Photo credit: Tim Parkinson
The Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, with its sun, sand and exotic French-Creole culture, makes it a hugely popular holiday destination. But there’s something very special behind the obvious that makes this island highly significant in the world of wildlife preservation, and it’s all because of an eccentric Welshman named Carl Jones and his Mauritius conservation initiatives.
Carl Jones is as unconventional now as when I met him 20 years ago, upon my arrival in Mauritius for a stint as a volunteer for Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF). A distinctive Welsh lilt gives away his roots, but it’s Mauritius conservation where Prof. Carl Jones (MBE) has shaped a new direction for the future of endangered species over the last 30 years.
Saving Species from the Edge of Extinction
Jones’ boyish optimism, irreverent sense of humour and refusal to accept defeat are characteristics that enabled him to see a future for some of the world’s most highly endangered creatures. A born naturalist with an uncanny ability to rear kestrel chicks in his back garden in Wales, he arrived in Mauritius to the knowledge that only a handful of Mauritius kestrels were left in the wild. Jones collected the eggs and reared the precious young in captivity. In the space of a decade, he had reared 333 Mauritius kestrels and had personally reversed what many had thought to be a species heading for extinction. Jones is also attributed with having saved over a dozen plants and animals from extinction thanks to his Mauritius conservation efforts. That’s quite some legacy.
Dr Jones & Raiders of the Lost Park
Most of the Mauritius kestrels were released back into the wild, but therein lay another problem – by the late 1970s Mauritius had lost over 95% of its biodiversity and the remaining forests had been invaded by exotic plants like highly invasive guava. These had grown into dense, impenetrable stands preventing native species from growing. The loss of habitat reached a critical point and some of the world’s rarest birds, reptiles and plants were under threat. Jones remembers how people said, “you can’t possibly restore a whole forest,” but he knew the power of small steps. Teams, like the one I was in, started rehabilitating small plots and today, exactly 20 years later, some of the forests in Black River Gorges National Park have been restored and are bursting with life. Take a walk there and you’ll see Mauritius kestrels, pink pigeons and pretty green echo parakeets, all brought back from the edge of disaster by Dr Jones and his Mauritius conservation programmes.
Jones is tackling the issue of Mauritius conservation in surrounding islands too, which without intervention, would have become overrun with invasive plants and animals or reduced to rock through introduced animals like rabbits. I was sent to Round Island – a desolate shiny dome of rock 22.5 km off the north coast of Mauritius with small groves of rare palms clinging to the remaining soil and highly curious lizards and seabirds who had no fear of humans. We were seeking the burrowing boa – last seen in 1975. We never found it, and it remains to this day listed as ‘presumed extinct’.
Ile aux Aigrettes – Paradise Island Back from the Brink
Photo credits: Antoine Debroye
A happier outcome of Mauritius conservation is Ile aux Aigrettes – a small (27 ha) island nature reserve about 850 metres off the south-east coast of Mauritius in Mahebourg Bay. Like much of Mauritius, Ile aux Aigrettes was affected by logging, land clearance and the introduction of exotic animals and plants. This combination almost entirely destroyed the native fauna and flora and last remnants of dry coastal forest once found around most of Mauritius. Declared a nature reserve in 1965, Ile aux Aigrette’s forest was restored and rare species reintroduced as a result of intense conservation efforts, and Jones was involved of course.
Get to the island via a short boat trip from Pointe Jerome and take the two-hour guided walking tour with the trained eco-ranger who can tell you all about Mauritius conservation efforts. Look out for the bronze life-size dodo hiding in the undergrowth of the ebony forest, serving as a reminder of what has been lost for all eternity. But look around and you’ll witness some of the unique flora and fauna that managed to survive against all odds; pink pigeons, Mauritius fodies and Mauritius olive white-eyes, giant tortoises, iridescent ornate day geckoes, Guenther’s geckos and Telfair’s skinks. There are more bronzes in the museum and some lovely souvenirs in the shop.
Laid Back Rodrigues
Photo credits: Giorgio Minguzzi
Another island with numerous Mauritius conservation projects is Rodrigues – a little over 600 km east of Mauritius. This unique petite island – 108 km² in size with a population of around 35,000 – is a beautiful destination for a truly relaxed holiday. It lacks the sophistication and resort-filled coastline of Mauritius and takes laid back to new heights. They are busy promoting tourism, but for now island life in Rodrigues focuses on fishing, farming and handicrafts – especially anything made of straw, such as the straw hat you are given on arrival.
Rodrigues seems unspoiled when compared to Mauritius, but has experienced its own degradation of habitat and species and this is where Carl Jones stepped in. He continued a project to preserve the Rodrigues fruit bat – a harmless giant bat in true Batman style. In the 1970s, numbers dwindled to less than 100 individuals but they have recovered to around 20,000, largely as a result of increased forest cover. One of my jobs in 1994 was to count them as they exited their roost – that’s how few there were! Such is the importance of this species that a 2012 global poll in the 7 Wonders campaign by the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) – to raise awareness of the plight of species found only at one remaining site – voted Rodrigues Fruit Bat Number 1 out of 587 global sites. The IUCN status of the Rodrigues fruit bat is still ‘critically endangered’.
“He’s done miracles”
Dr Jones’ work in Mauritius conservation, bringing back species from the brink of extinction has been enough to win him great recognition. Most recently he was a finalist in the 2014 Indianapolis Prize, the world’s leading award for animal conservation, honouring individuals who have made extraordinary contributions. Jones’ tireless work is admired at home too and Kailash Ruhee, Chief of Staff of the Mauritius Prime Minister, said, “What Carl Jones has done in Mauritius is really a miracle.”
Next time you choose Mauritius for a sun-soaked holiday, go Barefoot Chic on the east coast of Mauritius at Lux Belle Mare and One & Only Le Saint Geran. It’s a tropical paradise where the sands are powdery white, the water is warm and crystal clear and the palm trees sway in the gentle breeze. But take a little time out from these stunning resorts and head south to Ile aux Aigrettes or west to Black River Gorges Visitor Centre and witness Mauritius conservation in action, and the ways in which one resolute man has made a world of difference to the wildlife and plants that make this Indian Ocean Island unique.
Planning Your Trip
Mauritius has the perfect climate. Minimum temperatures only get down to about 18°C with a maximum hovering around 31°C. The sea is a lovely 27°C in summer (Nov-Apr), dropping to about 22°C in winter (June-Aug). It has summer rainfall (Dec-Mar) when it can become a little hot and steamy, with most rain falling in the south and east. Cyclones are possible anytime between December-April.