The Culture

Mauritius is often cited as an example of racial and religious harmony, and compared with most countries it is, as on the surface there are few signs of conflict. However, racial divisions are still apparent between the Hindu majority and Muslim and Creole minorities, and these tensions constitute one of the few potential political flashpoints. Such issues usually only surface during elections, when parties aren't averse to playing the race card.

Family & the Role of Women

In general, each ethnic group maintains a way of life similar to that found in their countries of origin, even if they are second- or third-generation Mauritian.

Often, several generations live together under one roof and the main social unit is the extended family – as evidenced by the size of family parties on a Sunday picnic. There is minimal social-security provision in Mauritius; people rely on their family in times of need. Mauritians are usually married by the age of 25 and the majority of wives stay home to raise the family, while husbands earn the daily bread. Arranged marriages are still the norm among Indian families, while the Hindu caste system has also been replicated to some degree. Among all groups, religion and religious institutions continue to play a central role in community life.

As with elsewhere, this very traditional pattern is starting to break down as the younger generation grows more individualistic and more Westernised. Young people are far more likely to socialise with people from other communities, and intermarriage is on the rise.

Other forces for change are the growth of consumerism and the emergence of a largely Indian and Chinese middle class. Middle-class couples are more likely to set up their own home and to have fewer children, while the wife may even go out to work. Statistics also show a slight decline in the number of marriages, while the divorce rate has doubled over the last 20 years.

Women's equality still has a long way to go in Mauritius. Many women have to accept low-paid, unskilled jobs, typically in a textile factory or as cleaners. Even highly qualified women can find it hard to get promotions in the private sector, though they do better in the public service. In 2003 the government passed a Sex Discrimination Act and set up an independent unit to investigate sex-discrimination cases, including sexual harassment at work. The unit is also charged with raising awareness levels and educating employers about equal opportunity.

People of Mauritius

Mauritius is made up of five ethnic groups: Indo-Mauritian (68%), Creole (27%), Sino-Mauritian (3%), Franco-Mauritian (1%) and the new kids on the block – South African expats (1%). Another small group you might come across are the Chagos Islanders.

Indo-Mauritians

The Indian population (the majority of which is Hindu) is descended from the labourers who came to the island to work the cane fields. Nowadays, Indians form the backbone of the labouring and agricultural community and own many of the island's small- and medium-sized businesses, typically in manufacturing and the retail trade. Central Plateau towns such as Rose Hill have a definite Indian character.

Indians also tend to be prominent in civic life. Local elections are often racially aligned, and since Indo-Mauritians are in the majority, they tend to win at the polls. The prime minister between 2003 and 2005, Franco-Mauritian Paul Bérenger, was the first non-Indian at the helm in the country's history.

Creoles

After the Indo-Mauritians, the next largest group is the Creoles, descendants of African slaves, with varying amounts of European ancestry. Creoles as a whole form the most disadvantaged sector of society. Despite the fact that all forms of discrimination are illegal under the Mauritian constitution, it is widely recognised that the Creole minority has been socially, economically and politically marginalised.

The majority work in low-paid jobs or eke out a living from fishing or subsistence farming, and it's a vicious circle. Creoles find it harder to get work, partly because of low levels of literacy, but few Creole children complete secondary school because they're needed to help support the family. Expectations are also lower – and so it goes on.

Rodrigues is the epicentre of Mauritian Creole culture, with Creoles making up 98% of the population.

Sino-Mauritians

Mauritius' 30,000 Sino-Mauritians are involved mostly in commerce. Despite their small numbers, the Chinese community plays a disproportionate role in the country's economy, though they tend to avoid politics. Most came to the country as self-employed entrepreneurs and settled in the towns (particularly Port Louis), though most villages have at least one Chinese-run store.

Franco-Mauritians & South Africans

Franco-Mauritians are the descendants of the grands blancs (rich whites), who were the first European settlers on Mauritius and who quickly parcelled the best arable land out among themselves in the 18th century. Franco-Mauritians own most of the sugar mills, banks and other big businesses, and tend to live in palatial private residences in the hills around Curepipe. They also own almost all the luxurious holiday houses along the coast. Many have decamped completely to live in South Africa, Australia and France. In fact, there are now more South African expats living on the island (congregated on the west coast) than there are Franco-Mauritians.

