Madagascar, Mauritius & Round Island – Part 4 (Mauritius)


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I didn’t know what to expect from our time in Mauritius. Apart from visiting Vanilla Reptile Park and attempting to get to Round Island, we had no other plans. I considered that we had only three days to fill and there was plenty of fun on the menu already.

Like many of the islands of the Indian Ocean Mauritius was relatively unknown to tourism for a while. But now, like most of them it is considered the place to go for a bargain tropical paradise holiday. Much of the land there is given to sugar cane crops, as it has been since the 1700’s when French brought slaves from Africa to work in the cane fields. When slavery was abolished the gap was filled by imported Indian labourers whose descendants now comprise over two thirds of the population. (This is especially evident in the market places and by the food available from street vendors in any town there.)

The Mauritian ecology and environment are scrutinized closely by conservationists the world over since the infamous demise of the Dodo. Soon after humans landed on the island they had destroyed the bird’s forest home, introduced livestock and wiped out the Dodo population entirely. Mauritius was always going to be an interesting location, Round Island visit or not.

As the plane touched down and we stepped off into the heat I prepared myself for round two. First stop, Vanilla Reptile Park.

The first thing which struck me about Vanilla Park was its beauty. To say that it was stunning is an understatement. Even without the animals, the park is a fabulous natural spectacle of forests, palms, flowers, streams and mini waterfalls. The park was beautifully and densely planted in an almost textbook jungle fashion and I’m sure that any botanist would have been as enthralled as we herpers were. The short but heavy downpours of the rainy season only made to enhance the atmosphere as we walked through the dripping foliage. The rain had made the park lush and green and the streams and waterfalls were in full flow. We loved it.

Owen Griffiths, our host was to arrive on site within the hour, but we simply couldn’t wait to see what was inside. We set off through the park nodding appreciatively as we soaked up the ambiance. The park is essentially a collection of the reptiles past and present which occur on the Mascarene Islands, of which Mauritius is one. Owen later told us that he has included a few introduced species simply for the sake of variety, which would account for the iguanas and Panther Chameleons we found in the first bank of enclosures. One unexpected surprise was the Round Island Telfair Skink (Leiolopisma telfairi) we found in an enclosure near the entrance of the park. These are an highly endangered species found only on Round Island so as this was potentially the closest we would get, we made sure we took enough pictures, just in case. Although these skinks once had a much wider distribution (including the main island of Mauritius) they are now restricted to Round Island alone. Jersey Zoo is (again) very active in the conservation of these lizards and the collection of Telfairs is one of the highlights for herpers who go there. We felt very lucky to have seen one of these rare lizards in the flesh.

Nile crocs (Crocodylus niloticus) have always been a favourite of mine ever since I pushed my luck a little far with the ones Jim owned in Reptilandia. Here at Vanilla Park, Owen’s Niles breed like rabbits. We saw hundreds of them, all size graded and split into different enclosures. You can even buy Nile Crocodile Curry in the Park restaurant, although I personally opted to revert back to a vegetarian diet.

By the time we had finished with the crocs, Owen had arrived and took over as tour guide. After some introductions we were taken to see his collection of stunningly beautiful Radiated Tortoises (Geochelone radiate) which are also bred on site.

It did not take long for the conversation to get round to the subject of our Round Island visit. “I haven’t had a response to the emails I sent” said Owen, “and tomorrow is a public holiday so things aren’t looking good.”

Of course we were disappointed. We had been realistically skeptical of our chances, but had relished the idea of getting to the island since we set off. This was indeed a bad omen as we were only in Mauritius for three days and so there would be little time to chase the application.

“I can make a phone call when the offices are open again but I don’t fancy your chances. There haven’t been any non-scientists allowed onto the island for years” Owen explained. This concurred with what we had already found out; apparently the American Ambassador had been refused entry only recently. It seemed our chances were slimmer than we had originally thought.

Eager to boost our spirits, Owen took us to see what we had all been waiting for; his herd of Giant Aldabra Tortoises. (Geochelone gigantea) I didn’t really know what to expect as the only giant tortoises I had seen previously had yet to reach full size. I knew these were going to be big, but I had no idea of the size and number of animals I was about to see. As we entered the paddock where the herd was grazing, I had a really tough time getting a sense of perspective. Although the enclosure was enormous it was simply crawling with giant tortoises. There were dozens of them! All over the place! There were over a dozen of them drinking from a pool of water that had gathered around a tree. Underneath the raised timber walkway there were dozens more. Dotted around the paddock were more, and everywhere I looked there were more giant tortoises!

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Seeing one would have been fantastic, but this was just ridiculous. It turns out that Vanilla Park is home to over 170 Adult Giant Aldabra Tortoises and over 1000 tortoises in total making it the largest captive herd of tortoises in the world. With male Aldabras weighing in at around 250kg, that’s a lot of tortoise! The biggest, a large male called Domino was enormous, weighing in at over 273kg. Of course, I attempted to get a good photograph of the beast but try as we might we could not tempt him into a photogenic spot.

Owen’s Aldabra breeding is another seriously prolific project, turning out hundreds of babies each year. We were lucky enough to be able to peek behind the scenes where the young Aldabras are graded for size and housed off exhibit. It was mind boggling to see so many baby tortoises, particularly when those babies were as big as the adult Hermans tortoises I kept at home! I would have loved to have added a pair of these beauties to my collection but eventually resigned myself to the fact that I blatantly did not have the room.

That evening we planned our last two days in Mauritius. If we were to be denied access to Round Island we resigned ourselves to visiting Ile Aux Aigrettes, another Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust conservation project off the south east corner of Mauritius. Here we could meet some more giant Aldabra Tortoises and check out the famous Pink Pigeon. This island runs tourist tours from the mainland and employs guides who lead groups around the sights. Although we would have been happier if left to our own devices, it was a very interesting tour. It turns out that the aims of the project are very similar to that of Round Island and there are even plans to re-introduce the Telfair Skink and Ground Boa (Casarea dussumieri) to Ile Aux Aigrettes when they have succeeded in banishing the introduced rodent population. One of the success stories is that of the Pink Pigeon which has recovered from an all time population low of just 12 birds in1986 but is now approaching the 400 mark. On our tour around the greenhouse we saw Ornate Day Geckos (Phelsuma ornata) and stopped to take the obligatory photos of the Giant Aldabra Tortoise which blocked our path. The temperature was a ridiculously hot 38 degrees and some of our older tour members were starting to wilt! We made our way back to the visitor centre for a (warm) cola, not knowing that we would soon be frying in even hotter temperatures.

The rest of our day was spent exploring the exuberant Indian markets back on the mainland and eating the fabulous street food from the vendor carts. There was just time for a quick spot of snorkeling off the bay before we headed back to Owen’s house for dinner. As he opened the door he had a huge smile on his face. “You are very lucky people!” he grinned! “Round Island is on!”

Published: Reptile Care Magazine

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~ by Tony's Desk on March 17, 2009.

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