Islands are some of the most biodiversity-rich places in the world. The uniqueness and endemism of species in these isolated areas is astounding. That’s why communities, NGOs and governments often work tirelessly to ensure they stay that way, by conserving and even restoring natural ecosystems.
On Rodrigues, a semi-autonomous island in the Republic of Mauritius, environmental education is inspiring communities to get out there and help conserve their unique wildlife. And it’s all thanks to an innovative scheme, the Rodrigues Environmental Education Programme*. This initiative has shaped the lives of school students for the last two decades, and has had such a profound impact on the nature and community of the island that this year it was presented with the Global Conservation Award 2018 by Philadelpia Zoo in the USA, a main funder of the project, at its annual Global Conservation Gala.
When it comes to inspiring a love of nature, it’s good to start young. Since 1998, the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) has been liaising with the Commission for Education, working in schools to inspire a sense of responsibility for nature, something which students will carry with them their whole lives. And since it’s never too late to learn, the wider adult community is also involved in educational talks and outings to nature reserves and MWF’s tree nursery. From this, the community can see first-hand the importance of restoring native plant species and protecting their island’s biodiversity.
Through the programme, they gain an intimate knowledge of how everything on the island is linked, including the water cycle, pollution, and the island’s plant and animal species. These topics have the added benefit of supporting the science, history and geography elements of the school curriculum. Armed with knowledge, young people are getting out there and working hands-on in vital tasks such as the removal of invasive plant species, allowing the island’s natural vegetation to reclaim its rightful place.
The impact of this initiative is visible. Over the years, the Rodrigues Fruit Bat (Pteropus rodricensis) has increased from as few as 3500 bats in 1997 to over 20,000 bats in 2017. The bat’s recovery is due to both an increase in forest cover, and a decrease in poaching thanks to community education. Once Critically Endangered, it has now been downlisted to Endangered – which probably wouldn’t have happened without the hard work of the programme.
Other species that benefit from the programme include endemic birds such as the Rodrigues Fody Foudia flavicans and Rodrigues Warbler Acrocephalus rodricanus (both Near Threatened), and endemic plants like the Bois Blanc Polyscias rodriguesiana and Bois Papaye Badula balfouriana – not to mention rare insects in the Metioche family. MWF has also recently introduced the Aldabra Giant Tortoise Aldabrachelys gigantea to the Grande Montagne Nature Reserve – a species extremely similar to the island’s extinct endemic tortoise, and which will replace its ecological role on the island.
Winning this prestigious award shows that education truly has the power to drive conservation, both in Africa and the world at large. To educate is to empower, to enlighten and to liberate – values which are crucial in making Rodrigues an ecological Island, or as the local would say, an ‘île écologique’.
*The Rodrigues Environmental Education Programme was set up by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) with support from the Philadelphia Zoo and liaises with the Commission for Education and other services under the Rodrigues Regional Assembly.