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Mauritius oil spill

Oil spill in Mauritius may thwart years of conservation efforts

The Ile aux Aigrettes nature reserve, home to rare species, is only two kilometres away from the Wakashio ship leaking oil in Mauritius' lagoons.
The Ile aux Aigrettes nature reserve, home to rare species, is only two kilometres away from the Wakashio ship leaking oil in Mauritius' lagoons. © Government of Mauritius

Conservationists in Mauritius are navigating unchartered territory as they struggle to assess the damage from the Wakashio oil spill in one of the island's most ecologically sensitive areas. All efforts have been deployed to protect the fragile ecosystem, which has existed for millions of years.

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“Even in my worst of nightmares, I would never have thought something like that could happen to us,” says Dr Vikash Tatayah, conservation director of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF).

“We are used to cyclones, droughts or an invasive species, it’s part of nature and we know how to cope with that. But we never thought we would have to face an oil spill.”

The Japanese-owned Panama-flagged Wakashio ship ran into Pointe d’Esny’s coral reef barrier, south-east of Mauritius, on 25 July within a few kilometres of various protected sites.

The preliminary investigation in Mauritius indicates that the captain of the ship, Sunil Kumar Nandeshwar, was celebrating a birthday party with his crew as the ship head off-course towards Pointe d’Esny – which explains why the Mauritian National Coast Guard's emergency calls received no response from the Wakashio.

The freighter ran aground two kilometres from the Ile aux Aigrettes nature reserve, home to many unique plant, bird and reptile species. Just north lie four islets, Ilôt Fouquets, Ile de la Passe, Ilôt Vacoas and Ilôt Marianne, part of national parks and nature reserves.

Wakashio started leaking oil on 6 August near two UNESCO Ramsar sites of international importance: Blue Bay marine park and Pointe d’Esny wetlands, which provide habitat to rare plants and animals and are crucial for the preservation of the ecosystem.

Oil washed ashore at Ile aux Aigrettes, Ilôt Phare and Ilôt Vacoas. The government said Ile aux Aigrettes had been successfully cleared.

Lost conservation efforts

Tatayah tells RFI it will take years to recover. The MWF has already started moving the more vulnerable plants and animals from the islets to a safer location on mainland Mauritius.

“Some endangered species or plants might face greater risk of extinction. We’re looking at years of conservation work which are going to be lost,” Tatayah said.

Clean up operation off the coast of lle aux Aigrettes nature reserve. The authorities said that there is "little to no amount of oil" found trapped by the booms around the islet.
Clean up operation off the coast of lle aux Aigrettes nature reserve. The authorities said that there is "little to no amount of oil" found trapped by the booms around the islet. © Government of Mauritius

The Wakashio was transporting over 4,000 tonnes of oil. Most of it has been pumped out of the ship.

Eight hundred tonnes of oil leaked in the southeastern lagoons and around 700 tonnes have been retrieved from the sea and coastline.

“We avoided what could have been an irreparable disaster but still 800 metric tonnes of oil leaked into our lagoon,” the conservationist adds.

“It is an immense stress on our environment. We are used to restoration of habitat, we’ve been doing this for 40 years. But we’ve never done 'depollution'," he says.

These lowland coastal forests are unique to 10,000-year-old Ile aux Aigrettes.
These lowland coastal forests are unique to 10,000-year-old Ile aux Aigrettes. © The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation

He fears that as plants absorb polluted water through their roots, the toxic chemicals may lead to the extinction of some species.

“The pollutants are now also to be found in insects, the food for our birds and reptiles. We have no idea how this will affect the whole food chain."

Unchartered territory

The Ile aux Aigrettes islet lies some 850 metres off the coast of Mauritius. It became a nature reserve in 1965 and the MWF initiated conservation efforts in 1985 to protect some of the rarest species in the world.

The critically endangered Mauritius Olive white-eye , a small songbird, has been successfully reintroduced in Ile aux Aigrettes.
The critically endangered Mauritius Olive white-eye , a small songbird, has been successfully reintroduced in Ile aux Aigrettes. © Jacques de Spéville

“Even if the bulk of the rescue mission on the south-eastern islets is over, we do have to regularly monitor the fauna and flora because of the damage caused by the oil spill,” says Tatayah, admitting that he does not know what the long term effects may be.

“But because the air is still full of petroleum vapour, we are currently only spending a few hours on Ile aux Aigrettes, wearing protective equipment, while we used to spend the whole day and even stay there.”

Birds sanctuary

The 26-hectare Ile aux Aigrettes is home to some 500 birds, as well very rare plants and reptiles.

The vulnerable Pink Pigeon The Pink Pigeon, unique to Mauritius, has been restored from near extinction in 1990 to now reach a population of over 400.
The vulnerable Pink Pigeon The Pink Pigeon, unique to Mauritius, has been restored from near extinction in 1990 to now reach a population of over 400. © Jacques de Spéville

The Pink Pigeon, unique to Mauritius, has been restored from near extinction in 1990 with a population of only nine birds. There are now over 400 of them with 20 on lle aux Aigrettes.

The small songbirds Mauritius Fody or Cardinal and the critically endangered Mauritius Olive white-eye have also been successfully reintroduced to the islet.

