Touring Rodrigues

By Tim Georoff, Associate Veterinarian

Thursday, we toured the Anse Quitor Nature Reserve in the southwest corner of Rodrigues. Andrea toured us around and explained the ongoing conservation work here. This reserve is nearly at sea-level and includes a coralline substrate in a relatively dry climate. The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) has been actively restoring the valley within the reserve since 1996 in collaboration with the island forestry services, and funding from the Philadelphia Zoo has supported this effort. The reserve holds many rare endemic plants and is the only known location for trees of the endemic Zanthoxylum paniculatum on the island.  Plants play an important environmental role on the island by helping to conserve natural water resources and prevent soil erosion. They also provide habitat for native birds and the fruit bats. One interesting aspect of several of the endemic plants on Rodrigues is that, through co-evolution with grazing giant tortoises, many of plants developed very small shrub-like leaves on lower hanging branches and more lush prominent leaves on higher portions of the plant which would be out of reach of the tortoises. There are no longer endemic giant tortoises on Rodrigues, however (more on that later). The introduced Madagascar fody can be seen inhabiting areas throughout the reserve, and it is suspected that the endemic Rodrigues fody, which we saw several of in Grand Montagne, could begin living and nesting in the habit as reforestation continues, according to Andrea. As we walked through the reserve, several white-tailed tropicbirds could also be seen flying overhead. Tropicbirds can be found in coastal waters in many of the world’s oceans and the habitat around this area of Rodrigues Island is excellent for locating them.

brush
One of the endemic plants on Rodrigues that demonstrates co-evolution with the now-extinct giant tortoise.  The lower leaves are thinner and smaller while the upper leaves, out of the reach of a grazing tortoise, are full and green.

Anse Quitor
 Anse Quitor Nature Reserve

Andrea noted plant regrowth in this area has been challenging due to the dry climate compared to Grand Montagne. Furthermore, invasion of livestock (most commonly goats) from surrounding areas remains an issue due to the negative impact they cause by overgrazing in the reserve. We saw an example of this when we ran into several goats that we found stuck in a cement bunker on the reserve formerly used as a water tank. With the help of laborers working on the reforestation project, we were able to help move the goats out of the bunker where they had no access to water and back out to safety. The laborers helping on the project (and with goat rescue) are actually octopus fisherman employed out-of-season as community laborers by MWF. Octopus fishing is a big source of income for fisherman in Rodrigues but work is only seasonal. Additional pressure of overfishing octopus on the reefs surrounding Rodrigues as well as illegal fishing has led to a decrease in octopus populations and smaller octopus. In fact, Rodrigues Island recently closed the octopus fisheries as a result of over-fishing (more on this later). MWF has involved the local fisher community by hiring fisherman as laborers on the reforestation projects to reduce the socio-economic impacts of the closure.


Goats are a problem in Anse Quitor. They eat many of the endemic plants placed there by MWF.  These goats had gotten trapped in an old water tank and had to be rescued by Tim and the MWF staff.
Clearing Invasive Plants
Clearing invasive plants in Anse Quitor Nature Reserve.

Following hiking through Anse Quitor, we visited the Francois Leguat Tortoise Park which is located nearby on Plaine Corail in the southwest corner of Rodrigues. The park is 20 ha and takes its name from the French explorer and naturalist Leguat who documented much of Rodrigues early endemic (and now extinct) fauna in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Leguat’s name is lent to extinct species such as Leguat’s rail which previously inhabited the island. Two endemic species of giant tortoises were once found on Rodrigues – the domed Rodrigues giant tortoise (Cylindraspis peltastes) and the saddle-backed Rodrigues giant tortoise (C. vosmaeri). According to eyewitness reports, the tortoises were initially abundant on all of the islands, with possibly hundreds of thousands present on the island in the 1600s. All species became extinct shortly after man arrived on the islands, with the last giant tortoise being seen on Rodrigues during the late 1700s. Their disappearance is blamed on extensive overconsumption by humans (for oil and food) and the predation of eggs and juveniles by the introduced mammals (pigs and rats). The Leguat tortoise park is currently housing and breeding two species of tortoise – the Aldabra tortoise (native to the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles) which is exhibit at the zoo and radiated tortoises (native to Madagascar)—the aim is to eventually reintroduce tortoises to restored forest on the island. Currently the park houses more than 600 individuals of each of the two species.
Tim among the herd of Aldabra tortoises at Francois Leguat Tortoise Park.
Tim among the herd of Aldabra tortoises at Francois Leguat Tortoise Park.
Aldabra tortoises
Aldabra giant tortoises at Francois Leguat Tortoise Park.

Later in the afternoon, we visited with Richard Payendee, who is the current Commisioner for the Environment, Forestry, Tourism, Marine Parks, and Fisheries in Rodrigues. Kim originally worked with Richard when he worked for MWF on Rodrigues back in 1995 when she did her graduate work on the Rodrigues fruit bats. Richard is now a full-fledged politician! He was actually responsible for the decision to close the Rodrigues octopus fisheries due to over-fishing, to allow the octopus population to recover. Richard is a good ally for MWF involvement in environmental projects in Rodrigues and certainly in support of measures that benefit the island’s natural ecosystems.

