Travel: The wild side of Mauritis

A view of Mauritius from Ile aux Aigrettes
A view of Mauritius from Ile aux Aigrettes

It’s well known for its beautiful beaches but Mauritius also has an important conservation story

As I clamber off the boat on to Ile aux Aigrettes, I am stepping back in time.

Surrounded by pristine turquoise water, this tiny coral island off the southeast coast of Mauritius is home to some of the oldest species native to this remote paradise in the Indian Ocean.

The ill-fated dodo once roamed here, and now a team of dedicated conservationists is working hard to prevent more endangered flora and fauna from following in its footsteps.

Rare Giant Tortoises, bats and rodents are now thriving on this perfectly round islet, just 27 hectares in size, which wallows in the warm waters of Mahebourg Bay.

Shaded by resurgent ebony trees, once-threatened creatures, including the pink pigeon and Telfair’s skink, are multiplying in numbers, and tourists can now go to the island to catch a glimpse of them.

Most visitors to Mauritius are understandably drawn to its stunning beaches, luxurious accommodation and glorious weather, and many explore no further than the confines of their hotel. But this tropical utopia has so much to offer the more adventurous visitor.

Ile aux Aigrettes is a jewel in the crown of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF), who are rightly proud of their achievements.

Since 1987, the non-governmental organisation has been concentrating on returning the island to the “natural museum” of endemic species of animals and plants that it was before humans disturbed the delicate ecosystem more than 400 years ago.

I take an ecotour of the islet with a trained ranger, which lasts around two hours at a relaxed pace.

The walk is perfect for nature enthusiasts, birdwatchers and photographers of every level, with interesting things to be found with every twist and turn of the trail.

Within minutes, we encounter one of the island’s celebrities - an Aldabra giant tortoise affectionately called Big Daddy.

He is one of around 20 of the species here and he lives up to his name - he is huge, and unquestionably the boss of the community.

The MWF released 20 Aldabra tortoises on Ile aux Aigrettes in 2000, as part of ongoing restoration work on the island. By 2004, they were allowed to roam completely free.

The aim was that the tortoises would eat the ebony fruit and disperse the seeds around the island in their droppings, naturally encouraging growth of the rare trees.

The magnificent animals are also breeding on the island and tiny babies are regularly taken from Ile aux Aigrettes to the Gerald Durrell Endemic Wildlife Sanctuary (GDEWS) in the southwest region of Mauritius, where they are reared until their release back into the wild.

The MWF works closely with local and international partners - including Chester Zoo in the UK - with the long-term aim of recreating lost ecosystems by saving some of the rarest species from extinction and restoring the native forest.

They also work hard to raise awareness about conservation issues through their education programme.

As well as working on Ile aux Aigrettes, the MWF have projects on Round Island to the north of Mauritius, and Rodrigues, an island some 350 miles to the east.

I find the experience to be both fascinating and exhilarating, and it’s comforting to know that by visiting the island, I am contributing towards this special project.

The hotel where I am staying, The Residence, has a partnership with the MWF in which guests are able to make donations to the charity.

Regular tours are arranged, and it takes just 45 minutes to reach the coralline limestone haven.