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Giant tortoises work as gardeners in Mauritius

Few countries have lost as many animal and plant species to human intervention as Mauritius, whose nature is particularly fragile due to its isolated location in the Indian Ocean.

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Giant tortoises work as gardeners in Mauritius

Few countries have lost as many animal and plant species to human intervention as Mauritius, whose nature is particularly fragile due to its isolated location in the Indian Ocean. Symbolic of the dwindling biodiversity is the dodo, a flightless bird up to one meter tall that was extinct 100 years after the first Europeans settled on the previously uninhabited island.

Dedicated nature conservationists are now ensuring that the extinction of species comes to an end in the former habitat of the giant bird that still adorns the coat of arms of Mauritius to this day, and as a visitor to the island you can not only watch them, but also help. With sustainable excursion programs, which tour operators and the beachcomber hotels offer under the name "The wise Dodo", tourists familiarize themselves with the local nature, plant trees and support sustainability projects financially.

Such an excursion into the interior of the island begins just a stone's throw away from the tourist highlights of the so-called Seven Colored Earths and the Chamarel waterfall. Here, in the south-west tip of the island, lies a natural wonder that very few tourists are aware of. Only opened to visitors in 2017 and pushed into the background by Corona, you can explore an ebony forest, including flora and fauna, as it covered large parts of the country 400 years ago when the Dutch arrived.

Native bird species buzz and chirp, endemic blue-tailed geckos bask on green leaves, giant tortoises leisurely nibble on fresh greens. Although the sometimes steep hiking trails require some effort, it is a pleasure to roam this wooded area with its lush plant life.

"Unfortunately, only two percent of the island's former primary forest remains," says Guide Avish Summun. The Dutch, French and British had made huge business out of the export of ebony. The noble material was used in everything from picture frames to piano keys and chess sets to furniture. Palm trees, which accounted for about half of the tree population, also had to give way to sugar cane cultivation on a large scale.

With the drastic decimation of the native flora, the habitat for endemic and native animal species also disappeared. The last dodo died around 1690. Introduced landlubbers, cats, pigs and monkeys ensured that almost all bird species and most land reptiles were wiped out.

In 2006, conservationists began clearing the ebony forest of invasive plants and expanding the forest area. Since then, they have planted 164,000 plants on 26 of the 50 hectares bought by a couple for nature conservation purposes - and you can now admire 140 endemic plant species again, including seven ebony species.

Seven critically endangered endemic bird species are also reproducing. The population of the Mauritian kestrels alone has grown from four to 400 now. There are also said to be 400 to 800 specimens each of the flycatchers and black bulbuls, around 300 of the red-headed Mauritius weavers and around 600 of the Mauritius parakeets, which have been reduced to ten birds.

A small museum at the entrance and exit of the ebony forest provides clear information about the development, visitors can support reforestation projects with donations or plant a tree themselves.

The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation has had similar successes on the offshore mini island Île aux Aigrettes not far from the airport in the east. “We started restoring the primary forest here back in 1986,” says guide Letichia Hilaire. “But even today we still have to regularly eliminate the invasive plants that keep sprouting. It is an immense challenge to repair the man-made damage.”

The native birdlife feels so comfortable on the isolated island, which has been rid of rats and cats, that even the endemic pink pigeon, which has shrunk to nine animals, counts 400 specimens again. Hilaire is sad that the dodo has been irrevocably exterminated. For the population of giant tortoises, which was also wiped out, close relatives were found in the Seychelles with the Aldabra tortoises and some specimens were brought to Mauritius.

"Giant tortoises make ideal gardeners," says Letichia Hilaire. They spread the seeds of plants all over the island. In the meantime, 26 giant tortoises are grazing freely on the island and in a small breeding station, dozens of offspring are about to be released into the wild. Big Daddy seems to be particularly affectionate. The 120-year-old giant, weighing more than 200 kilograms, follows Hilaire and her visitors at every step until the tour becomes too fast or too long for him.

In many places, visitors encounter the positive effects of the EU-supported project "Sustainable Island Mauritius". Hotels often set a good example. For example, plastic products were banned and compostable bottles made from sugar cane cellulose were used.

Guests are invited to join the staff in plastic collection drives to recycle the debris that winds and waves land. Guests can also support sustainability projects with donations. Hotel-mediated cooking courses with locals using purely local products are also very popular.

The Beachcomber hotel chain also relies on solar panels, energy-efficient facilities and products from local producers. Seawater desalination plants cover a large part of the water requirement in the “Paradis” hotel, even the drinking water for the rooms is produced fresh every day in this way.

The guest houses and villas of the "Trou aux Biches" belonging to the same chain are embedded in a garden and forest landscape. Red-headed cardinals, Mascarene spectacled birds, sparrow pigeons and Madagascar weavers are again buzzing over bottle palms that were close to extinction just a few years ago.

Managing Director Stephan Lagesse is particularly proud of the cooperation with the surrounding communities. Since 2001, more than 3,500 young people have been able to receive training in the hotel chain. "Sustainability doesn't work without actively involving young people," the hotel manager is certain. "Only a good education paves the way for the preservation of our flora and fauna."

Getting there: Non-stop flights to Mauritius include Condor and Eurowings Discover, connecting flights with Swiss via Zurich or Air France via Paris.

Accommodation: The Mauritius hotel chain Beachcomber offers eight resorts on the island, with a 52-point sustainability program for environmental protection and social projects, the group is considered a pioneer in the country; in the "Shandrani" hotel, a week in a superior room for a maximum of three people including half board costs from 2300 euros, in the "Trou aux Biches" a week in a junior suite for a maximum of three people including half board costs from 4100 euros,

Excursions: Ebony Forest:; Île aux Aigrettes: (donations accepted); Island tours: "The wise Dodo" tours can be booked online at, detailed advice on the tours is available on site (e.g. in the Beachcomber hotels and in Dertour and Meiers Weltreisen partner hotels). National Park:

Information: Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority (MTPA),

Participation in the trip was supported by the Mauritius Tourist Board (MTPA) and Beachcomber Resorts. You can find our standards of transparency and journalistic independence at

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