been spending many years gently nurturing some of the rarest birds and plants back to health.
Q4. What did MWF do in response?
Vikash Tatayah: At that time, we were hopeful that the boat was going to be removed from the reefs.
Three days later, on July 29, we were summoned to the Ministry of Environment, where the National Oil Spill Contingency Committee had convened. The following day the committee went for a site visit by boat to get close to the Wakashio.
Despite being told that the vessel was being pulled off the reef by the salvers, it was clear that if there was a leak, the Wakashio (300m in length) was just 2000m away from Île aux Aigrettes. Looking at the direction of the current (there is a channel that runs from where the Wakashio had grounded), Île aux Aigrettes would be the first part of Mauritius to be hit with the oil spill.
I then started convening my team at MWF to discuss the implications. We never expected we would ever have to deal with such a large incident, but we realized we had to start thinking about the unthinkable.
We got the team to draw up a plan, and we began rehearsing that plan. We divided the plan into three tiers, based on how serious the oil spill could have been—Tier 1 for a small spill, and Tier 3 for the most serious.
The plan was finalized but we hoped we would never need to use it. Between July 25 and August 5, we had been told by the Government and salvers that it is unlikely that there would be an oil spill.
Then on August 5, when I saw images of the ship on social media. I could see that something wasn’t going right. The vessel was at an odd angle – there was intense pressure from the current. The weight looked wrong on the ship. There was no way to sink the stern of the ship and expect it not to crack. We summoned the team and asked them to get prepared.
I asked all the staff and asked for key species and what we would do with the birds, reptiles, plants, as well as the people who work with us, as well as visitors.
Then it happened the following morning.
Q5. What happened on the day of the oil spill?
Vikash Tatayah: We were in a meeting in the center of the island on August 6 with the leadership team of the MWF. It was around 10am that I started receiving incessant calls.
I picked up the phone, and it was the Ministry of Environment. They informed me that there was a high risk of an imminent oil spill. We immediately rushed out and drove South, calling our workers and trying to get our contract-workers and eco-tourist day visitors off the island.
It turned out that the oil spill had already begun since earlier that morning.
The first thing that hit us when we got there was the smell. It was like standing next to a petrol station pump. The fumes were overpowering. The winds pushed the stench of the petrol fumes on land, and we smelt everything a long time before we started to see the black slick of the oil.
We had respirators and protective gear available for our staff, but they complained of many medical conditions from the oil spill. In particular, they complained most about headaches, red and itchy eyes, feeling dizzy, nausea, fatigue, breathing difficulties. We were particularly concerned about our elderly workers’ health impacts, so we sent them home.
Dubai-based Greek waste management company, Polyeco, had given us 60cm by 30cm absorbent sheets to mop up the oil a few days earlier. It was clear within just an hour, that there was too much oil for these absorbent sheets to handle.
We went straight to our Tier 3 response, given all the oil that was gushing toward us.
We got the contract workers and eco-tourists off the island, and it was then just the core conservation team of MWF.
We put in a plan to get some of the rare potted plants from our nursery. We immediately went and got the:
- Bois de fer, a cutting of this extremely rare hardwood (hence its name, ‘Iron Wood’)
- Aerva congesta, a herb now down to a single individual on Round Island and a few plants of Gris Gris.
- Phyllanthus mauritiana and Phyllanthus revaughani, seedlings of these prostrate tortoise adapted plants.
- Catafaille noir, plantlets of this very rare plant that shows extreme heterophily.
These plants had been the hardest to grow, and if we were unable to access the island, we feared they would die. Hence we needed to get them off ile aux aigrettes so they could be cared for properly.
We took these plants to our horticulturist’s garden for continuous specialist care. We also moved nearly 4000 plants over the next few days to the nearby village of Mahebourg and placed them with the Forestry Service nursery, which made room for us in their facilities and has been very helpful.
In parallel, we looked at the birds.
This was a significant dilemma for us. We had many rare birds on the island that were wild. Putting them in cages would be distressing for them.
In the end, we decided that of the last remaining population of the 65 last remaining individual animals of Mauritius Olive White Eye (Critically Endangered), we could only take 12. We took these bird on August 6, the day of the oil spill. The birds are known locally as Oiseau à Lunettes.
Of 400 individual animals of Mauritius Fodies, known locally as cardinal de Maurice (Endangered), we took just 6 birds in cages on August 6.
We knew that carrying these birds was a risk, as capturing and keeping them in cages cause significant distress. However, this was the last resort. We only did this to try and preserve the genetic heritage and information of these species.
If the entire population collapses and they become extinct, at least we would have the genetic code. Who knows what technology may be possible in the future to bring them back to life again from this genetic code.
