Île d’Ambre, Mauritius is said to be the place where the last dodo was sighted. Yet, today, Île d’Ambre, an islet off the northeastern coast of Mauritius fringed by bright green mangroves, stands as a symbol, not of extinction, but of survival.
As guide Patrick Haberland explains, vast swaths of mangroves were destroyed right up to the mid-90s, ripped up for firewood or to clear the way for boat routes and hotel construction projects.
Cutting down mangroves is now forbidden by law. Following a national conservation drive, sites like Île d’Ambre have since been restored. Now it’s a national park, protected by the government’s forestry department.
Having escaped extinction, the trees are now vital to the very survival of the nation. Their dense, tenacious roots are among the island’s main lines of defence, along with the coral reef and seagrass beds, against rising tides that are eroding its silvery beaches, gobbling up 20 metres of coastline over the past decade.
With tourism numbers on the rise, – up by nearly 60 percent during the first half of this year – activists are campaigning to fence off the country’s southern coast, proposing a geopark on the stunning stretch of coastline, which features sand dunes, sea cliffs, lava caves, pools, waterfalls, estuaries, lagoons and open ocean.
Currently awaiting government approval, the “green lung” project would be a logical move for a country trying to offset its dependence on tourism with sustainable land use policies – only four percent of native forest is left, the result of extensive cane cultivation going back to the mid-19th century.
The island is known with its nature. “People come from the four corners of the globe to see the kestrels and the rare species like the Mauritian flying fox and pink pigeons. Some come to see rare reptiles. Others come for the rare plants like the tambalacoque (dodo tree) or the mandrinette hibiscus.” says a Native activist.
Change seems inevitable, but it will have to be equitable if it is to be truly sustainable, analysts say.
“We need to change sea, sand and sun to restoration, recycling and respect,” says oceanographer Vassen Kauppaymuthoo. “The environment can be used as a transformative tool for tourism. If eco-tourism is presented as an opportunity where people can participate, giving them back confidence, then we can have this spark.”
To a certain extent, he thinks this transformation will require a long, hard think about the nation’s identity, reversing recent trends that have seen it copying glitzy destinations like Dubai and Singapore. Failure to do this properly could see the sector, which represents a quarter of gross domestic product (GDP), going the way of the dodo, he says.
But if there’s anything this small nation excels at, it’s survival. Back in 1968, when Mauritius took its first steps as an independent nation, with only sugarcane mono-crops to its name, it was predicted to fail. By the 90s, it was being hailed as a model for the African continent.
“At the end of the day, we are resilient,” says Kauppaymuthoo. “We’re used to radical change.”