National Identity

Despite being a relatively young country with a diverse population, and although ethnicity is often a primary touchstone of identity for many Mauritians, a strong sense of national identity continues to transcend racial and cultural ties.

Of the various forces binding Mauritians together, the most important is language – not the official language of English, but Creole, which is the first language of 70% to 80% of the population and understood by virtually all Mauritians. Another common bond is that everyone is an immigrant or descended from immigrants. Food and music are other unifiers, as is the importance placed on family life.

Mauritius is also a small, tight-knit community. Living in such close proximity breaks down barriers and increases understanding between different groups. Respect for others and tolerance are deeply ingrained in all sectors of society, despite the occasional flare-up of racial tension.

Living Standards

As a result of the ongoing economic boom and political stability, overall living standards have improved in recent years and the majority of houses now have mains water and electricity. However, the gap between rich and poor is widening. It is estimated that the top 20% of the population earns 45% of the total income and that around 10% lives below the poverty line. A labourer's wage is just Rs 6000 per month, while a teacher might earn Rs 12,000. You'll see a few people begging around the markets and mosques, but the visible presence of poverty on the streets is relatively discreet.

Mauritians place great importance on education – not just to get a better job but as a goal in its own right. Lawyers, doctors and teachers are regarded with tremendous respect. The pinnacle of success for many is to work in the civil service, though this is beginning to change as salaries rise among business people.

Religion

There is a close link between religion and race in Mauritius and a remarkable degree of religious tolerance. Mosques, churches and Hindu temples can be found within a stone's throw of each other in many parts of the country and we know of one case in Floréal where they are separated only by a shared wall.

Official figures put the number of Hindus at 48.5% of the population, and all are Indian in origin or ethnicity. Festivals play a central role in the Hindu faith and the calendar's packed with colourful celebrations.

There's a certain amount of resentment towards Hindus in Mauritius, not for religious reasons but because the Hindu majority dominates the country's political life and its administration. Up until now, with the economy in full swing, this has merely resulted in grumbling about discrimination and 'jobs for the boys', but there's a fear this might change if the economy really begins to falter.

Around one-quarter of the population is Roman Catholic. Catholicism is practised by most Creoles, and it has picked up a few voodoo overtones over the years. Most Franco-Mauritians are also Catholic and a few Chinese and Indians have converted, largely through marriage.

Muslims make up roughly one-fifth of the population. Like the Hindus, Mauritian Muslims originally came from India. In Mauritius, where Islam exists in close proximity to other religions, it tends to be fairly liberal. Attendance at mosque is high and many Muslim women wear the hijab.

Sino-Mauritians are the least conspicuous in their worship. The one big exception is Chinese New Year, which is celebrated in Port Louis with great gusto. There are also a few Chinese temples scattered around the capital.

Feature: Diego Garcia & The Chagossian Betrayal

One of the most prolonged betrayals in British colonial history is that surrounding the secret exile of the Chagos Islanders from their homeland in the 1960s and 1970s, in order to lease the main island, Diego Garcia, to the USA for use as a military base.

The Chagos Islands were excised from Mauritian territory by the British prior to independence in 1965, and Mauritius and the UK continue to dispute the sovereignty of the islands. The islanders were 'resettled' in Mauritius and the Seychelles between 1965 and 1973. Some 5000 now live in abject poverty in the slums of Port Louis, where they continue to fight for their right to return home. The islanders won derisory compensation of £4 million from the British in 1982, which was paid out to the poverty-stricken islanders in return for them signing away their rights – many did not realise what the legal documents they were signing meant.

In 2000 the UK High Court ruled that the Chagossians had been evicted illegally and upheld their right to be repatriated. Nothing happened, so the Chagossians went back to court. In October 2003 the judge rejected their claim for further compensation, though he acknowledged that the British government had treated the islanders 'shamefully' and that the compensation had been inadequate. In May 2007 the Chagossians won a further case at the Court of Appeal in London, in which the government's behaviour was condemned as unlawful and an abuse of power. The judges in the case also refused to place a stay on the ruling, meaning the Chagossians were free to return to all islands (with the exception of Diego Garcia itself) with immediate effect. In 2008 the case was overturned. The Chagos Archipelago has now been ceded to the US military until 2016, while the islanders continue to pursue their rights through the European Court of Human Rights.

