Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Francois Leguat Nature Reserve: a dream of paradise

“In the beginning it was like a fantasy, a dream. You start with an idea and if you believe in it then you go ahead and do it. Could we recreate the Rodrigues from all those years ago when it was still uninhabited by man?”

I am chatting to Aurele Anqueti André, Reserve Manager of the Francois Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve on Rodrigues Island in the Indian Ocean. Here a hopeful attempt is being made to reintroduce various indigenous species on 19 hectares of reserve land. Aurele is inspired by the writings of French Hugenot Francois Leguat, whose descriptions of early 18th century adventures around the Mascarene Islands evoke vivid images of an original tropical paradise.

Leguat’s prose is a detailed account of birds and plants found on Rodrigues Island and specifically talks about encounters with 2000 to 3000 “land turtles” or tortoises. Titled A new voyage to the East-Indies, the publication mentions such an abundance of tortoises that Leguat and his group could only cross certain valleys by taking a hundred steps over their carapaces "without setting foot on the ground.”

The original saddle-backed Rodrigues giant tortoises were hunted to provide meat for sea journeys and over-exploitation finally led to extinction. However, two species of giant tortoise has been reintroduced at the Francois Leguat Nature Reserve and the aspiration is that evolution will take its course, as it once has. Centuries ago, tortoises used to drift along the sea currents and that is how they originally spread across the Mascarenes and evolved to form various local species. Between the radiated tortoises from Madagascar and tortoises from Aldabra in the Seychelles, there are now over a 1000 giant tortoises living in the reserve. While some are carefully watched in enclosed camps others prefer the freedom of the reintroduced native flora. The latter rebels of the reserve also like to pose for cheeky photographs, as above.

Over 100 000 replanted indigenous trees has so far adapted well at the reserve and helps to overcome Rodrigues' deforestation issues of the past. Aurele’s eyes shine at the prospect of how the Francois Leguat reserve will evolve in future: “There are various scientists and sponsors involved and a lot of research is being done in order to closely recreate the original ecosystem.”

As we walk through the beautifully lit lime stone caves on the reserve our guide Corinne points out fossils of the original giant tortoises as well as the Solitaire and other birds of paradise. By the time I get to the insightful museum and ponder an artist's interpretation of Leguat's enchanted descriptions, I feel moved by the possibilities of this project and quench my awe with some ice cold lemon juice at the scenic museum café. Cheers to Aurele and the Francois Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve!

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