Beyond the Beach: Saving the Giant Tortoise in Mauritius

Some conservationists are trying to turn the island into a wildlife preserve, not just a luxury tourism mainstay

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Arnaud Meunier

Giant tortoises at the Francois Leguat Tortoise and Cave Reserve on Rodrigues Island, an autonomous outer island of Mauritius

Although its primarily known for luxurious royal vacations, gorgeous resorts, a smiling francophone people and fiery Green Island rum, the island-nation of Mauritius, located in the Indian Ocean off the Southeast African coast, also boasts a bevy of natural wonder. Among expanses of sugar cane fields, shaded turquoise water and white sand beaches, Giant “Aldabra” Tortoises are bred in captivity. To stroke one of their dinosaur-like scaly necks is to be transported back to the prehistoric era. The confined breeding, unlike the negative connotations it conjures, is not for commercial purposes — it is, in fact, to preserve these majestic creatures for future generations, and right some past wrongs at the same time.

At the La Vanille Crocodile Park and Tortoise Reserve, on Mauritius’s southern coast, these lumbering herbivores carpet the grassy grounds. Local conservationists are trying to reconstruct part of an ecosystem that once existed on the neighboring island of Madagascar, known for its endemic and unusual flora and fauna. The extinction of native tortoise species there was largely due to human hunting which, experts say, altered ecological interactions and ecosystems. Conservationists from La Vanille now plan to re-introduce descendants of these creatures, the Aldabran tortoises, almost 700 miles across the Indian Ocean — the first “continental island restoration project with a surviving lineage of now extinct, endemic megafauna,” a recent study noted. Currently 603 Aldabran tortoises inhabit the Mauritius reserve and, if all goes well, they’ll be ponderously strolling around their new Madagascan home sometime next year.

Of the 103 adult specimens here, one 90-year-old male named Domino dominates the field. Shallow burrows across the terrain betray where shiny-shelled females lay their eggs, while nearby juveniles are kept separately in glass-faced pens. Enclosures house different age groups; 500 youngsters ranging from palm-sized newborns to 10-year-olds, around 2-ft long. The company backing this project, BioCulture, has invested approximately $200,000 on infrastructure set-up, staff and transportation. CEO Owen Griffith, an avid wildlife conservationist, puts the commercial value of these tortoises at roughly $1 million.

(MORE: Giant Tortoise ‘Lonesome George’ Dies in the Galapagos)

Challenges persist, however, including Madagascar’s recurrent political turmoil, financing issues and climate change. While touring the facilities and park, Griffith told TIME that plans “to put an oil pipeline right through the [conservation] site” in Madagascar were afoot, although this could not be confirmed. Madagascar’s principle petroleum deposits, which have not yet been fully exploited because of cost and technical difficulties, lie just east of Griffith’s reserve site.

The project’s success will partly rely on the ability of these noble reptiles to “adapt, survive and potentially reproduce in a novel environment,” says Griffith. For the first five years, the tortoises will be in a fenced pen in their new habitat, and they will not reproduce for at least a decade. Should the interaction prove positive, they will then be released to different areas of the reserve. Charles Darwin, who visited Mauritius in 1836, was among those who lauded proactive re-wilding as the best way to protect the natural diversity that evolution bestows. Thankfully for the Aldabra, Griffith intends to keep his legacy alive and perhaps, grow that of Mauritius as a wildlife preserve, not just a luxury tourism mainstay.

(MORE: Giant Tortoise)