The natural history of Mauritius makes a strong case for conservation. After all, it’s an island where many native species have already become extinct, most notably the Dodo. Our principal reason for visiting was to learn about the nature conservation work being carried out.
It was, therefore, with a great deal of excitement that we learned of our special permission to visit the not-open-to-tourists parts of Frederica Nature Reserve in Bel Ombre – a conservation area and wilderness reserve for the island’s rare bird species.
Native Mauritian Birdlife
Anyone visiting Mauritius can, for a small fee, visit the public areas of Frederica Nature Reserve, but those staying at the Heritage Telfair and Heritage Awali hotels get the additional satisfaction of knowing that some of what they spend on their lodging goes toward the upkeep of the reserve, for it is all owned as one large estate. The hotel staff are very proud of their connection to the nature reserve and guests are encouraged to visit and learn more about the wildlife and conservation efforts on this part of the island.
When we visited the permit-only parts of the reserve, our guide was none other than Jean-Claude Sevathian, co-author of The Native Plants and Animals of Mauritius, a book we couldn’t wait to get our hands on. This identification guide was just what we were looking for as, although we were fairly knowledgeable about the bird life on the island, we were really struggling with identifying the trees.
Jean-Claude works for the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, for which, despite the beauty of the reserve, the ratio of non-indigenous to indigenous trees is still a great concern. The foundation is working hard to tip the balance in favour of the indigenous species through a massive eradication and re-planting programme.
As we were driven in a 4×4 from the visitor centre to the start of our trek, we discussed with Jean-Claude our quest to see four of the rarest bird species in the world: the Mauritius kestrel, the Mauritian olive white-eye (Zosterop), the Mauritius (aka echo) parakeet and the pink pigeon. He said he was happy to help us.
Walking up toward the wooded slope to the first conservation area, we saw our first rare species of the day, the Mauritian kestrel, in all its glory. Could spotting one of the world’s rarest birds really be this easy? When our driver later told us that he’d been working on the reserve for four years and this was his fourth sighting ever, we realised just how lucky we were.
Then, further along, as we were making our way up a hill to the preserve’s research station, a pink pigeon appeared to greet us! It wasn’t really that hard to spot, as it was sitting on a bird feeder right outside the conservation house. We took some great shots of the pigeon, then headed on past a nest box for kestrels and traps placed to catch the mongooses who threaten the nests of the parakeets and pigeons.
Jean-Claude asked us to wait while he walked ahead to an area where the echo parakeets are sometimes seen by the preserve’s conservationists. After only a few minutes, he beckoned us to join him.
Echo parakeets, Mauritius
What had he seen? Not one, but two echo parakeets – a pair in fact, canoodling at the start of their breeding season on a branch right above us. I watched, spellbound. We had seen three great rare birds in around 20 minutes, but these parakeets were the ones I had come to see.
Exploring the other corners of the preserve, we were rewarded with more sightings of rare bird species, such as the Zosterop. On foot we crisscrossed the river nine times, with Jean-Claude guiding us to see some rare black ebony trees and to learn about the tree conservation efforts. We also saw firsthand the number of termite nests whose inhabitants were wreaking havoc on the ebony and other trees, leaving them hollow and at the mercy of high winds.
Trees of the Eastern Coast
Moving on to the island’s lush eastern coast, we booked our stay at Anahita. This luxury resort has strong ecotourism credentials in the form of two impressive nature reserves: La Vallée de Ferney and Domaine de l’Etoile, both owned and maintained by the Deep River Beau Champ Sugar Estate.
We visited La Vallée de Ferney, where our guide, Sergio, flowed effortlessly between English and French – as almost all Mauritians seem to do – explaining to us (and the French couple on the walk) all about the island nation’s indigenous, endemic and invasive species.
Apparently, all of the Travellers’ Palms on the island came from just four specimens planted in the district of Pamplemousse (at the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanic Garden). They are now a a particularly troublesome invasive species that has become a major problem in all woods and forests.
Another invasive tree is the cinnamon tree, which was brought over for culinary use but didn’t serve its purpose well in the humid conditions, as the bark (which produces the cinnamon sticks) did not peel easily. The tree itself, however, thrived and has spread across large areas of the island.
Happily, the black ebony trees we saw on this walk were all termite free.
Sergio also showed us the areas that have been cleared of invasives, helping us to see what the forest would have looked like prior to the invasion of non-native species. In these areas we saw widely spaced indigenous and endemic tree species, their tall straight trunks supporting an almost impenetrable canopy strong enough to withstand a cyclone.
Local Island Wildlife
We began the next day, this one slightly more demanding, at Domaine de l’Etoile. Our visit started with a sumptuous Mauritian buffet in the restaurant, which is set in lush gardens. Visitors were then met by guides assigned to different modes of transport – quad biking, horse-riding or, in our case, on foot.
Before leaving the hotel grounds, our guide, Gerard, showed us some pygmy fruit bats way up in a tree. We knew we were going to be in for some good wildlife spotting.
The elevation changed gradually on our long but gentle through walk the spectacular panorama of the Domaine. The area is home to many deer and wild boar and there is game-hunting on the estate to manage the numbers of these non-native species.
Just as we were nearing the highest point of our walk, we spotted another Mauritian kestrel. This time, would we be able to get the all important photo we needed? It circled overhead and then soared off into the distance: “close but no cigar,” as they say.
We rounded the next bend, continually on the lookout for the bird’s return. Our patience was rewarded: there he was in a nearby tree! We managed a good five to 10 minutes’ viewing and got a few good pictures. As the kestrel flew away, we saw that the weather was taking a turn for the worse with rain headed our way. We made it to a shelter/lookout post just as the heavens opened.
An Eco-friendly Islet
Whilst staying at Anahita, we were also fortunate enough to visit the uninhabited island of Ile aux Aigrettes, where we were given a personalised tour to see the rare Mauritian Fody, which only lives on this tiny island. Not only did we manage to see – and photograph – it, but we saw the very rare Telfair’s skink.
Ile aux Aigrettes is also home to giant tortoises. The Mauritian giant tortoise is now extinct, so all the tortoises we saw were originally from the Seychelles. The tortoises play an important part in the ecology of the island; they graze on certain plants and help the seeds to germinate by passing them through their digestive systems. Exciting as it was to see some giant tortoises in the wild, the highlight of the visit for me was the close encounters I had with the colourful geckos.
So, if your idea of a holiday in Mauritius has been all about lying on a beach in the sunshine, think again! Mauritius is a dream destination for ecotourists. You can have some amazing wildlife encounters, learn about the island and know that you are helping to support local conservation efforts. But don’t take our word for it – go and see for yourself.
The original version of this post appeared on The Travel Word, a blog that showcases responsible, sustainable and local travel for WHL Group, one of the largest global online travel-booking networks catering to independent travelers headed off the beaten path, often in the developing world. WHL Group today taps into the strengths of local tourism experts who, alone, are local leaders, but together have become a forceful planet-wide presence for the right kind of tourism, bringing to major markets all the local opportunities that can have such a positive impact on hosts and visitors.