John Pilger gives his angle on the story in his documentary Stealing a Nation (2004). You can watch it online. Further information and ways to help the Chagossians can be found at www.chagossupport.org.uk. For additional information on the Chagos Islanders, check out David Vine's book Island of Shame.

Sidebar: Statistics for Mauritian Women

  • Maternal mortality rate per 100,000 live births: 53
  • Life expectancy for men/women: 71.94/79.03 years
  • Adult literacy for men/women: 92.9/88.5%
  • Fertility rate: 1.76 children per woman

Sidebar: Population Statistics

  • Population: 1.34 million
  • Growth rate: 0.64%
  • Proportion under 15 years old: 20.74%
  • Average age: 34.4
  • Proportion living in urban areas: 39.7%

Arts

Mauritian literature and fine arts are firmly based in the French tradition. The country's music, however, is African in origin and is very much alive and kicking.

Literature

Mauritius has provided the backdrop for a number of historical novels, but it's the growing profile of local writers that makes Mauritians most proud.

Books Set in Mauritius

Mauritius' most famous contribution to world literature – one that has become entangled in the island's history – is the romantic novel Paul et Virginie by Bernardin de St-Pierre, which was first published in 1788. An English translation of the novel is widely available in Mauritius. The author captures the landscapes beautifully, though his ultra-moralistic tear-jerker is less likely to appeal to modern tastes.

Joseph Conrad's oblique love story A Smile of Fortune, collected in 'Twixt Land and Sea (1912), is set in Mauritius, although it's hardly very flattering about the place. Set in the late 19th century, it does, however, give a taste of the mercantile activity of the time and the curious mix of 'negroes', Creoles, 'coolies' and marooned Frenchmen who populated the island then. Visitors to the island will certainly identify with Conrad's description of Mauritius as the 'Pearl of the Ocean…a pearl distilling much sweetness on the world' but will undoubtedly find the current inhabitants far more pleasant to deal with than the characters described in the story.

Books by Mauritian Writers

Those who want to read a 20th-century Mauritian novel should try something by Malcolm de Chazal, whose most famous works are Sens-Plastique, available in translation, and Petrusmok. Chazal was an eccentric recluse, but he inspired a whole generation of local writers. His works are a highly original blend of poetry and philosophy, and are peppered with pithy statements, such as 'Avoid clean people who have a dirty stare'.

Of living writers, perhaps the best known internationally is Carl de Souza. In his novel Le Sang de l'Anglais he looks at the often ambivalent relationship between Mauritians and their countries of origin, while La Maison qui Marchait Vers le Large, set in Port Louis, takes inter-community conflict as its theme. Les Jours Kaya is a coming-of-age book set against the violence following Kaya's death.

Other contemporary novelists to look out for include Ananda Devi, Shenaz Patel and Nathacha Appanah-Mouriquand. Unfortunately, their works as yet are only available in French, which is regarded as the language of culture.

Sidebar: JMG Le Clézio

Mauritius can lay claim (sort of) to a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. French author JMG Le Clézio, the 2008 Nobel laureate, has a Mauritian father and set a number of his novels in Mauritius, of which Le Chercheur d'Or (The Prospector) has been translated into English.

Music & Dance

You'll hear séga, the music of Creole culture, everywhere nowadays, but in the early 20th century it fell seriously out of fashion. Its revival in the early 1950s is credited to the Creole singer Ti Frère, whose song 'Anita' has become a classic. Though he died in 1992, Ti Frère is still the country's most popular séga star. More recent Creole groups and singers with a wide following include Cassiya, Fanfan and the prolific Jean-Claude Gaspard.

Séga evolved slightly differently in Rodrigues. Here the drum plays a more prominent role in what's known as séga tambour. The island's accordion bands are also famous for their surprising repertoire, which includes waltzes, polkas, quadrilles and Scottish reels. Over the years these were learned from passing European sailors and gradually absorbed into the local folk music. They're now an essential part of any Rodriguan knees-up.

A newer Mauritian musical form was invented by Creole musician Kaya in seggae, which blends elements of séga and reggae. With his band Racine Tatane, Kaya gave a voice to dissatisfied Creoles around the island. Tragically, the singer died in police custody in February 1999. Following in Kaya's footsteps, Ras Natty Baby and his Natty Rebels are one of the most popular seggae groups; sales gained an extra boost when Ras Natty Baby was imprisoned for heroin trafficking in 2003…

Recently, ragga, a blend of house music, traditional Indian music and reggae, has been gaining a following. Mauritian ragga groups include Black Ayou and the Authentic Steel Brothers.