We have an aviary facility with the Mauritius National Parks and Conservation Service on the Western side of Mauritius. We took them to the Black River Gorges site (around 50 kilometers away from Ile aux Aigrettes), and these birds were being kept there for the past six weeks.
Three Mauritius Olive White-eyes were unringed. All these wild birds were transferred from Ile aux Aigrettes to captivity at the Gerald Durrell Endemic Sanctuary – GDEWS, also known as the Black River Aviaries. GDEWS is collaboratively managed by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and the National Parks and Conservation Service (NPCS) with specialist assistance from international organizations such as Jersey Zoo, Chester Zoo, London Zoo, Paignton Zoo and the International Zoo Veterinary Group. To cater for the specific needs of the birds and ensure their well-being – as they are wild birds and not used to captivity – our team also built, in a record time span, special cages to ensure that their temporary stay was the least stressful possible.
The Mauritius National Parks and Conservation Service have been fantastic throughout all of this. Their staff have been very helpful, and they opened their facilities immediately so we could try and save as many species as possible from this terrible tragedy. We are deeply grateful to them.
They were returned to Ile aux Aigrettes on September 15 where they have a larger natural habitat.
So that was where we were at with the rare birds.
In terms of the rare reptiles, we had little choice. We had been rearing rare Telfair’s Skink (Leiolopisma telfairi) babies so they could be introduced to Ile aux Aigrettes.
We worked in this program for years, with some of the world’s best reptile specialists.
We suddenly had no choice. Bringing them onto the mainland would not work as we did not have the right facilities for them.
So we had to release them onto Ile aux Aigrettes. They were much younger and smaller than they would have been under our program had suggested.
It was the only way we could try and ensure their survival while we were forced to evacuate the island, and they would survive, especially as we were hoping they were sufficiently grown-up.
We haven’t yet had the chance to see the impact of this release of the baby Telfair Skinks.
Reptiles on the outlying islets
Shortly after the Wakashio oil spill, oil was detected on the South East Islets of Ile de la Passe, Ilot Vacoas, Ile au Phare (aux Fouquets), and Ile Marianne, the reptile team rushed to the rescue and collected 30 Bojer’s Skinks, 6 Bouton’s Skinks and 30 Lesser Night Geckos.
Populations of these isolated and genetically distinct endemic skinks and geckos survive on the South East islets and a small cohort of these reptiles were kept in a temporary biosecure facility on mainland Mauritius, whilst they awaited transfer to a more secure and fit for purpose facility at Jersey Zoo in the British Channel Islands.
All the 66 reptiles safely reached their new home. They are being given a lifeline at the Jersey Zoo headquarters, receiving expert treatment and care from leading herpetologists and this safety net population will form a breeding program from which the animals, their offspring or future generations can eventually be released back onto the wild on the South East islets, once it is safe to do so.
However, it is always challenging to form breeding programs with such a small population base as this increases disease risk by not having sufficient genetic diversity.
The Mauritian Flying Fox
Mauritius has its unique species of fruit bat. It is so large, it is known as a flying fox. They are endangered and highly protected by us.
There has been some controversy about a Government policy to shoot the bats to control numbers, but the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation is against this culling.
We had a small captive population on Ile aux Aigrettes. We had to take this population and transfer them to the Ferney Valley – a private nature reserve – where they were cared for.
These are just some of the ways our incredible team responded to this tragedy. I am so proud of how they all came together. It was also incredible to see Mauritius’s entire country come together around this oil spill and erect barriers around Île aux Aigrettes to try and protect it. We are very grateful.
I also want to thank some of the incredible Government officers within the Ministry of the Environment. They were adamant right from the start that Ile aux Aigrettes needed to be protected. The National Coastguard and Mauritius’ Special Mobile Force were also terrific and unsung heroes in focusing efforts to ensure we did all that we could to safeguard this precious part of Mauritius’ natural heritage.
The dramatic days ahead
The entire operation to vacate Ile aux Aigrettes took six days, from the oil spill starting on August 6.
Day 1: The first day involved the evacuation of labourers, and visitors, the rescue of rarest plants and baby tortoises.
Days 2 and 3: The second and third day was the rescue of birds, and on the third day, we also rescued bats.
Days 4 – 6: We took off nearly 4,000 plants from the Ile aux Aigrettes nursery on days 4, 5 and 6, thanks to the help of staff and volunteers who assisted us.
We were also in several official daily meetings at Blue Bay Fisheries Centre, which became like the ‘Churchill’s War Rooms’! We were also flooded with requests from various news media, not just Mauritius, but the world wanted to report on the tragedy, and we must have clocked up some 30 or more interviews every day!
There was the fear that another 3000 tons of oil (almost 1 million gallons in total) would spill in the sea as well, and we continued to work with the authorities to try to avoid this and be prepared for further actions if that was the case.