Richard Payendee
Richard Payendee, Commissioner for the Environment on Rodrigues, with Kim. 
 
Later in the early evening, we visited another bat roost at Acacia. Here we met up briefly with Vikash Tatayah, the MWF Conservation Director and primary contact in Mauritius assisting with logistics of the bat shipment on the Mauritius end. We were also joined by a French film crew who were filming wildlife footage on Rodrigues and Mauritius. We were able to see hundreds of bats roosting in one tree and many flying around in the valley below. This is a primary site where the Rodrigues MWF staff does their bat surveys due to the excellent visibility from this location. Most recent fruit bat population estimates on the island indicate recovery of the Rodrigues fruit bat to numbers over 20,000(!). This is really an incredible conservation success story. Kim commented that is was challenging to find bats over 15 years ago and now you can see them everywhere on the island flying overhead at dawn and dusk. A lot of the recovery can be attributed to reforestation efforts and increased education about the role of the bats – both of which the Philadelphia Zoo has played an important role in. At Acacia, bats were plentiful. We were able to snap photos and obtain video of bats feeding on eucalyptus trees (which are actually an introduced plant on the island). Very proud to be a part of an organization that has played such a major role in saving a species and to have the opportunity to see the effects of those efforts firsthand.

Vikash Tatayah
Dr. Vikash Tatayah, head of Conservation for MWF (with a Rodrigues fruit bat).
 
Following bat viewing we met with Vikash again. Vikash is the scientist for MWF and he updated us more on the status of Rodrigues MWF conservation programs as well as MWF involvement in restoration of other flora and fauna. MWF has been actively involved with captive propagation and reintroduction of several island endemic species on Mauritius including and most notably the Mauritius kestrel (a symbol for the MWF program and Mauritius wildlife), the pink pigeon, and echo parakeet (the only remaining endemic psittacine on Mauritus). We also discussed logistics of bat transfer and transport since this is a complicated animal move. I was also able to take advantage of the excellent cooking of our guest house host, Joanne, and try some curried octopus – a real treat on the island.

10/02/2013 : Back in the States

It’s 6:30 a.m. New York time and we’re here. Our job now is to get back to the Zoo as quickly as possible.

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10/01/2013 : Heading back

We checked the bats and they all looked alert. They had eaten well during the night – a good sign that they were settled in.

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09/30/2013 : Catching spiders

Tim, an avid kayaker, was determined not to leave Mauritius without kayaking in the Indian Ocean.  So he was up very early on Monday for a sunrise kayak on the bay.  He and his guide had a great hour, kayaking with a group of spinner dolphins! 

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09/29/2013 : Tourist Time

We took a long bus ride to Quatre Bonnes for the weekly market where we had a chance to pick up some souvenirs for family, friends, and coworkers. 

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09/28/2013 : Getting ready for the move

Back in our rooms after dinner, I heard the distinctive sound of fruit bats breeding.  I pinpointed the noise to a nearby mango tree and using a flashlight, I picked up the eyeshine of two Mauritius fruit bats – Pteropus niger – in the tree.

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09/28/2013 : Rare birds in Mauritius

The aviary is only a short ride away from our hotel and houses some of the rarest avian species in the world. The aviary used to be a big center for captive propagation and reintroduction but now currently houses mostly injured or non-releasable specimens, with the exception of the bats. 

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09/27/2013 : Seeing an old friend

On Friday morning, I was finally able to see Mary Jane Raboude. During her ten years as the first REEP, MJ and I had spent a lot of time together. She had visited the US 4 times for continuing education, to spend time at the Zoo, and to present at conferences.  She always stayed at our home so our family had become close to MJ. 

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09/26/2013 : Anse Quitor and Francois Leguat Tortoise Park

This site is more challenging, in some ways, than Grand Montagne.  While it’s generally easier to access – no cliff faces to deal with –because it’s so dry and because wandering domestic animals are more of a problem, reforestation is slower going here.

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09/26/2013 : Touring Rodrigues

Very proud to be a part of an organization that has played such a major role in saving a species.

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09/25/2013 : Off to Rodrigues

Some more background on how the Philly Zoo became a champion for endangered bats half way around the world. 

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09/24/2013 : Some background on Mauritius

The Republic of Mauritius is an island nation located about 1200 miles off the southeast coast of the African continent in the Indian Ocean, which includes the principal island of Mauritius, Rodrigues (the only home of the Rodrigues fruit bat), and several smaller outlying islands and archipelagos.

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09/24/2013 : Arriving in Mauritius

I'm so excited to return the island where I did my graduate work almost 20 years ago.  It's hard to believe I've been working to conserve Rodrigues fruit bats for that long.

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09/23/2013 : Traveling to Mauritius

Veterinarian Dr. Tim Georoff and I left Monday morning from JFK airport in NYC for our flight to Mauritius by way of Johannesburg, South Africa.  We're travelling all this way for the primary purpose of accompanying 30 Rodrigues fruit bats back to the Zoo from the long-time captive colony of bats at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Center in Mauritius.

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