The isolated islands in the Indian Ocean host some of the planet’s most precarious eco systems and since breaking off from Gondwana supercontinent 135 million years ago they have each developed interesting species of flora and fauna. DreamWorks 2005 film Madagascar did much to highlight the problems currently faced by the many varied and endangered species endemic to the islands due to habitat destruction and human interaction.
During your Fred Olsen Cruise, Boudicca will take you past the islands of Madagascar, Reunion and the Mauritius, it is important to know in advance what animals you will see, the best time to see them, and the great steps being taken towards conserving these species.
Since the arrival of humans over 2000 years ago, Madagascar has lost more than 90% of its original forest and an uncalculated amount of its unique native species. Acting as a trading hub in the Indian Ocean, the island of Madagascar was an important stop off that saw many cultures, artefacts and trades intermingle. Rich in natural resources, Madagascar is the world’s principal supplier of vanilla, cloves and ylang ylang.
Madagascar is famous for its lemurs, almost all of which are classified as rare, vulnerable or endangered. There are over a hundred known species and subspecies of lemurs found only on the islands of Madagascar. The rarest of these is the Silky Sifaka, none of which can be found in captivity. With no local taboo against eating these endangered primates, they are only found in Marojejy National Park and Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve.
Chameleons are found throughout Madagascar and two thirds of the world’s chameleon species can be found on Madagascar, including the world’s smallest chameleon known as Brookesia Micra, measuring at just 29mm (1.1inches). Panther chameleons are some of the brightest on the island and can measure up to half a metre. Panther chameleons from different areas of the island have a tendency towards different colours - those from Nosy Be, Ankify and Ambanja are typically vibrant blue, while Ambilove and Sambava are often red.
Aye-Ayes are lemurs with highly specialised middle fingers, setting them apart from their brethren. The largest nocturnal primate is renowned for its foraging technique which is known as percussive foraging and is only done by one other animal, the striped possum. One of the greatest threats to the Aye-Aye is their role culturally, as they are seen as harbinger of evil and a sign of death. Some believe the appearance of an Aye-Aye in a village predicts the death of a villager and the only way to prevent it is to kill the Aye-Aye. The Aye-Ayes are usually found in canopies on the Eastern coast of Madagascar.
Fossas were portrayed as the villains in the animated Madagascar film, however they are the largest mammalian carnivore on the island of Madagascar and therefore the biggest predators. Closely related to the mongoose, the fossa has cat-like features and is typically only found in forested areas. Hunting both day and night, the fossa’s diet consists mainly of lemurs, lizards and birds.
There are many other insects and amphibians endemic to Madagascar, some of which have been thoroughly explored and others of whom there is little known. Comet Moths are the largest species of wild silk moths. With wingspans up to 20cm they have long been prized by collectors, while Darwin’s Bark Spider has only recently been discovered to secrete the toughest biological material ever discovered. The largest known orb-weaving spider creates webs that are over ten times tougher than a similar sized piece of Kevlar.
For years there have been efforts to preserve Madagascar’s wildlife, beginning with the banning of slash and burn agriculture in 1881, which previously caused much destruction to the natural habitat of many species. According to WildMadagascar, corruption has been a source of many of the problems facing endangered animals on the island as a bribe may allow you to allow you to carry out prohibited actions with no remonstrations. However that time is now over: “This has all changed in the last couple of years with the push by president Ravalomanana to clean up business affairs and the legitimizing of SAPM (ANGAP) (Madagascar's national parks service) by giving it the power to enforce the law.”
Durrell is a company working towards conservation and preservation of many species in Madagascar and has had positive results since they arrived on the island in 1986. Through teaching and supporting the community, they are better able to aid the wildlife. They say, “Here more than anywhere we have developed a specific approach to conservation whereby we combine a species-led response to protect and restore key endemics such as the ploughshare tortoise, giant jumping rat and Alaotran gentle lemur, coupled with a community led conservation approach that aims to build capacity within rural villages to monitor and manage their natural resources by identifying areas for community-led protection. Changing human behaviours and actions intrinsically requires time, and therefore we have also made a long-term commitment to each of our field sites as we work through the different levels of community engagement and empowerment.”
This overseas French region was originally discovered by the Portuguese explorer Diogo Fernandes Pereira back in 1507, though the details of this are unclear. Since then it has experienced many name changes throughout the rise and fall of the French monarchy and the name ‘Reunion’ commemorates the revolutionaries of Marseille meeting the National Guard of Paris after the fall of the house of Bourbon.
Reunion Island is mainly known for its many native birds that are under threat from invasive species and islanders’ pet cats. The Reunion Cuckoo Shrike has an alarming population of just 50 adult birds that, though stable, could be wiped out in one local catastrophe and is therefore regarded as critically endangered. With only 16km² of reserve left, the species is only found on the North of the island.