Séga!

Séga is the powerful combination of music and dance originally conceived by African slaves as a diversion from the injustice of their daily existence. At the end of a hard day in the cane fields, couples danced the séga around campfires on the beach to the accompaniment of drums.

Because of the sand (some say because of the shackles), there could be no fancy footwork. So today, when dancing the séga, the feet never leave the ground. The rest of the body makes up for it and the result, when the fire is hot, can be extremely erotic. In the rhythm and beat of séga, you can see or hear connections with the Latin American salsa, the Caribbean calypso and the African origins of the people. It's a personal, visceral dance where the dancers let the music take over and abandon themselves to the beat.

The dance is traditionally accompanied by the beat of the ravanne, a goatskin drum. The beat starts slowly and builds into a pulsating rhythm, which normally carries away performers and onlookers alike. You may be lucky enough to see the dance being performed spontaneously at beach parties or family barbecues. Otherwise, you'll have to make do with the less authentic séga soirées offered by some bars and restaurants and most of the big hotels, often in combination with a Mauritian buffet.

Feature: Kaya

It was a black day for Mauritius, and a blacker one still for the Creole community. On 21 February 1999, singer Joseph Topize (aka Kaya) was found dead in his police cell, seemingly a victim of police brutality, after being arrested for smoking cannabis after a pro-legalisation rally.

As the pioneer of seggae, a unique combination of reggae and traditional séga beats, Kaya provided a voice for disadvantaged Creoles across the country. His death in the custody of Indian police split Mauritian society along racial lines, triggering four days of violent riots that left several people dead and brought the country to a standstill.

An autopsy cleared the police of wrongdoing, but the events forced the Indian-dominated government to acknowledge le malaise Créole: Creoles' anger at their impoverished status in a country that has been dominated by Indians since independence. It is an anger that still simmers almost 18 years after the singer's death.

In contrast to these violent scenes, Kaya's music is full of positive energy. The classic album Seggae Experience is a tribute to the singer's unique vision.

Visual Arts

Historically, Mauritian artists took their lead from what was happening in Europe, particularly France. Bizarrely, some of the 18th- and 19th-century engravings and oils of Mauritian landscapes you see could almost be mistaken for European scenes. The classical statue of Paul and Virginie in Port Louis' Blue Penny Museum and the one of King Edward VII at the city's Champ de Mars Racecourse were both created by Mauritius' best-known sculptor, Prosper d'Épinay.

Contemporary Mauritian art tends to be driven by the tourist market. One artist you'll find reproduced everywhere is Vaco Baissac; his work instantly recognisable by the blocks of colour outlined in black, like a stained-glass window. His Galerie Vaco is in Grand Baie.

Other commercially successful artists include Danielle Hitié, who produces minutely detailed renderings of markets as well as rural scenes, and Françoise Vrot, known for her very expressive portraits of women fieldworkers. Both artists are exhibited in galleries in Grand Baie, where Vrot also has her studio.

Keep an eye out for exhibitions by more innovative contemporary artists, such as Hervé Masson, Serge Constantin, Henry Koombes and Khalid Nazroo. All have had some success on the international scene, though they're less visible locally.

Sidebar: Malcolm de Chazal

Few figures loom as large over the arts in 20th-century Mauritius as Malcolm de Chazal. Aside from being the father of modern Mauritian literature, the surrealist de Chazal produced paintings full of light and energy – the most famous is Blue Dodo. Pereybère's Galerie du Moulin Cassé features his work.

Architecture

Much of Mauritius' architectural heritage has become buried under a sea of concrete, but thankfully a handful of colonial-era mansions survived, and it's these that provide the architectural highlights for visitors to the country.

Colonial Architecture

In 2003 the government set up a National Heritage Fund charged with preserving the country's historic buildings. The plantation houses dating from the 18th and 19th centuries have fared best, and you'll still see them standing in glorious isolation amid the cane fields. Many are privately owned and closed to the public. One such is Le Réduit, near Moka, which is now the president's official residence. Others have been converted into museums and restaurants.

The first French settlers naturally brought with them building styles from home. Over the years the architecture evolved until it became supremely well suited to the hot, humid tropics. It's for this reason that so many of the grand plantation houses have survived the ravages of time.

