Click to read: Treasured Islands

Treasured Islands

Our work spans multiple islands worldwide. You will find Durrell projects and people stretching across the globe from Floreana in the Galapagos Islands, to Montserrat and St Lucia in the Caribbean, to the ‘Great Red Island’ of Madagascar and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean and Sumatra in South East Asia. Most importantly, we are headquartered on an island, Jersey, and therefore the rhythm of islands is in our blood. We are undoubtedly island people.

Islands are special as they are home to some of the world’s rarest species which are often found nowhere else on Earth, and they face amplified threats. Invasive species, in particular, can wreak havoc. They are more adaptable than island species and often lack predators and natural competitors, adversely impacting unique ecosystems that evolved delicate balances in isolation. We are attracted towards working on islands because given enough resources and time, we know we can avert loss where we know that unique species need help. Perhaps a little of the romance of islands seeps into our decision making too. We cross water, deep unfathomable oceans, to reach them, isolated from the world. P.D. James once wrote, ‘every island to a child is a treasure island’, and for us, that means the treasures of nature.

In 2018, I was fortunate enough to travel to Mauritius and its offshore islands to see first-hand the work being carried out by our team, and partner organisations. We arrived Monday morning, somewhat bleary-eyed from our overnight flight, straight into a meeting with our long-term partners, the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF). We cemented the firm partnership that exists by discussing our collaborations, strategy, and what we wanted to do next in terms of preserving the biodiversity of Mauritius. 

For Durrell, partnerships are essential – we cannot carry out our work without the collaboration between committed and passionate partners worldwide, and Mauritius is no different. 

Alongside MWF, we work closely with the government of Mauritius and specifically the National Parks and Conservation Service (NPCS) to advance nature conservation, specifically endangered species recovery.  

Day two of our trip involved more meetings to discuss details of programmes, including pink pigeon conservation, seabird and reptile restorations, training and capacity building for conservation in the Indian Ocean. As productive and vital as those meetings were, we were, of course, itching to get out to the field sites. Our schedule was altered at short notice as the fleet of helicopters on the island were temporarily grounded. Our first stop to Round Island, which would have taken about 15 minutes by helicopter, was now to be made by a 1.5 hour long boat ride courtesy of the National Coastguard. The evening before our trip to Round Island, Dr Nik Cole, who heads up Durrell’s work on Mauritius, carefully took us through the ‘quarantine barrel’ process. Anything you want to bring onto Round Island must be thoroughly inspected so that no seeds of invasive plants or small animals could hitchhike on our field gear. Once checked it was placed inside a sealed barrel and would not be opened again until inside a sealed room at the field station on Round Island, where the checking process would take place again. This may seem over the top, but such is the fragility of island systems, and invasive plants continue to be a risk for the Round Island plant community. 

On the morning of day three, we skimmed over a glorious and calm Indian Ocean, passing the other northern offshore islands of Gunner’s Quoin, Flat Island and Pigeon Rock. Soon the dome of Round Island came into view and the slightly precarious task of actually getting onto the island became obvious. Despite the sea being relatively calm, there was still a significant rise and swell as the boat tried to hover near the landing rock - simply a flat rock, slippery from seaweed and spray with some ropes attached - which we had to leap onto from the boat. The procedure was carried out with military precision; the team coming onto the island go first. You perch on the edge of the rising and falling boat, in your socks (no bare feet, no shoes – socks for grip) with Nik holding you by your life jacket. A member of the team already on island waits on the rock, holding onto a rope. At an opportune moment, as the boat rises to meet the land, you go for it, simultaneously pushed by Nik, grabbed by the land crew and pulled ashore, avoiding the twin fates of either face planting the rock and/or ending up in the water between the rock and boat. We all successfully got on land, transferred our barrels, and the outgoing team jumped onto the boat with their barrels. All accomplished in very short order. Just when we thought it was over, we were then faced with the strenuous task of strapping the barrels to our back and hauling them to the field station up a cliff face! Fieldwork is not for the faint-hearted…

We stayed on Round Island for two fantastic days and nights, seeing the progress that had been made in restoring the native vegetation and the endemic reptile communities. Walking across the island in the scorching heat, we occasionally sat to watch the translocated giant Aldabra tortoises happily munching away, acting as living, breathing engineers of the environment. Much work is still to be done, but it was heartening to see what had once been a barren rock now slowly emerging back into a functioning ecosystem, one that is teaching us something about island rewilding every single day.

After safely getting back onto the boat and heading back to the mainland, it was time for a quick shower before heading off to meet the Minister of the Environment and restating our commitment to conservation on the islands. Saturday was a wonderful day visiting the islands of the south, and exploring the reptile communities there, currently under threat from invasive species and habitat loss. Before I left on the Sunday evening, we also had the opportunity to head into the interior of Mauritius to visit the Black River Gorge National Park and see pink pigeons flying in the wild. In the future, we hope that more individuals bred at the zoo in Jersey can be returned to the lush, green mountains of Mauritius.

Though all too short a visit, I am indebted to the hospitality of all our colleagues in Mauritius, particularly Nik Cole, who hosted us so well. It was an inspiring, exhilarating and sometimes poignant visit to a remarkable set of islands where we know conservation can work. Sitting on a rock, watching the seabirds swirling and calling above us, whiskey in hand, as the sun set on Round Island, talking about life, the universe, and everything, will stay in my memory for a long time to come.

Posted 11 March 2020

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