Since 1988, the Canada’s New Noah program has given young biologists in Canada the opportunity of a lifetime. Each year, Wildlife Preservation Canada selects a post-secondary graduate from dozens of applicants across Canada for the single, coveted position on the tropical island of Mauritius in the western Indian Ocean to complete a program featuring hands-on management of some of the most endangered species in the world. Sarah Falconer is WPC’s 2023 Canada’s New Noah and reports on her experiences.

The largest of the Aldabra tortoises on the island of Île aux Aigrettes, “Big Daddy” is the most famous resident.

Picture this: you are standing in the middle of a lush, coral island forest. The sunlight dapples the forest floor, filtered through swaying palms and twisted vines that reach out towering ficus trees. Bird song fills the air and slight sea breeze stirs the scent of hibiscus. Your mission, to walk through this landscape in as straight a line as you can manage and scour every tree, branch, and twig for your elusive target, the Günther’s gecko. This is my reality a few days a week on the island of Île aux Aigrettes, just offshore of Mauritius.

Île aux Aigrettes, or IAA  for short, is a stunning example of island restoration. Once barren, the island now hosts a near closed canopy of native vegetation. This is perfect for species like the Günther’s gecko which  now thrive here! Through visual estimation surveys, where we meticulously record gecko sightings, we gain valuable insights into the well-being of this unique population.

Always with a smile! The elusive Günther’s gecko.

A beautiful giant Aldabra tortoise enjoying the sun on Île aux Aigrettes.

Though spotting the elusive Günther’s gecko high up in the canopy can be challenging, IAA is also home to a much more noticeable reptile species, the charismatic giant Aldabra tortoise. These tortoises were introduced to Mauritius as an analogue species. The term “analogue” may conjure images of old watch faces or the radio in your parent’s basement, but in the realm of conservation it has a much more pertinent meaning. An analogue species is one that fulfills a similar role in an ecosystem to another and can therefore be used as a replacement to achieve conservation goals. Mauritius and its surrounding islets once hosted the Mascarene tortoise, a long-necked species that played a pivotal ecological role by grazing on trees and bushes, thereby dispersing seeds. Their massive size meant they carved new pathways through the forest as they ambled along, stabilizing the soil, and creating openings in the undergrowth.  Unfortunately, this species has gone completely extinct. Enter the analogue, the giant Aldabra tortoise. Similar in size and diet requirements, this species has been carefully introduced in a controlled setting to a few offshore islands in Mauritius to stunning results! The tortoises have settled into their new home brilliantly and are now contributing to restoring natural ecosystem functioning.

Telfair skinks are another reptile that can be found scurrying on the forest floor of IAA.

Taking some morphometric measurements of a Bojer’s skink as part of a long-term capture-mark-recapture project.

Much of my work while on IAA involves caring for the captive population of these charming tortoises. These reptiles are raised in captivity until they are a certain size and suitable to be introduced in select locations. My mornings typically start with a stroll through the forest, collecting leaves from native trees for the tortoises to graze on. We also regularly weigh and measure the tortoises to make sure they are growing well!

Weighing and measuring the tortoises on IAA monthly ensures they are healthy, happy, and growing.

When I’m not immersed in the world of these captivating reptiles, I am doing my best to experience all that mainland Mauritius has to offer. From savouring the delectable rougaille (a tasty tomato curry) on the beach, to hiking up UNESCO World Heritage Site mountains, it often seems as though six months isn’t long enough to soak up all the rich culture and wonders of this amazing country. Nevertheless, I am determined to make the most of every moment!

Until next time!

Soaking up the last few rays of sun from the Île aux Aigrettes jetty. 

Günther’s geckos love to take refuge in the branches of Ficus trees. It can take a while to check every branch to make sure you don’t miss any!

Sarah Falconer

Canada’s New Noah

Sarah is WPC’s 32nd New Noah. She is building upon a wealth of conservation knowledge that she has gained working in Canadian conservation in British Columbia and Manitoba through this hands-on training program with some of the most endangered species in the world.

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