In many of these buildings, flourishes that appear to be ornamental – vaulted roofs and decorative pierced screens, for example – all serve to keep the occupants cool and dry. The most distinctive feature is the shingled roof with ornamental turrets and rows of attic windows. These wedding-cake touches conceal a vaulted roof, which allows the air to circulate. Another characteristic element is the wide, airy varangue (veranda), where raffia blinds, fans and pot plants create a cooling humidity.

The roofs, windows and overhangs are usually lined with delicate, lace-like lambrequins (decorative wooden borders), which are purely ornamental. They vary from simple, repetitive floral patterns to elaborate pierced friezes; in all cases a botanical theme predominates.

Lambrequins, shingled roofs and verandas or wrought-iron balconies are also found in colonial-era town houses. The more prestigious buildings were constructed in brick, or even stone, and so are better able to withstand cyclones and termites. In Port Louis, Government House and other buildings lining Place d'Armes are all fine examples.

Feature: Colonial Architecture: Our Pick

The following colonial-era mansions are all open to the public and well worth visiting. Apart from the buildings' innate historical and aesthetic values, visiting them makes a statement that these are places of beauty and value, which may just lead to more of them being preserved.

Contemporary Architecture

A few attempts at daring contemporary structures have been made, but the most prestigious in recent times has been Port Louis' Le Caudan Waterfront development. Given its location at the very heart of the capital, the architects decided to incorporate elements of the traditional architecture found around the city's Place d'Armes. Further inspiration came from the nearby stone-and-steel dockyard buildings.

Plans are under way, although they have stalled in recent years, to build a Caudan-like complex in sleepy Mahébourg. Close to completion, the country's first luxury-yacht port, La Balise Marina, is taking shape in Black River.

Environment

Mauritius packs a lot into quite a small space, and the beauty of its landforms – the coral reefs, the dramatic rocky outcrops – play a key role in so many of the country's attractions, either as a stirring backdrop or as destinations worth exploring. But wildlife is where Mauritius' environmental story gets really interesting, from giant tortoises to critically endangered bird species making a comeback.

The Land

Mauritius is the peak of an enormous volcanic chain that also includes Réunion, though it is much older and therefore less rugged than its neighbour.

The island's highest mountains are found in the southwest, from where the land drops slightly to a central plateau before climbing again to the chain of oddly shaped mountains behind Port Louis and the Montagne Bambous to the east. Beyond these mountains a plain slopes gently down to the north coast.

Unlike Réunion, Mauritius has no active volcanoes, although remnants of volcanic activity abound. Extinct craters and volcanic lakes, such as the Trou aux Cerfs crater in Curepipe and the Grand Bassin holy lake, are good examples. Over the aeons, the volcanoes generated millions of lava boulders, much to the chagrin of indentured farm labourers who had to clear the land for sugar cane. Nonetheless, heaps of boulders still dot the landscape and some that have been piled into tidy pyramids are listed monuments!

Mauritius also includes a number of widely scattered inhabited islands, of which the most important is Rodrigues, 600km to the northeast. Rodrigues is another ancient volcanic peak and is surrounded by a lagoon twice the size of the island itself.

Mauritius stakes territorial claim to the Chagos Archipelago, officially part of the British Indian Ocean Territory and controversially ceded to the US military until 2016, with an extension likely for a further 20 years.

Wildlife

The story of Mauritian wildlife certainly didn't end with the dodo. In fact, the island's reputation for extinction has been transformed in recent years by its dramatic success in saving endangered species.

The best source of information is the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF; www.mauritian-wildlife.org), which was founded in 1984 to protect and manage the country's many rare species. The MWF vigorously supports the creation of national parks and reserves. It has had significant success in restoring the populations of several endangered bird species and in conserving endemic vegetation. While you're welcome to visit its office to get information it can be difficult to find. In any event, its website is a useful resource and contacting it via email with specific questions usually elicits a response. And, of course, a visit to MWF-run Île aux Aigrettes is a highlight of any visit to the island.

Animals

Birds are the main wildlife drawcard, with some remarkable conservation success stories. Otherwise, tortoises are making a comeback after the dark colonial years.

