The forests of Mauritius

Thin forest trees in Mauritius amongst ferns, moss covered boulders and dry branches on the ground.

Gentle slopes with lush green forests interrupted every now and then by meandering streams; lazy animals crawling under the thick shady ebony trees or enjoying the sun on the spotless white sand. Once upon a time, Mauritius was the most beautiful of all the islands on the face of the Earth.

Brief history

Though the island of Mauritius was already recorded on charts since 1501 [1], it was during the 1600s that felling of trees actually started. Navigators would stop by the island and cut down the abundant ebony trees. With the colonisation of the island by the Dutch in 1639, ebony trees were cut en masse for exportation. Eventually, the vision of agricultural development started with the introduction of the Java sugarcane from Java, Indonesia. Land was cleared for this purpose but the project did not go through. Discouraged by the hardships that they were facing on the island, the Dutch left a mutilated Mauritius.

During the 1700s, under the governor Mahe de Labourdonnais, clearing of the forests resumed giving way to settlement and development of the island. In 1835, Major Mackenzie Fraser drew a map of Mauritius showing that two-thirds of the island had still been left untouched.

The original flora

Early records of the floral canopy are as follows: [2]

  • Trees’ heights were on average 24 m but rarely exceeding 30 m, with diameters in the 0.9 m to 1.2 m;
  • Leaves were as thick as leather;
  • Underwood of different tree species formed a secondary forest under the taller trees;
  • Lianas and climbers span from one level of trees to another;
  • Epiphytes and tree ferns added to the beauty of the stunning canopy.

Common trees then were the Tambalacoque, Makak, Colophane, Natte, Sandal, Tatamaka, Pomme, Olive and Cannelle in the humid regions. Dry places were mostly dominated by Ebony, Benjoin and Puant. Lower canopy species included the Sagaye, Ronde, Fer, Lousteau and Clou amongst others.

The Great forest destruction

It was in 1864 that mass clearance of the jungle occurred to lay down railway tracks. The peak of deforestation culminated in 1871-72. Though there was a revolt against deforestation then, blind eyes were turned to the situation until the works were forced to stop in 1875 where only mountain flanks and river banks were spared. The situation became alarming as tree removal affected water supply directly.

As of 1880, only 3,568 acres of shabby virgin forest remained on the island. An officer from India, Mr R. Thompson, was positioned to help repair the damage. He laid out plans for afforestation in particular places so as to secure water supplies for the British colony. Reconditioning of the natural woodland began and an additional 30,200 acres of forest was planted.

Mauritius is known worldwide for the devastating deforestation that occurred during that time period. It has been the subject of interest of numerous individuals; one of them, Mr A. Walter, concluded that the jungle clearance led to a significant decrease of rainy days in the southeastern coast where destruction was more intense.

Unfortunately, regeneration of species was greatly halted by

  • the open areas which did not provide adequate environmental conditions for seeds to grow,
  • the death of seeds due to extreme conditions,
  • introduction of vigorous invasive plant species which competed with native ones and hindered their development and
  • the introduction of alien animals that fed on seedlings and destroyed them.

Today’s forest

At present there are only 139,000 acres of forested land on the island; of the original pristine forest, less than 2% is now left. Most of the forest areas are replanted sites, deer ranches and degraded patches invaded by alien species. 47% of the forest area is state-owned and includes nature reserves, national park, ‘pas geometriques’ and plantations [3].


References:

  1. Toorawa, S. (2007). The medieval Waqwaq islands and the Mascarenes. Port Louis, Mauritius: Hassam Toorawa Trust.
  2. Macmillan, A. (2000). Mauritius Illustrated: Historical and Descriptive, Commercial and Industrial, Facts, figures and Resources. New Delhi, Madras, India: Asian Educational Services, pp 103
  3. National Parks and Conservation Services. Forest and Terrestrial Biodiversity of Mauritius. [pdf] Available at http://npcs.govmu.org/English/Documents/Chapter%202-4.pdf [Accessed 09.03.2018]

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