Politics matter: The undoing of conservation progress in the land of the dodo

The island of Mauritius is known, particularly in the conservation circle, for the ill-fated dodo and its conservation success stories, which include the recovery of iconic avian species such as the Mauritius kestrel (Falco punctatus) and the Pink pigeon (Nesoenas mayeri) which were near extinction several decades ago.

However, behind this veil of achievements, local political realities is increasingly making the protection and management of Mauritian biodiversity more challenging as new issues emerge.

Emergence of human-wildlife conflict
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Pteropus niger  © Jacques de Spéville

In the midst of the third government-led mass cull of the Endangered Mauritian flying fox (Pteropus niger) in 2018, a paper published in the Journal for Nature Conservation sheds light on the events that led to the government’s choice to conduct the first two mass culls of the Mauritian flying fox in 2015 and 2016. Documentation of human-wildlife conflict in Mauritius is relatively new, as noted by the authors but provides a unique case study.

Given that the mass-culling opted for did not increase fruit growers profits (in fact fruit production dropped substantially after the mass-culls and that the flying fox), a keystone species for the native biodiversity, became more threatened with extinction following the mass-culls, it appears that Mauritius provides a rare opportunity to study what precisely should be avoided when trying to resolve such a HWC [Human-wildlife conflicts]”, Florens and Baider, 2019.

Indeed to mitigate perceived rising conflicts between fruit farmers and the Mauritian flying fox, the Mauritian government has opted for culling of this threatened species since 2006, when six individuals were culled. Despite disputes over the population size of the Mauritian flying fox and the extent of damages it causes to commercial fruits and science revealing that bat culling to increase fruit production is unjustified, culling remains the consistent preferred approach.

A biodiversity conservation law that kills threatened wildlife

This focus on culling as a solution contributed to an amendment in the law in October 2015 that now facilitates the population control of any species of wildlife irrespective of its origin and its conservation status. “The Native Terrestrial Biodiversity and National Parks Bill” was passed on 20 October 2015, just two weeks after the government announced its plan to cull 18,000 threatened native bats. The Act came into force on 1 November 2015, six days before the start of the first mass cull of the Mauritian flying fox  conducted during the breeding season and in the species habitats. This initial cull lasted almost a month, longer than originally announced and according to official figures resulted in the death of 30,938 individuals, 42% more of what was originally planned. In 2016, 7,380 more individuals were killed and figures for the 2018 mass cull have still not been made public.

This new law includes the setting up of a Special Technical Committee for the purpose of controlling wildlife in Mauritius and a section 37 stating that “ A written authorisation to control such species of wildlife as may be prescribed may be exceptionally granted by the Minister to any person, even where such species exists in small numbers but constitutes a threat, at such strategic location as he may determine in the national interest”. This is all, a major step back for the country in terms of conservation governance .

The Republic of Mauritius was one of the first countries to sign and ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity in September 1992. This global landmark agreement took shape locally with the adoption of multiple laws including the  “Wildlife and National Parks Act 1993” that provided legal protection to the native fauna and flora. Its successor which ironically is meant “to make further and better provision for the protection, conservation and management of native terrestrial biodiversity in Mauritius” did not only undo conservation milestones from more than two decades ago but also created what may be an unprecedented legal conundrum with regards to the protection of threatened species in Mauritius.

Was it worth it?

justice-1296381_1280As highlighted in the Journal for Nature Conservation paper and another one in Science, the main outcomes of the mass culls were an increase in endangerment of Mauritian biodiversity with the keystone Mauritian flying fox being listed since July 2018 as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, while on the other side, benefits for fruit farmers are yet to manisfest.

Following the first two mass culls, fruit production dropped by 70% in 2017 due to climatic factors, indicating a poor link between culling of the Mauritian flying fox and increased fruit production. Local scientists already warned prior to the first mass cull that this approach is unlikely to benefit fruit farmers because fruit yields is not solely influenced by the Mauritian flying fox. There are also natural factors, birds and rats that contribute to fruit loss. And unexpected climatic factors clearly presents a bigger threat given the uncertainties on their timing, the nature of their impacts (with trees not flowering) and the potential extent of their impacts.

If culling of the Mauritian flying fox is meant to help fruit farmers, maybe the resources put into the latter, which clearly have no returns, need to be diverted to priorities and support the implementation of this specific objective in the 2016-2020 National Strategic plan for food crop, livestock and forestry sectors: “ To build capacity for enabling farmers to face climate change and move on to ‘climate-smart agriculture”.

The need for accountability at national level 
Mauritius_(orthographic_projection_with_inset).svg
By Yashveer Poonit [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

We are yet to see a proper evaluation of the Mauritian government’s decision to implement three mass culls of a threatened species. We are yet to see evidence that the culls have directly contributed to increased fruit production and the extent of that increase and a proper assessment of the potential long-term impacts on Mauritian biodiversity. What we have been given so far are words comparing increased fruit production in protected trees (by netting) to non-protected trees. This was a known fact before the first cull  and it only indicates that culling does not work.

Following the climatic conditions of 2017,  any increased fruit production observed cannot be seen as a direct ‘benefit’ of culling if the influence of favorable climatic conditions is not isolated.

Before being a conservationist/scientist, I am above all Mauritian and want my government to be accountable for their decisions. Was the mass culls what was needed or what was wanted by fruit farmers? Was it only meant to please fruit farmers? How do you justify the destruction of a key component of the Mauritian natural heritage if it is a misinformed decision and goes against available facts and data? Where are the evaluations of these decisions? Does all members of the Special Technical committee have the expertise to bring in the necessary ecological, economical and socio-political knowledge to effectively advise on the control of wildlife and are they the best representative in each categories?

And one question for conservationists worldwide: The call for a new deal for nature in 2020 is getting louder, can’t we on our side be bolder moving forwards to ensure, after the limelight, that these global deals translate into effective governance as we move down to national level?

Suggested further reading:

  • Florens, F.B.V. and Baider, C., 2019. Mass-culling of a threatened island flying fox species failed to increase fruit growers’ profits and revealed gaps to be addressed for effective conservation. Journal for Nature Conservation47, pp.58-64. Here.
  • Florens, F.V. and Vincenot, C.E., 2018. Broader conservation strategies needed. Science362(6413), pp.409-409. Here.

 

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