We also put at the disposal of the National Coast Guard and cleanup teams a boat, two skippers and volunteers to help clean up the oil (which are continuing to this day!).
We have been involved, or assisting with many aspects of the oil spill with all of the government, private sector, local population, international consultants, and scientists, discussing oil spill clean up, health and safety, impact on environment, impact on livelihood, rescue of reptiles.
Our staff continued to care for plants and animals that have been rescued from the islands.
Q6. How many species were you able to save?
Vikash Tatayah: This is a tough question. As all scientists will tell you, the effects of the oil spill are usually long term. Most oil spills cause various human and animal conditions such as cancer.
This is what‘s known as ‘sub-lethal doses’ – doses of the oil that doesn’t kill an animal but interferes with its ability to reproduce, or a range of other complicated organ failures.
The challenge was also that the oil spill severely disrupted our operations over the last two months. We had a sophisticated set of monitoring of birds’ nests and other scientific studies, which had to be paused by the oil spill. These are critical management tools for dealing with some of the rarest species on the planet.
It wasn’t just Ile aux Aigrettes. MWF had monitoring programs on all the outlying islands such as Ile Phare, Ilot Vacoas, Ile aux Fouquets and Ilot Marianne. Because the oil spill has surrounded these islands, we were only allowed back a handful of times to assess the damage and remove a few select reptiles, some of which have been sent to Jersey in the UK.
We are now building an ‘integrated monitoring plan’ for the island. With our years of experience working with these unique species, the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation has built a unique set of scientific knowledge and partnerships with leading scientists around the world. This scientific knowledge and international scientific partnerships make us uniquely positioned to understand the complex habitats and habits that these unique species need in order to thrive.
We don’t take this part of the science lightly.
Already, in the last few weeks alone since the oil spill we have seen some even more acute impacts as a direct result of the spill.
The disappearance of the ‘Île aux Aigrettes Cave Cricket’
The cricket species that has not yet been identified scientifically – but which we nicknamed the Île aux Aigrettes Cave Cricket – has almost disappeared.
It was prevalent in the cave of Ile aux Aigrettes, as well as the nooks and crannies of the island. But since the oil spill, we cannot see them. We know this species of cricket lived off the algae around the island. That algae is now drenched in oil.
The reason this spill is concerning is that several rare birds and reptiles, like the skinks, are highly dependent on insects like crickets for their diets.
So we are monitoring the situation closely and hope that the loss of some foundational species does not lead to a tipping point and a series of cascading collapses of other rare and critical biological populations.
Concern about rare seabird nesting sites and reptiles on outlying islands
It is not just Ile aux Aigrettes we are worried about, but South-Eastern islets that make up the Ile aux Fouquets (Ile au Phare) cluster around the lighthouse.
We are concerned about these islands as they were also on the front lines of the oil spill. We had species that evolved for hundreds of thousands of years. They were also important habitats for seabirds to have their nests.
It will probably take us many months and years to fully understand this oil’s impact on these native animals.
Although marine life is not our focus, we could see many native coastal and marine species to Mauritius drenched in oil and dying.
Then there was of course the tragic deaths of turtles and over 50 whale and dolphins in the coral lagoons of Mauritius throughout August.
We had to do a transport of our rare plants under emergency conditions.
Now, great care had to be taken to repot many of the plants that we had transported from Ile aux Aigrettes to ensure they could survive the journey.
This was the focus of our horticulture (rare plants) team.
Q7. What about marine species around the island in the lagoon?
Vikash Tatayah: MWF is a terrestrially focused organization (i.e., land-based animals and birds). However, we are desperately concerned to ensure a safe and vibrant ocean around us.
Many of the species we care for on Île aux Aigrettes depend on the ocean, such as low lying ebony and certain reptiles on southeast islets, like the Bouton’s Skink, dependent on species found in the tidal splash pools. Seabirds that we have been reintroducing on Ile aux Aigrettes and those that breed on other southeast islets also need a healthy marine environment to survive.
We have unique corals, turtles, whales, and dolphins in the region, and we are only just understanding how the health of our ocean impacts our planet’s health.
Blue Bay Marine Park is an internationally protected Ramsar Site and recognized for its exceptional underwater seascape and unique coral garden with high coral species diversity. According to Government reports, there are about 38 coral species representing 28 genera and 15 families and some 72 fish species have been recorded. There are individual species of coral, sponges, shellfish like crabs, lobsters, conches, cone snails, starfish, sea cucumbers, sea urchins and unique native algae. A Government report describes this area as having a vibrant coral reef community “with luxuriant coral growth of approximately 4 hectares and the only location where convoluted Montipora aequituberculata has been recorded. Dense growth of table corals, cactus corals, staghorn corals, and fire corals alternate and co-exist.” It is also the site of the Indian Ocean’s oldest brain coral, which I believe is over 1000 years old. It is a true global biodiversity hotspot, with many whales, dolphins, sharks and rays breeding just off the coast of Mauritius.
