Click to read: Hello from Mauritius!

Hello from Mauritius!

Greetings Durrell community! My name is Rachael Derbyshire and I am a current participant in the Post-Graduate Diploma in Endangered Species Recovery offered by the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology and validated by the University of Kent. This opportunity is made possible by Canada’s New Noah scholarship program funded through Wildlife Preservation Canada, a sister organization to Durrell that sends one Canadian conservationist to Mauritius each year to build conservation capacity through work with some of the world’s most successful conservation programs.

I am currently around 5 months into the 6.5-month program, and I have had an amazing and enriching experience so far. Through work with snakes, seabirds, tortoises, parakeets, pigeons, and even plants, I have been developing practical hands-on techniques for conservation. Classroom modules have also helped me to develop a deeper understanding of theoretical considerations in conservation. If you would like to learn more about my experiences so far, check out my Wildlife Preservation Canada blog.

My most recent field placement was on Round Island, a small (1.69 km2) islet off the northern coast of mainland Mauritius. It was built from volcano ash 250,000 – 100,000 years ago, and its rocky cliff faces together with the seas surrounding it make Round a difficult place to access. This inaccessibility has been to its advantage: mammalian predators such as rats and cats have never established on the island. Consequently, many species that were driven to extinction almost everywhere else in Mauritius managed to continue their existence on Round, and the island became a type of ‘final stronghold’ for numerous endemic species (those that exist in one region but nowhere else; in this case, Mauritius). After the establishment of a closed nature reserve on the island by Mauritius Wildlife Foundation and National Parks and Conservation Service, Round became the perfect place for ecosystems to be rehabilitated and species to be recovered.

(My fellow students and two Round Island wardens check out the crater on a blustery but beautiful day)

To achieve an overall goal of ecosystem restoration on the island, several ongoing projects focus on an array of taxa including plants, reptiles, and birds. I was lucky to work with all of these taxa and learned some new field skills in the process. While on Round, I was involved in two surveys for Round Island boas, Mauritius’ only extant native (and endemic) snake. They emerge at night, and bi-weekly night time surveys in plots around the island help inform managers how large the population is, the age and sex structure of the population, and provide various other data including information on behaviour. On our two boa surveys we were very lucky to find two adult snakes. Having never been involved with snake research, many aspects of this project were new to me, including using a scanner to check for a PIT tag (a tiny inserted electromagnetic tag that provides a unique identifier for each snake). Assisting with the surveys allowed me to develop new skills working with a taxon I have never worked with before, and it was heaps of fun too!

(On our first boa survey we found a large adult female (left). The next day with Jo (Round Island warden; right), I used a special scanner to double-check for an existing PIT tag before we inserted a new one.)

Birds are a taxon I have much more experience with, but I have never before worked with seabirds. While on Round, I was lucky to be involved in a survey of nesting red-tailed tropicbirds. This survey is done monthly to get an estimate of seabird numbers, nesting patterns, and an idea of which individuals are returning to the island to nest. I had the opportunity to capture and handle adult birds, which was quite different to the generally small passerines I have handled in the past! The colonies of seabirds nesting along ocean-facing slopes were a beautiful sight and working along the island’s shores while searching for seabird nests was a fantastic experience.

(Seabird survey! Adults are captured and given a leg band with a unique ID number if they don’t already have one.)

I feel very privileged to have visited Round as one of my last field placements here in Mauritius. The process of getting there is a little difficult: it involves quarantine procedures, an interview, a motion sickness-inducing boat ride, and an assisted jump off the boat onto the only flat rock along the coast. However, the rewards for the student, biologist, and conservationist are outstanding, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity.

Posted 24 August 2017

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