Conservationists in Mauritius are navigating unchartered territory as they struggle to assess the damage from the massive Wakashio oil spill in one of the island’s most ecologically sensitive areas. All efforts have been deployed to protect the fragile ecosystem, which has existed for millions of years.
“Even in my worst of nightmares, I would never have thought something like that could happen to us,” says Dr Vikash Tatayah, conservation director of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF).
“We are used to cyclones, droughts or an invasive species, it’s part of nature and we know how to cope with that. But we never thought we would have to face an oil spill.”
The Japanese-owned Panama-flagged Wakashio ship ran into Pointe d’Esny’s coral reef barrier, south-east of Mauritius, on 25 July within a few kilometres of various protected sites.
The preliminary investigation in Mauritius indicates that the captain of the ship, Sunil Kumar Nandeshwar, was celebrating a birthday party with his crew as the ship head off-course towards Pointe d’Esny – which explains why the Mauritian National Coast Guard’s emergency calls received no response from the Wakashio.
The freighter ran aground two kilometres from the Ile aux Aigrettes nature reserve, home to many unique plant, bird and reptile species. Just north lie four islets, Ilôt Fouquets, Ile de la Passe, Ilôt Vacoas and Ilôt Marianne, part of national parks and nature reserves.
Wakashio started leaking oil on 6 August near two UNESCO Ramsar sites of international importance: Blue Bay marine park and Pointe d’Esny wetlands, which provide habitat to rare plants and animals and are crucial for the preservation of the ecosystem.
Oil washed ashore at Ile aux Aigrettes, Ilôt Phare and Ilôt Vacoas. The government said Ile aux Aigrettes had been successfully cleared.
Lost conservation efforts
Tatayah tells RFI it will take years to recover. The MWF has already started moving the more vulnerable plants and animal