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Mauritius - Background information
For a small island which was uninhabited until the 1600s, Mauritius has a surprisingly rich history. The island was Dutch … then French … and finally British until the country’s independence in 1968. Each of the colonial powers brought their own slaves or indentured labourers and voluntary migration boosted the population. The delightful blend of cultures visible in Mauritius today is the product of that eventful past.
Nature reserves and conservation
Only fragments of Mauritius’s original forests, estimated at 1.3%, remain today, at Black River Gorges, Bel Ombre and the Bassin Blanc Crater. The palm savanna, which used to feature in drier areas, has been reduced to less than a hectare on the mainland. Today, Mauritian nature reserves and national park cover over 6,700ha. They are administered by the Forestry Service and the National Parks and Conservation Service (NPCS). Incidentally, the former director of the NPCS, Yousoof Mugroo, was the first overseas student to be trained by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT).
The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF, formerly the Mauritian Wildlife Appeal Fund) is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) which has the support of the NPCS. Founded in 1984, the MWF is concerned exclusively with conservation of endemic terrestrial wildlife in Mauritius and its territories, co-ordinating and administering projects aimed at preserving endemic species and ecosystem biodiversity. Much of its work has been done in the Black River Gorges National Park and on the offshore islands. Over the years, support has also been lent by many other international conservation organisations, including the Endangered Wildlife Trust of South Africa.
Endemic flora and fauna
There are 671 species of indigenous flowering plant recorded in Mauritius, of which 311 are endemic (Mauritius has eight endemic plant genera), and 150 are endemic to the Mascarene Islands. Of the indigenous plant species, 77 are classified as extinct and 235 as threatened.
Widespread habitat destruction has rendered many endemic plants extremely rare: some species are now down to just one or two specimens. Indigenous species, which are shared with Réunion and/or Rodrigues, have stood a better chance of survival. However, as on Réunion and Rodrigues, most of the flora you’ll see on Mauritius is of introduced species.
As well as having a lot of endemic flora, Mauritius is riddled with invasive alien plants, such as the frangipani © Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority
There are 89 species of orchid found in Mauritius. Of those, 94% are endemic to the Mascarenes/Madagascar region. Nine species are endemic to Mauritius only. Certain orchids, like Oeniella polystachys and Angraecum eburneum, have become rare, so attempts are being made to conserve them on Ile aux Aigrettes, where they can be seen in the wild.
Seven species of palm are endemic to Mauritius. Most of these are in cultivation because in the wild they are all gravely threatened. Two palms – Hyophorbe amaricaulis and Dyctosperma album var. conjugatum – are down to a single wild individual each. The latter, which is sought-after for heart-of-palm salad, has been cultivated successfully by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) as part of a project to rescue all endangered flora. However, the species Hyophorbe amaricaulis appears to be doomed.
The sole surviving endemic mammal is the striking Mauritius fruit bat (Pteropus niger), which still exists in fair numbers. Like its endangered cousin, the Rodrigues fruit bat (P. rodericensis), the much darker Mauritius fruit bat roosts in large trees by day and forages for fruit and flowers at night. These fruit bats belong to a predominantly Asian genus also present in Madagascar and the Comoros, where they reach their westernmost limit. A third Mascarene fruit bat, Pteropus subniger, is sadly extinct. To see fruit bats, go to Black River Gorges, the Moka Mountains, Savannah or the Grand Port Mountains.
With a population of almost 1.3 million, you would expect Mauritius to feel crowded, but it doesn’t. Although the main towns are frequently teeming with pedestrians and the roads jammed with cars, deserted areas of beach and forest are easy to find.
Each of Mauritius’s ethnic groups and religions brings its own unique qualities to the island’s rich and varied culture. An exciting variety of cuisine, musical styles and languages are a part of everyday life.
Mauritians grow up with music and dancing playing an important role in their lives: at family gatherings, festivals and celebrations. Ubiquitous is the séga (pronounced ‘say-ga’), which evolved from the spontaneous dances of African and Malagasy slaves. At night, after a day’s toiling in the cane fields, slaves used improvised instruments to create a primitive music to which they could dance and forget their woes. At times, this meant defying their masters’ prohibition of music and dancing, which aimed to sever the slaves from their African and Malagasy roots. Songs were often about the slaves’ plight and were highly critical of their masters. Girls danced to songs composed and sung by their admirers while the spectators encouraged them with hand clapping, foot stomping and chanting. The more impassioned the lyrics, the more heated the music and the more tempestuous the dancing.
Creole architecture can be appreciated both in small, simple dwellings and in grand colonial mansions, such as Eureka and Château de Labourdonnais. A charming characteristic feature of such buildings is the carved wooden or metal fringes that decorate the roof, the lambrequin. Sadly, examples of colonial architecture, such as Government House in Port Louis, are sometimes overwhelmed by the modern monstrosities erected next to them.