Beau Bassin–Rose Hill, Mauritius—Nearly two weeks after the Japanese-owned, Panamanian-flagged ship MV Wakashio ran aground off the coast of Mauritius late last month—immediately destroying more than 600 yards of fragile coral reefs—the bulk carrier began leaking oil into the pristine blue lagoons of the Indian Ocean island. The spill threatened to do much greater damage than the ship itself.
Within hours of the leak, more than 5,000 local volunteers and dozens of career conservationists jumped into action to save their remote nation’s vibrant, unique wildlife by controlling the oil and moving some species out of harm’s way.
Like other isolated islands, Mauritius developed rich and diverse ecosystems. But starting about 400 years ago, successive Dutch, French and British settlements butchered the natural habitat, leaving only 2 percent of its native vegetation intact and killing off the famous dodo. Since winning independence from the U.K. more than 50 years ago, the nation has worked to restore its ecosystems. Mauritius has a high-income economy and a multicultural population, and it is one of the world’s most peaceful countries, renowned for its idyllic shores.
It is on these shores, near the picturesque coastal villages of Mahébourg and Pointe d’Esny, that volunteers gathered to build floating “sorbent booms” made of chains of stretch nets filled with dried sugarcane leaves that act as barriers that slow the oil’s spread. Research has shown that natural materials (such as dried sugarcane leaf or straw) are good at trapping oil in their matted, crisscrossed fibers. Additional volunteers gathered in shopping malls and public areas around the island to build the booms, deploying more than 400