The Dodo is the textbook example of man’s role in driving other species to extinction. This defenceless bird was hunted and harried to disappearance through the appearance of humans on the uninhabited island of what is now called Mauritius. Sailors on the high seas—the Arabs, the Portuguese and then the Dutch, discovered and re-discovered the pristine isle. For dodos, the beginning of the end was in 1598 when the Dutch discovered them on the island. Dodos were flightless birds, and also fearless because they had never encountered predators. So when humans appeared with their guns and weapons, they had no clue how to protect themselves. Moreover, humans brought along dogs, cats, pigs, rats—all which hunted the birds and raided their nests. Till there were none left.
But if this is a story of man’s role in the loss of a species, what follows is an equally sorry tale of havoc cause by man’s deliberate introduction of a species into an alien eco-system. And on the very same island of Mauritius!
Sugarcane did and continues to play a key role in the economy of Mauritius. The sugarcane crop in Mauritius was beset by grasshoppers, which ate the leaves. In the 1780s, the French deliberately introduced mynas to the island to help control these. To a certain extent they did, but soon enough the mynas figured out the local lizards were easier to catch than the grasshoppers, and so made the lizards the mainstay of their diet. One consequence of this was that the insects that the lizards fed on multiplied, as they now had no predators! And even more seriously perhaps, the mynas themselves became pests to native species. Mynas are by nature aggressive and raid nests for eggs and newly hatched chicks. They compete with native birds for nesting sites. In Mauritius, they have been known to compete with an endemic species, the endangered Echo Parakeet, for nesting spaces.
Island ecosystems are very special. Human interventions can have disastrous results. To quote the IUCN Island Ecosystem Specialist Group:
‘Earth is home to over 100,000 islands, which support 20% of global biodiversity. The characteristics of size, shape and degree of isolation make many of these islands ecologically and culturally unique.
However, these same characteristics also make islands fragile and vulnerable ecosystems. Islands have the highest proportion of recorded species extinctions. Eighty percent of known species extinctions have occurred on islands and currently 45 percent of IUCN Red List endangered species occur on islands.’
Mauritius and all islands are beautiful and special! Let’s hope that we humans can preserve what makes them special, and leave the generations to follow this precious legacy.
An interesting aside: A Mughal-time painting found in St. Petersburg shows a dodo along with several Indian birds. The painting is believed to be from the 17th century and is attributed to the artist Ustad Mansur. The bird depicted probably lived in Emperor Jahangir’s zoo in Surat!