Pointe d’Esny mangrove forests contain many unique mangrove forests, insects and microbes not found anywhere else in the world. The Government describes the Pointe d’Esny wetland (21.5 Ha) as one of the rare and largest remaining wetlands of Mauritius situated in the South Eastern village of Mahebourg and was designated as Mauritius third Ramsar Site of International Importance on 16th of September 2011. The site is characterized as a natural coastal wetland supports a rich mangrove forests (Rhizophora mucronata and Bruguiera gymnorhiza mangrove species), the critically endangered Zornia vaughaniana plant, coastal fishes, crustacean, migratory and shore birds and provides local flood abatement functions. Pointe d’Esny Ramsar Site had been offering sustainable ecotourism services to local people and tourists.
With more biodiversity found in the ocean than on land, it is critical to be able to protect these resources. At Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, our focus has been on terrestrial, island ecosystems, but we fully recognize and see the need to have an equally big protection effort for Mauritius’ oceans too.
As part of the strategy to rehabilitate the lagoon, it is important to engage local and international experts in these fields. That is one of the important lessons for why the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation has been so successful in the restoration of species in Mauritius and Rodrigues.
Q8. What is your vision for the future for Mauritius’ endangered species?
Vikash Tatayah: Mauritius had been making significant progress in the past 30 years. Of the current 22 projects MWF was running with hundreds of plant and animal species, MWF had helped turn the trajectory and prevent the extinction of at least a hundred species, the most famous being the Mauritius Kestrel, Pink Pigeon, Echo Parakeet, Rodrigues Warbler, Rodrigues Fody, Round Island Petrel, Round Island boa, Ile aux Aigrettes ebony, cafe marron of Rodrigues, Rodrigues hibiscus, Grande Montagne cricket, to name just a few.
This oil spill was, by far, the most significant ecological disaster Mauritius has ever faced.
However, the vision for Mauritius was to make Ile aux Aigrettes the model for a new national biodiversity and conservation strategy that Mauritius Parks and Conservation Service was spearheading to join up several conservation corridors around the mainland and outlying islands of Mauritius. This project was called ‘Rays of Hope’ and was developed through the local authorities, with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation being an essential catalyst for this work.
We were the incubator to start launching and rewilding Mauritius with the species that thrived on the island for thousands of years.
For this strategy to work, we need five things:
1. Clearly earmarked conservation corridors across the island
This would enable species to travel and migrate through these safe zones. These conservation corridors need to be free from any pollution from industry and agriculture, and uncontrolled urban growth. These endangered species need a home beyond Ile aux Aigrettes. We planned a series of nature corridors around Mauritius to enable the reintroduced species to find safe refuges around the island.
2. Stronger protection of the network of mountain refuges
Mauritius’ mountains and highlands are all protected national parks. By ensuring strong protection, these become refuges for species to repopulate and bring back the unique life to these locations.
3. Stronger enforcement of anti-pollution regulation
There needs to be stronger laws and enforcement over what sorts of products are being used in Mauritius to reduce the impact to human and ecological health in Mauritius. Products such as fertilizers, pesticides, and even plastics need to be much more strictly monitored, and strong enforcement through a strong anti-pollution policy and legal framework would help.
4. Citizen science
Mauritians love nature. However, there needs to be a more effective program to educate and engage all Mauritians in why the sort of nature in Mauritius is so unique. Much of the literature in Mauritius is out of date and not as engaging. There is so much new technology that can really help bring Mauritius’ unique nature to life for a new generation of young Mauritians. This would also help address habitat destruction, littering, and ensuring a harmonious relationship in nature.
5. Strong private sector engagement
Just like around the world, there is a lot of talk about sustainability and biodiversity loss, but very little action. Only a handful of business leaders in Mauritius are truly engaged in this issue. Having a powerful Biodiversity Business Council of Mauritius that could champion actions that the private sector can take to restore biodiversity loss in Mauritius would be very powerful. It is the action of businesses and their leaders that could help Mauritius eradicate many of the invasive species that have been brought to the island. Industrial processes such as lax controls aviation and shipping have allowed such invasive species to undermine native Mauritian wildlife.
Restoring endangered species takes a lot of painstaking work and care.
Much of this work has been disrupted with the oil spill.
Coming out of this disaster, we hope there is a way for us to build back better and learn from the various expertise about where they feel such island nations could play such a role.
For more international media coverage of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation rescue in Ile aux Aigrettes, click below.