Feature: Dead as a Dodo

Illustrations from the logbooks of the first ships to reach Mauritius show hundreds of plump flightless birds running down to the beach to investigate the newcomers. Lacking natural predators, these giant relatives of the pigeon were easy prey for hungry sailors, who named the bird dodo, meaning 'stupid'. It took just 30 years for passing sailors and their pets and pests (dogs, monkeys, pigs and rats) to drive the dodo to extinction; the last confirmed sighting was in the 1660s.

Just as surprising as the speed of the dodo's demise is how little evidence remains that the bird ever existed. A few relics made it back to Europe during the 18th century – a dried beak ended up at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, while the University of Oxford in England managed to get hold of a whole head and a foot – but until recently our knowledge of the dodo was mainly based on sketches by 17th-century seamen.

However, in 1865 local schoolteacher George Clark discovered a dodo skeleton in a marshy area on the site of what is now the international airport. The skeleton was reassembled by scientists in Edinburgh, and has formed the basis of all subsequent dodo reconstructions, one of which is on display in the Natural History Museum in Port Louis. There is also an accurate reconstruction of a dodo in bronze in the ebony forest on Île aux Aigrettes.

Mammals

Mauritius has only one native mammal: the wonderful fruit bat. They're a common sight at twilight as they come to life and begin their night's foraging.

All other mammals on the island were introduced by colonists, with varying degrees of success. Mongooses are typical of the slapdash ecological management of the past – they were introduced from India in the late 19th century to control plague-carrying rats. The intention was to import only males, but some females slipped through and they bred like, well, mongooses. Soon there were mongooses everywhere. They remain fairly common, as are the bands of macaque monkeys that hang out around Grand Bassin and the Black River Gorges. Java deer, imported by the Dutch for fresh meat, and wild pigs, also introduced, roam the more remote forests.

There are two further bat species – the grimly named Mauritius tomb bat and the Mauritian cave bat – but these are not endemic to Mauritius.

Marine Mammals

Marine mammals are most commonly seen along the west coast of Mauritius. Spinner dolphins are the most common species in the bay off Tamarin, while bottlenose dolphins are also present. Dolphin-watching boat excursions set out from many places along the west coast, but we have serious concerns about their impact on the local populations.

Numerous shark species inhabit Mauritian waters, although you're only likely to encounter them if you're diving on the outer reaches of the reef; few stray into the shallow waters of the lagoon. Common species include grey reef and bull sharks (east coast), blacktip and leopard sharks (north), and white-tip reef sharks (west).

From July or August through to October or November, humpback whales migrate along the west coast of Mauritius en route between the Antarctic and the warmer waters near the equator where they reproduce and calve. Sperm whales are believed to be resident off west-coast Mauritius and hence are present year-round, although they're generally considered more elusive than humpbacks.

Whale-watching is surprisingly low-key in Mauritius when compared to neighbouring Madagascar. This is for two main reasons: first, the main (but by no means the only) season is considered low season, with far fewer visitors in the country; second, unlike dolphin-watching, watching whales takes place out in the open ocean, beyond the lagoon, and therefore requires full-day excursions.

Reptiles

Native reptiles include the beautiful turquoise-and-red ornate day gecko and Telfair's skink (a clawed lizard), both of which can be seen on Île aux Aigrettes. You can rest easy if you see a slithering critter – there are no dangerous reptiles in Mauritius.

Tortoises

Mauritius, along with Réunion and Seychelles, once had the largest number of giant tortoises on the planet, a veritable Galapagos of distinct species, of which Mauritius and Rodrigues had two each. Rodrigues in particular once had the highest density of tortoises on earth. Such abundance didn't last long, and all tortoise species on Mauritius and Rodrigues were driven to extinction during the colonial period, when sailors and settlers favoured them as an easy-to-catch and long-lasting source of meat; tortoises could be kept alive on very little food, ideal for long-distance ocean journeys.

The only surviving species in the region, the Aldabra giant tortoise from the Seychelles, was introduced onto Île aux Aigrettes in 2000 and elsewhere in the years that followed. The number of wild tortoises has since grown dramatically. The best places to see them are Île aux Aigrettes; La Vanille, near Souillac; and Rodrigues' François Leguat Reserve.

Birds

The dodo may be Mauritius' most famous former inhabitant (other species that were driven to extinction during the early colonial period include the red rail and the solitaire), but Mauritius should be just as famous for the birds it has saved. In fact, an academic review in 2007 found that Mauritius had pulled more bird species (five) back from the brink of extinction than any other country on earth.

