Paradise Found and Lost
Imagine the relief of European sailors in the 1600s when they glimpsed the high volcanic profiles of Mauritius and Réunion Islands or the low, gentle hills of Rodrigues Island rising out of the vast Indian Ocean. The dense green forest and palm savanna of Mauritius was a tropical paradise, with soaring ebony trees draped in lush lianas, orchids, and vines. Fresh food was abundant, especially in the form of the dodo, a large, flightless bird the size of a turkey that showed no fear of humans. Today, tourists flocking to the gorgeous beaches of Mauritius every year find a very different tropical paradise. While small patches of the original habitat remain, the most common plant is sugar cane, which grows on vast plantations that cover 90 percent of the cultivable land. There are no dodos, for they became extinct in 1662 as a result of overhunting, habitat destruction, and introduced animals such as goats, which trampled their ground nests. Throughout this ecoregion, the only native vegetation that remains is in small, protected areas or inaccessible places that cannot be used for agriculture. Most of the remaining natural habitat in the Mascarenes lies in the island of Réunion, whose steep volcanic sides have protected it from intrusion by humans. Some endemic species persist, such as the echo parakeet and the pink pigeon of Mauritius, as well as Papilio manlius and Papilio phorbanta--butterflies that are endemic to Mauritius and Réunion, respectively.
The Mascarenes are famous for the large number of species that are known to have become extinct in this ecoregion since human European settlement. So much forest habitat has been lost to agriculture and tourist development that little remains for the native species. Scientists estimate that more than 100 endemic plant species are now extinct. Throughout the relatively short human history on these islands, we have also witnessed the extinction of endemic bats, reptiles, and birds, including the dodo, the Mauritius solitaire, and the Mauritius blue-pigeon. In fact, more than half of the indigenous birds of Réunion are now extinct.
In the Black River National Park on Mauritius, trees are draped with spectacular orchids, ferns, and lianas. These fragrant forests are filled with a chorus of birds, including those of the rare Mauritius parakeet and the small, delicate Mauritius olive white-eye. Large pink pigeons perch overhead, displaying their reddish brown tails and pale pink heads. Forest-dwelling weaverbirds called Mauritius fodies creep along branches looking for insects and feeding on nectar from flowers. Introduced crab-eating macaques, a kind of monkey, forage all over the island searching for tasty bird eggs and small vertebrates. On Rodrigues, the endangered Rodrigues warbler flits about the high hilltops of its island home. Two species of boas found only on tiny Round Island are living descendants of an ancient lineage that dates back 60 million years.
Cause for Concern
Since humans colonized the Mascarenes Islands, the natural habitat has been fragmented and degraded from agriculture, livestock grazing, tourism, and the introduction of alien plants and animals. On Rodrigues Island, for example, the native vegetation clings to survival on high hilltops and ravines but accounts for less than one percent of the land area. Cyclones now hammer the degraded landscape, causing landslides and giving alien plants a foothold from which to further invade native habitats. Many of the endemic plants and animals in this ecoregion are severely threatened, and many have already been lost forever. Birds such as the endemic pink pigeon and Mauritius kestrel are threatened by habitat loss and introduced predators. What’s more, introduced animals such as deer, wild pigs, black rats, and giant African land snails prevent forests from regenerating and cause problems for native animals. One of the rare boas on Round Island is feared extinct because that island has been overrun by rabbits and goats.
For more information on this ecoregion, go to the World Wildlife Fund Scientific Report.All text by World Wildlife Fund © 2001