The Mauritius Fody, or Cardinal, is endemic to Mauritius. Conservation efforts managed to help it downgrade from critically endangered to endangered in 2009.
The Mauritius Fody, or Cardinal, is endemic to Mauritius. Conservation efforts managed to help it downgrade from critically endangered to endangered in 2009. © Yahia Nazroo

The MWF team rescued 12 Mauritius Olive white-eye and six Mauritius Fody from the islet and moved them, in captivity, to Black River.

The south-eastern islets are the nesting place of seabirds. On Ile au Phare, the paille-en-queue or white-tailed tropicbird nests on its lighthouse.

The south-eastern islets of Mauritius are the nesting place of seabirds, such as the paille-en-queue or white-tailed tropicbird.
The south-eastern islets of Mauritius are the nesting place of seabirds, such as the paille-en-queue or white-tailed tropicbird. © Yahia Nazroo

“If we do not manage to clean up in the next few months, there will be an increasing risks for those seabirds to get oiled because as Mauritius moves into summer, it corresponds with their breeding season,” Tatayah explained.

There is also the added problem for seabirds to find food which has not been contaminated.

Unique native plants

There are hundreds of thousands of native plants on Ile aux Aigrettes, including 40 endemic plant species.

One of them is the Ile aux Aigrettes Ebony (Diospyros egrettarum). It is one of the 12 Ebony species unique to Mauritius which are only found in lowland forests. Prior to the arrival of humans, Mauritius was covered with Ebony forests. Today, less than two per cent remains.

The Ile aux Aigrettes Ebony is one of the 12 Ebony species, unique to Mauritius, which are only found in lowland forests.
The Ile aux Aigrettes Ebony is one of the 12 Ebony species, unique to Mauritius, which are only found in lowland forests. © Jacques de Spéville

Mauritius’ endemic lowland coastal forests, which were originally millions of years old, have been completely eradicated by man from the coastline of the mainland. These unique plants are now only to be found on the 10,000-year-old Ile aux Aigrettes where it has been preserved from destruction.

MWF removed the plants from its nursery to the mainland.

Reptiles’ paradise

Some reptiles, endemic to Mauritius and extinct on the mainland, live on a few surrounding islets.

The Telfair's skink and Günther’s gecko, which used to be found only on Round Island, were reintroduced to Ile aux Aigrettes over a decade ago.

Telfair's skink, which used to be found only on Round Island, was reintroduced to Ile aux Aigrettes between 2006 and 2010.
Telfair's skink, which used to be found only on Round Island, was reintroduced to Ile aux Aigrettes between 2006 and 2010. © Nik Cole

Ilôt Vacoas, Ile de la Passe, Ilôt Marianne and Ile aux Fouquets have remnant reptile populations of Bojer’s skink, Bouton’s skink and the Night gecko.

“The idea was to ensure that the reptile population from Ilôt Vacoas was translocated to the other islets. This process is working really well,” Tatayah declared.

The rescue mission underway involved moving some of the reptiles, like the Bojer’s skink, to Mauritius for the time being and then to UK for safety.

The critically endangered Bojer’s skink is unique to Mauritius. Some species were transported to the mainland because of the oil spill.
The critically endangered Bojer’s skink is unique to Mauritius. Some species were transported to the mainland because of the oil spill. © Nik Cole

The Night gecko and the critically endangered Bojer’s skink are unique to Mauritius and are currently to be found among the south-eastern islets. Having been separated from the northern population on Round Island and Gunner’s Quoin several thousands of years ago, they now present a unique genetic makeup.

Geckos are very important for pollination and insect control of invertebrates.

Aldabra tortoises

As the tortoises endemic to Mauritius went extinct in 1844, Aldabra giant tortoises from the Seychelles were brought in 2001 to Ile aux Aigrettes because they are the genetically closest to the Mauritian species, and could fulfil the same essential functions within the ecosystem of the island.

Aldabra giant tortoises from the Seychelles were brought to Ile aux Aigrettes in 2001. Tortoises endemic to Mauritius were extinct in 1844.
Aldabra giant tortoises from the Seychelles were brought to Ile aux Aigrettes in 2001. Tortoises endemic to Mauritius were extinct in 1844. © Yahia Nazroo

The smaller ones have been moved to mainland Mauritius as part of the rescue mission.

Ecotourism

The activities on Ile aux Aigrettes have almost grounded to a halt because of the oil spill.

Tatayah believes it will be several weeks before MWF could consider reopening the island to the public.

“We were planning to receive 18 thousand people this year through our eco-tourism and education tours,” he said.

“The oil spill and Covid-19 have severely slashed funds needed to finance our conservation work.”

The 25 cm long Günther's gecko is found on two islets off the coast of Mauritius: Round Island and Ile aux Aigrettes.
The 25 cm long Günther's gecko is found on two islets off the coast of Mauritius: Round Island and Ile aux Aigrettes. © Jacques de Spéville

The foundation has been receiving donations, in response to the oil spill, from various platforms. The conservationist admits facing an immense task ahead to recover from the oil spill disaster.

“I sometimes want to cry but, in our business, we cannot just give up,” said Tatayah. “The cost of this shipwreck for our society, our environment is immense.”

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