The birds you're most likely to see, however, are the introduced songbirds, such as the little red Madagascar fody, the Indian mynah and the red-whiskered bulbul. Between October and May the Rivulet Terre Rouge Bird Sanctuary estuary north of Port Louis provides an important wintering ground for migratory water birds such as the whimbrel, the grey plover, and the common and curlew sandpipers.

Mauritian kestrel

In 1974, the rather lovely Mauritian kestrel (which once inhabited all corners of the island) was officially the most endangered bird species on the planet, with just four known to survive in the wild, including, crucially, one breeding female. There were a further two of the raptors in captivity. The reasons for its dire situation were all too familiar: pesticide poisoning, habitat destruction and hunting. A captive-breeding program and an intensive project of building predator-proof nesting boxes in the wild has led to an amazing recovery, with numbers now around 400, split between a population in the southeast (250) and one in the southwest (150).

Your best chance to see them is during their breeding season (August to February in the southeast; September to February in the southwest). The likeliest spots are Vallée de Ferney, Lion Mountain and Kestrel Valley; Black River Gorges National Park is also a possibility, though a more remote one.

Pink Pigeon

The pretty pink pigeon has also been pulled back from the brink. In 1986, this once-widespread bird was down to just 12 individuals in the wild, living close to Bassin Blanc in the southern reaches of Black River Gorges National Park. In that year all five nesting attempts were unsuccessful due to rats. The species appeared doomed. Again, an intensive program of captive breeding and reintroduction into the wild has seen numbers soar, with around 470 thought to be present throughout Black River Gorges National Park and on Île aux Aigrettes (where there were 43 at last count). The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation is seeking to ensure that captive pink pigeons in European zoos will one day form part of the program as a means of enhancing the species' genetic diversity.

Echo Parakeet

The vivid colours of the echo parakeet, too, were almost lost to Mauritius. In 1986, between eight and 12 survived. And to make matters worse, it was the last of six endemic parrot species that once inhabited the island. Once again, captive breeding, reintroduction and intensive conservation management have seen the species recover to around 540, all within Black River Gorges National Park. Note that the echo parakeet closely resembles the introduced ringed parakeet, which is far more common and widespread throughout the island.

Once again, captive breeding, reintroduction and intensive conservation management have seen the species recover to around 540, all within Black River Gorges National Park. Your best chance to see them is along Parakeet Trail and Macchabée Trail, and around Mare Longue Reservoir. Note that the echo parakeet closely resembles the introduced ringed parakeet, which is far more common and widespread throughout the island.

Other Species

The olive white eye, a small Mauritian songbird, now numbers no more than 150 pairs in the wild, with 35 birds on Île aux Aigrettes. The Mauritian fody has also found a refuge on Île aux Aigrettes, which will serve as a base for future reintroduction programs.

Over on Rodrigues, the recovery of the Rodrigues warbler (from 30 in the 1970s to over 4000 today) and that of the Rodrigues fody (six pairs in 1968; 8000 individuals today) are almost unparalleled in the annals of wildlife conservation.

Offshore islands such Île Plate and Îlot Gabriel, and off Coin de Mire, Île Ronde and Île aux Serpents, are good places to see seabirds. Note that boats may not land at the latter three islands.

Plants

Almost one-third of the 900 plant species found in Mauritius are unique to these islands. Many of these endemic plants have fared poorly in competition with introduced plants such as guava and privet, and have been depleted by introduced deer, pigs and monkeys. General forest clearance and the establishment of crop monocultures have exacerbated the problem, so that less than 1% of Mauritius' original forest is intact.

For a tropical island, Mauritius isn't big on coconut palms. Instead, casuarinas (also known as filaos) fringe most of the beaches. These tall, wispy trees act as useful windbreaks and grow well in sandy soil. The government planted them along the shores to help stop erosion; eucalyptus trees have been widely planted for the same reason.

Other impressive and highly visible trees are the giant Indian banyan and the brilliant red flowering flamboyant (royal poinciana).

Staying with shades of red, one flower you will see in abundance is anthurium, with its single, glossy petal and protruding yellow spadix. The plant originated in South America and was introduced to Mauritius in the late 19th century. The flower, which at first sight you'd swear was plastic, can last up to three weeks after being cut and is therefore a popular display plant. Now grown in commercial quantities for export, it is used to spruce up hotels and public meeting places.

