Click to read: Q&A with the Expert: Dr. Nik Cole

Q&A with the Expert: Dr. Nik Cole

Durrell’s Conservation Symposium in October brought together our field staff from the far reaches of Madagascar, Mauritius, the Caribbean, India and the Galapagos Islands. It was a very productive and inspiring couple of weeks, with staff learning from each other’s results, experiences and successes.

It was also the perfect opportunity for me to sit down with Dr. Nik Cole. He has been at the frontline of our conservation work in Mauritius since 2006.

In this edition of ‘Q&A with the Expert’, Nik tells us more about Durrell’s work in Mauritius.

Can you give us a bit of background?

In 2006 we established the Mauritius Reptile Recovery Programme with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and Government's National Parks and Conservation Service. This was the start of restoring reptile populations and reptile communities back on the islands.

Due to all the pressures and problems, particularly from invasive species, a lot of these unique specialised reptiles had become restricted to small islands and whole communities were fragmented as a result. Through Durrell’s work over the last 40 years in Mauritius, we’re removing some of the threats from the islands. That has given us the opportunity to start moving these threatened species back to where they used to occur.

It’s quite a long process because we need to lay down the building blocks for these communities. So you need the prey in place, and then the predators and then their predators - it’s about building it up block by block.

We’ve had great success with this within Mauritius particularly in some of the Northern islands that are protected by law so they’re closed to public access.

Can you tell us about some of those successes?

The main success has been on one of the Northern islands called Gunner’s Quoin, where we’ve reintroduced three highly threatened reptile species.

Through this work we’ve prevented the extinction of orange-tailed skinks.

​In the 1970s there were approximately 5,000 Telfair's skinks restricted to one island called Round Island. Removal of introduced herbivores allowed the population to recover, allowing us to translocate 250 of them onto Gunner’s Quoin.

We’ve been monitoring the population very intensively over the last nine years and we currently have more than 13,000 from the 250 that we released back in 2007, with approximately 45,000 now on Round Island.

So this has been a great success and it has allowed us now to move even more threatened predators of the Telfair's skink, the Round Island boa, from Round Island onto Gunner’s Quoin. And this is what I was saying about building up these steps, these gradual steps with restoring communities.

And what is lovely is that we’re seeing knock-on effects of our work on whole island ecosystems. We’re restoring functionality back to some of these islands as a result of the work that we do.

Switching gears for a moment. I’ve seen some beautiful videos you’ve taken of the Giant Aladabra tortoises. Can you tell us a bit more about them?

Unfortunately, Mauritian tortoises went extinct.

The Mascarene islands lost five giant tortoise species, two of which were from Mauritius.

The last one was found on Round Island in 1844. That’s the last record of any native tortoise within the Mascarenes itself.

So we’ve introduced analogue species – these are ecological replacements for the species that have been lost. Gradually we have been building up these herds of tortoises to come in and act as these analogues, these replacements for the species we’ve lost.

The Aldabra tortoises help us manage the island ecosystems and reinstate animal/plant interactions to create areas that would have been grazed and browsed by these giant herbivores in the past. By bringing in these similar interactions again, it’s helping us restore the diversity that was once there.

They seem quite friendly. Is that right?

Yeah, that’s right. Some are very friendly, especially the ones that have been donated to the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation from Sugar Estates within Mauritius.

Some have grown up on their own and have got a very strong bond with people and of course they want to have fuss, they want to have attention. So when we were on the island some of these individuals will follow us around, looking for that attention.

And that’s not attention in terms of ‘I want food’, it’s literally ‘I want a scratch’ or ‘I want a hug’.

What do you find rewarding about your work?

I think the really nice thing about working in Mauritius is working with Mauritians and seeing people develop.

For many, conservation is a completely new thing and to see them have a real interest in what we do and take ownership of their species that they’re trying to conserve is really rewarding.

It’s great to see them develop the skills they need to be able to help and save species from extinction.

The orange-tailed skink situation is a good example. That really emphasizes this sort of training and interest from Mauritians to be able to do this work.

What is it that drives you?

I got into this through reptiles. Ever since I was very small I’ve worked with reptiles. Of course reading Gerald Durrell’s books when I was younger and reading about Round Island made me even more interested. Now I can’t believe that I’m out there helping to manage this system!

So that’s very exciting for me and keeps me very driven. Predominantly it’s about reptiles. Trying to manage systems to support reptiles and then getting very interested in everything else from seabirds, to plants and invertebrates and everything that supports each other within that system.

That’s wht I find incredibly exciting and rewarding about my work.

A lot of people reading this will have an interest in pursuing a career in conservation. What would be your advice to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Never give up on the first hurdle. It’s not an easy job to get into. It relies on many disciplines and many different areas of expertise or knowledge. I’ve come in through a scientific approach.

But nobody teaches you how to survive out on little islands for up to a month at a time. So a part of it is just getting outside and learning as many skills as you can in terms of being a field biologist.

And learning and really knowing your species and just having as much knowledge as you can about the species that you work on. A lot of it is reading and getting hands on experience on being out there and working with these animals.  

Posted 21 October 2015

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