Big news for ELI Africa. The first roots of the ELI Endemic Forest have taken hold.
(If you can’t wait till the end of the post, check out the project at www.eli-africa.org/eli-forest).
As an island nation, Mauritius once possessed a richness of biodiversity found nowhere else in the world. Lush forest canopies populated with hibiscus, ebony and wild coffee trees blanketed the island, providing homes for native bats, geckos, snakes, giant tortoises, and of course, the legendary dodo bird. Mauritius was unique in both history and geography for being one of the very few islands in the world of its size to have no indigenous human population before its initial discovery by Arab explorers and settlement by Europeans, allowing the unique and original inhabitants of the island to flourish. In modern-day Mauritius however, the fruit bat and night gecko are endangered, giant tortoises from the Seychelles are raised in captivity in place of their now extinct native cousins, and endemic snakes and the dodo have vanished into the pages of history books. Today, Mauritius ranks third among all countries for most threatened or extinct native endemic wildlife in the world.
Although Arab traders discovered Mauritius during the Middle Ages, followed by brief stopovers by the Portuguese and then the Dutch in the 16th century, settlements were not established until 1638 by the Dutch. When the Dutch disembarked from their caravels and galleons, nothing was there to greet them except for the bounty of nature. In those days, unfortunately, industrious individuals rarely comprehended the consequences of their actions, and Mauritius endemic flora and fauna were soon to pay the price. Several examples illustrate the island’s drastic biodiversity loss.
The giant tortoise seemed to be God’s gift to sailors for long sea voyages: it provided huge amounts of tasty and vitamin-rich meat (so no more scurvy), contained up to a gallon of drinkable freshwater in its bladder, and required little feed for sustenance. Ships would be seen sailing across the oceans with actual stacks of giant tortoises, as if Dr. Seuss’s famous Yurtle the Turtle decided to go explore the Seven Seas. But the Europeans didn’t manage their stocks properly, and all endemic tortoise species became extinct by the early 18th century.
The Dutch also contributed to the downfall of the dodo. Given their track record, one can’t really expect 17th century European explorers and settlers to not have seen fat flightless birds as the easiest meal ever, yet hunting by humans wasn’t likely the main cause of the dodo’s extinction. Scientists are still collecting evidence to construct the full explanation of their demise, and while climatic events such as flash floods may have contributed, two other human-induced actions played a major role: introduction of non-native animals and removal of forest habitats. As a stopover point for long journeys in the Indian Ocean, a wide variety of new species found their way onto the island, whether they were wild monkeys or domesticated pigs. Dodo eggs were eaten, forest cover was cleared for sugarcane plantations (a practice intensified after the French assumed control of the island), and before the dawn of the 18th century, the dodo was extinct.
Less 2% of pristine endemic forests remain in Mauritius today. To use a cliche, hindsight is 20/20, and there is nothing to gain by blaming the settlers for centuries-old actions. That does not mean, however, that failure to act in the 21st century should be ignored. Aside from protecting the environment for the sake of protecting the environment, restoring endemic flora offers a range of ecosystem services, or socio-economic benefits for local communities. It raises awareness about the country’s environmental degradation (a subject not often taught in schools), helps prevent land erosion (a vital feature in an agriculturally-intense island), and serves as a model for climate change adaptation (large-scale reintroduction of tree cover can help offset carbon emissions and potentially increase rainfall in the future).
In recognition of this important issue, ELI Africa aims to plant 1,000 or more endemic trees and shrubs in the coming year with the help of ELI Africa team members, local laborers, and of course, our kids, using land generously donated up in the North in Plaines des Roches. Eventually, the forest will be opened up to the community, and we will be able to bring our students to the forest for outdoor environmental classroom experiences. As will all NGO initiatives, we need solid partnerships and financial backing, and I’ve spent the past several weeks reaching out to individuals and companies around the island to help support the project. To give you an idea of the wide range of organizations that may be supporting ELI, I’ve met with Pamela Bapoo-Dundoo, National Coordinator of the United Nations Development Programme’s GEF Small Grants Programme; David Campbell, Political Officer at the U.S. Embassy; Vaughan Heberden, CEO of CIM Group; Rajiv Ramlugon, Group Chief Sustainability Officer of Omnicane; Reza Ramjaun, Conservator at the Mauritian Forestry Service; and Dr. Mahomed Osman, Executive Chairman of Maurice Ile Durable, among others.
Just as the forest’s trees and shrubs need careful nurturing to guide their growth, so too does our project require helping hands to sustain our vision. It’s an exhilarating experience. But nothing will compare to the feeling I had the other week. Standing up in my boots out of a crouch, I rubbed the dirt off my hands as I looked out with Vedant and our friend Mesh at the first seven endemic seedlings we just planted, the pioneers of the ELI Forest firmly rooted in the earth. Vedant’s eyes brightened as he sees the future of Mauritius in these plants, just the same as he does in the children we teach. If you want to see more, be sure to check out the web page for more descriptions, pictures, and a site map (and possibly a donation box) at www.eli-africa.org/eli-forest. People cannot change the past, but we can all choose to act today and build the sustainable future our children deserve. We cannot stand by and let our environment go the way of the dodo. Human welfare and security is at stake. It may require breaking a sweat and getting down and dirty, but I’ll tell ya, nothing beats the ultimate satisfaction of knowing how great of an impact you can make with your own two hands.