Ebony Forest would not be complete without giant tortoises. The species you see today in Mauritius are Aldabra giant tortoises (Aldabrachelys gigantea). The island was once home to two species of giant tortoises, dome-shelled and saddleback-shelled tortoises of the genus Cylindraspis. Unfortunately for them, they tasted too good, particularly the liver. Their ability, like all giant tortoises, to be able to survive long periods of time without food and water at sea meant they were ideal for early mariners to collect in huge numbers and taken aboard ships alive. Tortoise harvesting, together with the introduction of rats and pigs, which ate tortoise eggs and destroyed their nests, drove the tortoises extinct by the 1800s.
Many sites in Mauritius have giant tortoises as an attraction. Our tortoises are more than an attraction. They are active members of our conservation team. They rise early in the morning and again later in the afternoon, when the sun is less intense, to feed on grass, leaf litter, creepers and herbaceous weeds. They mainly graze the low growing plants, but will browse by raising their necks and at times standing on three legs to reach favourite food, such as flowers and fruits.
Flash, Vanille, Ralph and Donatello were introduced to their large enclosure in February 2019 as part of a rewilding project and experiment to investigate if they could help control the exotic vegetation. It is early days, but the plan is to release them on site so they can help by weeding and dispersing native seeds.
Many of the endemic plants produce large fleshy-fruits with large seeds, which were once eaten and dispersed by giant tortoises, giant skinks, parrots, pigeons and even the Dodo.
Their extinction has left many plants with no way to disperse their seeds, a process to allow species to adapt to changes such as climate change and fires.
Did you know that Aldabra giant tortoises drink through their nose? They have a flat nose and a special flap in their nostril enabling them to drink from very shallow pools or water that has accumulated on leaves. This makes them ideally adapted for dry and arid conditions.