Working for birds in Africa

Lost Land of the Dodo

Fri, 21/12/2012 - 11:50 -- abc_admin
A. S. Cheke & J. P. Hume, 2008. London, UK: T. & A. D. Poyser. 464 pp, 40 colour plates, many colour maps and figures. Hardback. ISBN 97B-01736-6544-4.
pages 281 - 282

This book presents a detailed ecological history of the Mascarene Islands, an archipelago in the tropical south-west Indian Ocean comprising Mauritius, Réunion, Rodrigues and their associated islets. The islands are famous for their extraordinary but devastated native fauna, including of course the Dodo Raphus cucullatus, but also many other endemic species, genera and even a family (the bolyeriid snakes). Human activity has left only a fraction of this, but the survivors include several very special animals and plants, some of which are among the most endangered species in the world, and some of which have been pulled back from the brink of extinction by intensive and highly innovative conservation action.

Anthony Cheke, the main author of the text, carried out field work in the Mascarenes in the 1970s and has made several shorter visits since. He has remained in contact with ongoing work through most of this period, all the while maintaining a deep interest in the earlier history of the islands. As a result, he produced the standard ecological history of the islands, and pioneering accounts of the native landbirds, all published in Diamond (1987). Julian Hume has been a leading light in recent palaeontological research in the Mascarenes, providing crucial parts of the jigsaw that this book puts together. He has also produced 40 wonderful plates especially for the book. These show the native wildlife, packed with carefully crafted detail and supported by solid science; they add tremendously, although with a certain poignancy, as we can begin to appreciate in more than words what has been lost.

The text is rich in detail, using all available sources including an exhaustive review of old texts (many unpublished) in various languages, as well as the more recent published literature. Early chapters provide essential background information on the islands and how fauna (especially non-flying species) and flora reach volcanic islands that have never been connected to a mainland. Cheke then presents a detailed account of the circumstances of the islands' discovery, a description of the islands before they were colonised, and a thorough account of the likely origins of the Mascarene vertebrate land fauna. (He could not include invertebrates or flora in this analysis: the former, and probably also the latter, would be almost impossible tasks because of the paucity of research on their origins.) Five chapters then deal with the history since colonisation. Four correspond (each) roughly to a century since the first accounts of Mauritius in c. 1600, whilst the last covers the very remarkable islets off northern Mauritius, the isolation of which has led to a history very different from that of the rest of Mauritius and Rodrigues.

The Mascarenes can seem a cushy place to work these days, although the (at times) prodigious rainfall, cyclones, mosquitoes and super abundant rats can be a nuisance. However, this is nothing to what the early explorers had to put up with. Julien Tafforet was 'accidentally stranded' on Rodrigues for nine months in 1725 when a storm drove his ship back to Reunion after the advance party alone had disembarked. Others were stuck for much longer. Francois Leguat, in a long stint also on Rodrigues, described the Solitaire Pezophaps solitarius in 'one of the first coherent observational accounts of animal behaviour in the wild ever published', but grew 'a little nostalgic about claimed breast-like tufts of feathers on the hens' thorax'. Such tales are brought to life by Cheke's wonderfully fluent, varied and readable writing style.

Back to the modern era, there follows a 'guest' chapter on the conservation efforts made on Mauritius and Rodrigues since the 1970s, by Carl Jones, who has led those efforts. Réunion is not treated in this way, but is covered well enough by the 20th-century chapter of Cheke and Hume's text. Conservation progress there has been remarkable as well, but has been missing several ingredients, especially the salvation of charismatic vertebrate species on the brink of extinction, which give the Mauritius / Rodrigues story a wider appeal. Jones' chapter summarises for the first time all the recent conservation work on these two islands and their associated islets, and is extremely instructive.

The final chapter claims to draw lessons from the foregoing text. It is the weakest part of the book. Rather few lessons are in fact drawn (especially compared to Jones' chapter) and these include simplistic and cliched views of academics (or 'heavyweight theoreticians') and international conservation organisations. It includes an interesting section on the suggested use of introduced ecological analogues to fill vacant niches whose original occupant is extinct, but why does this have to be presented initially as an attack on (unnamed) opponents of the idea rather than a straight discussion of the pros and cons?

The production of the book is excellent, as expected from this publisher. It is hefty. The main text (273 pages) is followed by extraordinarily detailed endnotes, some in the form of long paragraphs; they amount to 92 pages at reduced font size, and, for example, chapter 8 has 498 endnotes. Fifteen appendices summarise as much information as can be tabulated, the checklists being especially useful, and unsurprisingly the 48 page bibliography is vast.

There are very few minor slips and typographical errors. The interesting map of the spread of the Red-whiskered Bulbul Pycnonotus jocosus on Reunion has been 'garbled' in production; a corrected version, and a few other corrrigenda, are available directly from Cheke. The only interpretation that I question concerns the mordore, a mysterious, uniform dull red seedeater from 18th-century Réunion, here identified as an aberrant Madagascar Fody Foudia madagascariensis (Cheke's 'Cardinal Fody', normally vivid red and black) similar to variants seen by other authors. However, I have never seen or heard of such a bird, and the authors cited refer only to the well-known 'flavistic' form of Madagascar Fody, in which the red is replaced by yellow, the dark markings variable but never apparently absent. This leaves the mordoré unexplained - I agree that probably it should not be taken at face value (as another lost Réunion endemic), but perhaps it is either a correct illustration of a variant not seen since, or just a bad picture of a normal fody.

This is an extraordinary book: a rare combination of true scholarship, popular science and a labour of love, beautifully written and illustrated, and well produced. As birds are the best known and most conspicuous element of the native fauna, it will fascinate almost anyone with an interest in birds, and is worth every penny.

Roger Safford
Diamond, A. W. (ed.) 1987. Studies of Mascarene Island Birds. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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