Conducting a seabird survey on the crater of Round Island.

Stephanie Winton is WPC’s current New Noah. Stephanie’s first stop was the 3-month long Endangered Species Management course at the Durrell Conservation Academy in Jersey, UK. She is now completing a practical placement on the island of Mauritius.

Round Island, Mauritius

– Can we rebuild a functioning ecosystem once it has been destroyed? What pieces have been lost and how can we restore them? These are the questions that are posed on Round Island*.

As part of this work, I have been helping the Island Restoration team conduct population monitoring surveys for giant tortoises, seabirds, and endemic reptiles, as well as planting and caring for native plants.

Field work on this isolated island, 22.5km off the north tip of Mauritius, is a challenging experience complete with hiking on steep, slippery volcanic rocks, wading through spikey invasive plants, and showering with only 0.5 litres of water per day. All these pains are trivial in the face of the exceptional flora and fauna that inhabit one of the only islands in the world without invasive mammalian predators.

A Giant Aldabra tortoise amongst native palms.

Round Island was home to the last Mauritian giant tortoises, who were sadly driven to extinction in the mid-nineteenth century through over-harvesting. To fulfil the lost ecological roles of plant grazing and seed dispersal that the tortoises provided, Aldabra giant tortoises from the Seychelles have been introduced as an ecological replacement to the extinct tortoises, contributing to the conservation of the island ecosystem and other species.

The tortoises that live near the field station are accustomed to the presence of researchers and always happy to receive a neck scratch. I was fortunate to witness a tortoise dig her nest in front of the field station and while watching her progress throughout the night, I was struck by how the remarkable process I was observing would not have happened without innovative conservation measures and years of restoration work on the island.

From dawn to dusk the island is a stage to the extraordinary spectacle of hundreds of seabirds filling the sky with their graceful dances while at night their bizarre haunting songs fill the air. These island denizens link the terrestrial and marine environments, bringing much needed nutrients to the depleted soils.

Red-tailed tropic bird, flying high.

At the foundation of the restoration work on Round Island is full life cycle plant care. The team propagates and headstarts native species in the nursery, planting them in remaining pockets of soil, then watering and weeding them for several years in hopes of the seedlings surviving and bringing the island one step closer to a restored palm-rich forest.

The Round Island nursery.

Planting an endemic bottle palm, Hyophorbe lagenicaulis.

Although many questions remain, the lessons learned on Round Island over the years have provided valuable insight for ecosystem restoration globally. In Canada, we have the privileged opportunity to hopefully avoid such extensive habitat destruction and at the same time benefit from the pioneering work conducted on Round Island.

Until next time,

*Round Island is a Closed Island Nature Reserve and access is only permissible for conservation work through the Government of Mauritius.

Learn about the effects of tortoise grazing and trampling on the Round Island ecosystem:

A cheeky skink cleaning out an empty peach can at the field station

Follow Stephanie’s journey as Canada’s New Noah.

Check back often for new blog updates. In the meantime, check out the other great work being done by WPC to save some of Canada’s most endangered species.