The Reunion Grey White Eye population is thankfully in a better condition, though it is the only bird endemic to Reunion Island that has adapted to man-made conditions and thus managed to thrive. Initially thought to be a subspecies to the Mauritius Grey White Eye, it is now a separate species. The diminutive bird is less than 10cm long and is often spotted on the island as it is very noisy.
Other birds that are often spotted on the island are the Reunion Bulbul, smaller than the Mauritius counterpart and rare due to the recent introduction of the red-whiskered bulbul that is its main competitor for food and habitat. The Reunion Stonechat is common in open bushlands and clearings and easily spotted due to the male’s orange breast and white throat. Albatross are the largest seabirds that have been spotted off the Coast of Reunion Island where up to 6 different species have been recorded.
Reunion Island is the richest of the Mascarene Islands financially which has allowed it the luxury of ploughing resources into its conservation. This has been recognised by the National Park created in 2007 that covers 40% of the islands interior. The Botanic Garden Conservation International has been present on the island since 1986 and have put their efforts towards understanding and preserving the flora of Reunion. While achieving many of their aims since 1986 they have future goals to work towards including “the setting up a “Green List” of native and endemic plants for replanting on a wider scale in urban areas, as an alternative to the cultivation of potential or known invasive species, and in order to reduce pressure on plants in the wild.”
A Marine reserve was established around Reunion Island in order to preserve the coral reefs however this has caused controversy as many people continued to surf there and experienced a multitude of shark attacks. There was a call for culling the sharks, which was ignored until 2016 where after 16 attacks in four years led to the French Government allowing shark culling.
Widely known as the only home of the long-extinct Dodo, the people of Mauritius reflect their history by being multi ethnic, multi religious, multicultural and multilingual and are also the only country in Africa where Hinduism is the largest religion. The Dutch, French and British have all ruled Mauritius at different times though the island retains its motto ‘Stella Clavisque Maris Indici’, meaning ‘The star and key of the Indian Ocean’.
Dugong are often found off the coast of Mauritius and are the only strictly herbivorous marine mammal. Similar to a manatee, it is the only member left of a once diverse family of species, the most recent living relative was Stella’s Sea Cow that was hunted to extinction in the 18th Century. Dugongs can live for up to 70 years and are largely nomadic which makes assessing the population difficult. It is thought that the Dugong may be the source of many mermaid and siren myths.
The Mauritian flying fox is a large megabat species endemic to Mauritius. With a wingspan of up to 80cm it is the largest mammal endemic to the island. Though now extinct on Reunion Island, the flying fox is an important pollinator and seed distributer as their diet consists of mostly fruit and nectar. The population has been strongly affected by deforestation and hunting. The Rodrigues flying fox is also found on Mauritius though is far more endangered. Some bats have been caught and entered into zoo breeding programs in order to preserve the species.
The Echo Parakeet or Mauritian Parakeet is the last living parakeet species that is endemic to the Mascarene Islands as all others have become extinct since human inhabitation. Though currently endangered, in the early 1980s the parakeet was almost extinct with a mere 10 individuals left in the wild and a lack of breeding due to no appropriate trees and nest pillaging. Since then a team headed by Carl Jones has restored the population with up to 300 echo parakeets in the wild.
The Mauritius Kestrel is one of the best conservation stories across the globe. At one point the Mauritian Kestrel was the rarest bird with just 4 adult birds in the wild worldwide. This was due to huge amounts of deforestation as well as the use of DDT, a pesticide used to eradicate an epidemic of malaria that ravaged the island. Despite these low numbers, conservationists set out to stabilise the population by captive breeding, cross-fostering (where chicks from a large cluster are given to a parents with less chicks in order to give them more food and care), hand rearing and egg incubation, and there is now thought to be between 800-1000 individuals now living in the endemic forests of Mauritius.
According to the research paper by Carl G Jones titled The Restoration of the Mauritius Kestrel Falco Punctatus Population, “The distribution of suitable habitat suggests that an eventual population of 500-600 kestrels on Mauritius is possible. Due to its outstanding success the release programme for the Mauritius kestrel ended after the 1993-1994 breeding season, though the population will continue to be monitored carefully for at least the next five years.” Nine other species of bird have been brought back from the brink of extinction in this manner including the pink pigeon, echo parakeet and Mauritius fody and the professor responsible for it was awarded the 2016 Indianapolis Prize for his efforts.
Image credits: Samuel John, colin Houston, Flickker Photos, Lukas Von Daeniken, Dany13, Miwok, Bernard DUPONT, Kuhnmi, Milosk50