Mauritius was once
covered in thick evergreen mountain forest. The waters teemed with armies of giant
turtles, dugongs and fish. Bats, birds and insects feasted on natural resources and the
dodo waddled along deserted beaches blissfully unaware than when man arrived in the
sixteenth century he would shake the harmony of its existence. In doing so, for want of
survival or commercial gain, he upset forever the delicate ecological balance that
had existed for so many years.
Many of these creatures
shared the same fate as the dodo. The gigantic turtle-like bird, with a hard twisted beak
and tiny wings had never experienced danger. It had forgotten how to fly and made easy
prey for the first Dutch settlers. Within a few years it was wiped off the face of the
The demise of the dodo
was followed by the decimation of virgin forest. Shipbuilding, sugar a road and rail
network for its transportation, the creation of upland settlements and the introduction of
animals and invasive plants over three centuries of human settlement destroyed the
island's indigenous forests.
The need to preserve
the indigenous forests of Mauritius, as in other countries of the world, was realised too
late and today less than 1 per cent of the original forest remains. Most of it lies
to the south of Plaine Champagne in the Bel Ombre-Macchabee Forest. Great forts are being
made by the government and the Forestry Department to preserve what is left by educating
the public to appreciate their ecological value. In this context patches of forest in
other parts of the island have been declared natural reserves. Some of them are only a few
square kilometres and are fenced off so as to encourage regeneration of indigenous trees
Today the forests are
classified into three areas essentially consisting of Crown Forest Lands and privately
owned forest lands. The Crown Forest Lands contain the nature reserves along with areas
given over to tea plantations. The State owned forms a narrow coastal belt, which is
occupied by public beaches, along much of it is leased to the hotel industry or used for
grazing and tree planting programmes. Finally the privately owned forest lands are found
in the upper slopes of mountains where many areas are densely covered with native forest
or thickets of Traveller Palm.
Strict laws govern the
use of forests including unauthorised felling or removing or trees, illegal possession of
wood and trespassing on Crown Forest lands. In spite of this, forest recreation is
becoming more popular with tourists and locals, and nature trails have been marked out in
the Macchabee Forest. Walking independently is possible but a permit must be obtained from
the Conservator of Forests. It may be advisable and preferable to join an organised walk
with a tour operator or a local walking group when permission have been obtained. always
obtain the permission of the owner if entering private forest.
There are fifteen
nature reserves. Six are offshore islands and nine are on the mainland. The smallest of
these, Perrier, Cabinet, Les Mares, Gouly Pere and Bois Sec, are dotted around the Tamarin
Falls and Grand Bassin area and contain tiny traces of indigenous forest. Slightly larger
nature reserves are found on the slopes of Le Pouce and Corps de Garde Mountain and at
Combo in the Savannes Mountains. The largest is Macchabee-Bel Ombre which sweeps
southwards from Mare Longue Reservoir across Plaine Champagne along the south-west slopes
of the Savanne Mountains. It and Round Island are scientific reserves and are recognised
under Category 1 of the United Nations List of National Parks and Protected Areas.
But for all man's
destruction the island is green and verdant. Sugar cane clothes the landscape and deep
green velvety clusters of tea plantations stretch around the highlands of Curepipe. The
island is a riot of colour throughout the year with bougainvillea, hibiscus, orchid,
poinsietta and oleander growing in towns, parks, gardens and coastal areas. In summer
Flamboyant and frangipani trees burst into brilliant bloom along the roadsides.
Indigenous trees such
as the ebony are protected species and are found in the upland of the Macchabee Forest
along with the natte tree and tambalacoque or dodo tree. The seed of the tambalacoque was
so hard that it was difficult to germinate. Legend has it that the dodo is supposed to
have softened the seed by passing it though its digestive system thereby enabling to
germinate more easily. A specimen of the Bois Colophane batard, a sister of the extremely
rare colophane can be seen at the Pamplemousses Botanical Gardens. The resin from these
trees was used in the manufacture of plasters, ointments and varnishes.
Imported trees such as
pine and eucalyptus grow profusely in the plateau areas. Great matted forest of Chinese
Guava can be seen in Plaine Champagne and the Black River Gorges with fan shaped
Travellers Palm while bottle palm, looking like chianti bottles, adorn roundabouts between
Port Louis and Curepipe.
It would be hard to do
justice to a Mauritian beach without reference to the whispering filao or casuarina trees.
They are a feature of virtually every beach and their feathery dark green branchlets
provide an excellent shelter from winds and tropical sun. The tree was introduced to
Mauritius by the French explorer and cartographer Abbe Alexis Rochon in 1778. Nearly
one hundred years later the British Governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, ordered that the
casuarina, being salt-tolerant, quick growing and undemanding, should be planted around
the coastline as part of a tree and water conservation system.
In the lowland areas
imported trees consist of acacia, coconut palm, albizia, the badamier or Indian Almond and
the banyan. The mangrove is found in the brackish swamps of the east coast.
Public gardens are
found all over the island and are worth visiting. Fine specimens of trees and plants can
be found at Pamplemousses Botanical Gardens 7 miles(4km) to the north of Port Louis.
Curepipe boasts its own small, but beautiful botanical garden where, the viah palm from
Madagascar grows in an attractive lake.