The easiest place to find these and other rare plant species is in the botanical gardens at Pamplemousses.

Mangroves are enjoying a renaissance in Mauritius today. Originally cut down to reduce swamp areas where malarial mosquitoes could breed, they've been discovered to be an important part of the food chain for tropical fish, and thus large projects to develop mangrove areas have been undertaken, particularly on the east coast.

Feature: The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation

While in Mauritius we spoke with Dr Vikash Tatayah, director of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF; http://www.mauritian-wildlife.org), who told us about the foundation's plans, which include the reintroduction of several bird species in the Vallée de Ferney, and ecotourism projects on Mauritius and Rodrigues. Check the website for updates.

You can help support the MWF by spending a day on Île aux Aigrettes and undertaking tasks such as weeding invasive species; adopting an endangered species such as the pink pigeon (Rs 1000 per year, which includes a trip to Île aux Aigrettes); or simply making a donation. The MWF does accept volunteers, but for stints of longer than six months only.

National Parks

Since 1988, several international organisations have been working with the government to set up conservation areas in Mauritius. About 3.5% of the land area is now protected either as national parks, managed mainly for ecosystem preservation and for recreation, or as nature reserves.

The largest park is the Black River Gorges National Park, established in 1994 in the southwest of the island. It covers some 68 sq km and preserves a wide variety of environments, from pine forest to tropical scrub, and includes the country's largest area of native forest.

Two of the most important nature reserves are Île aux Aigrettes and Île Ronde (the latter is closed to the public), both of which are being restored to their natural state by replacing introduced plants and animals with native species.

In 1997 marine parks were proclaimed at Blue Bay (near Mahébourg on the southeast coast) and Balaclava (on the west coast), but the number of visitors to the area makes it difficult to establish rigorous controls and there is a need to encourage local fishers to use less destructive techniques.

There is also the new and tiny national park of Bras d'Eau, close to Poste Lafayette on Mauritius' east coast.

Important National Parks & Reserves

Balaclava Marine Park

Features

lagoon, coral reef, turtle breeding grounds

Activities

snorkelling, diving, glass-bottomed boat tours

Best time to visit

all year

Black River Gorges National Park

Features

forested mountains, Mauritian kestrel, echo parakeet, pink pigeon, black ebony trees

Activities

hiking, birdwatching

Best time to visit

Sep-Jan for flowers

Blue Bay Marine Park

Features

lagoon, corals, fish life

Activities

snorkelling, diving, glass-bottomed boat tours

Best time to visit

all year

Île aux Aigrettes Nature Reserve

Features

coral island, ebony forests, pink pigeon, olive white eye, Aldabra giant tortoise, Telfairs skink

Activities

ecotours, birdwatching

Best time to visit

all year

Environmental Issues

The natural environment of Mauritius has paid a heavy price for the country's rapid development. And despite recent economic setbacks, the government seems keener than ever to encourage more tourists to continue plugging the gap left by a declining sugar industry and a waning textile industry. However, the expansion of tourist facilities is straining the island's infrastructure and causing problems such as environmental degradation and excessive demand on services such as electricity, water and transport.

One area of particular concern is construction along the coast – almost every beach has been developed, and most of the development is tourist related. However, Mauritians are very keen to put environmental concerns first: a proposal for a hotel on Île des Deux Cocos in Blue Bay, for example, met with such fierce resistance that it was abandoned. Conservationists also fervently (and successfully) combated plans to construct a highway through the old forests in the southeast.

The government now requires an environmental-impact assessment for all new building projects, including coastal hotels, marinas and golf courses, and even for activities such as undersea walks. Planning regulations for hotel developments on Rodrigues are particularly strict: they must be small, single storey, built in traditional style and stand at least 30m back from the high-tide mark. Since water shortages are a problem on Rodrigues, new hotels must also recycle their water.

To combat littering and other forms of environmental degradation, the government has established a special environmental police force charged with enforcing legislation and educating the local population. To report wrongdoers, there is even a hotline (210 5151).

If anything, the marine environment is suffering even more from overexploitation. The coast off Grand Baie is particularly affected by too many divers and boats concentrated in a few specific locations. In addition, silting and chemical pollution are resulting in extensive coral damage and falling fish populations. Unregulated dolphin-watching off the west coast is also causing concern for its impact upon the population.