Conservationists in Mauritius are assessing the damage from the massive Wakashio oil spill in one of the island’s most ecologically sensitive areas and many have described it as a huge setback. However, they are still deploying efforts 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. Tatayah told RFI it will take years to recover. The MWF has already started moving the more vulnerable plants and animals from the islets to a safer location on mainland Mauritius.
“Some endangered species or plants might face a greater risk of extinction. We’re looking at years of conservation work which are going to be lost,” Tatayah said.
Eight hundred tonnes of oil leaked in the southeastern lagoons and around 700 tonnes have been retrieved from the sea and coastline.
“We avoided what could have been an irreparable disaster but still 800 metric tonnes of oil leaked into our lagoon,” the conservationist adds.
“It is immense stress on our environment. We are used to the restoration of habitat, we’ve been doing this for 40 years. But we’ve never done ‘depollution’,” he says.
He fears that as plants absorb polluted water through their roots, the toxic chemicals may lead to the extinction of some species.
“The pollutants are now also to be found in insects, the food for our birds and reptiles. We have no idea how this will affect the whole food chain.”