Travel to Mauritius on a quest to save endangered species with the British naturalist whose work inspired Masterpiece production The Durrells in Corfu.
The green and mountainous island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean was once the home of the ill-fated dodo. The island saw many other animals vanish from its soil, and by the 1970s, numerous species were close to being eliminated. Enter Gerald Durrell.
Durrell sets out on a search for bats and pink pigeons, climbing near-vertical rock faces to find Telfair’s skinks and Gunther’s geckos, and swimming about coral reefs with multicolored marine life. But rounding up a collection to take back with him to his animal sanctuary in the English Channel won’t be easy: There are many dangers awaiting him.
Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons is a delightful and inspiring adventure by the author of My Family and Other Animals, among other much-loved memoirs.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Gerald Durrell including rare photos from the author’s estate.
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About the Author
Gerald Durrell (1925–1995) was a British naturalist, zookeeper, conservationist, author, and television presenter. He is the author of the memoirs My Family and Other Animals; Birds, Beasts and Relatives; A Zoo in My Luggage; The Whispering Lands; and The Garden of the Gods; and more than twenty-five nature books. A student of zoology, he founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust on the Channel Island of Jersey.
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Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons
A Journey to the Flora and Fauna of a Unique Island
By Gerald Durrell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Gerald Durrell
All rights reserved.
Macabee and the Dodo Tree
When you are venturing into a new area of the world for the first time, it is essential — especially if you are an animal collector — that you do two things. One is to get as many personal introductions as you can to people on the spot; the second to amass as much information as possible, no matter how esoteric or apparently useless, about the place that you are going to. One of the ways you accomplish this latter is by contacting the London Embassy or High Commission of the country concerned. In many cases, this yields excellent results and you are inundated with maps and vividly colored literature containing many interesting facts and much misinformation. In other cases, the response is not quite so uplifting. I am, for example, still waiting for all the information promised me by a charming Malay gentleman in the London High Commission when I was going to that country. My trip there was eight years ago. However, the response you get from the Embassy or High Commission generally gives you some sort of a clue as to the general attitude prevailing toward life in the country concerned.
Bearing this in mind, I hopefully rang up the Mauritian High Commission in London when it was finally decided we were going to go there. The phone was answered by a charming young lady with a most attractive Asian accent.
"Hallo," she said, with interest, but cautiously, not divulging her phone number or identity.
"Is that the Mauritian High Commission?" I asked.
There was a pause. This was obviously an unexpected question and it required time to know how to deal with it.
"Yes," she admitted at last, rather reluctantly, "that's right."
"The Mauritian High Commission?" I repeated, making sure.
"Yes," she said, more certainly this time, "Mauritian."
"Oh, good," I said, "I was hoping you could give me some information as I am very much hoping to go there soon."
There was another short pause.
"Go where?" she asked at length.
I knew that Mauritius was fairly remote but this, I felt, was too much. However, this was my first introduction to the charming illogicality of the Mauritian way of life. Eventually I did receive from the High Commission a small booklet containing, among other things, slightly out-of-focus pictures of Miss Mauritius 1967 lying about on beaches that could have been situated in Bognor or Bournemouth, for all the evidence to the contrary. Reluctantly I went back to the books of the early naturalists and more up-to-date zoological and geographical tomes for my information.
The Mascarene Islands, of which Mauritius is the second largest, lie embedded in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar. Forty miles by twenty, Mauritius gleams in a million tropical greens, from the greens of dragon wing and emerald, to delicate dawn greens and the creamy greens of bamboo shoot. All this is encrusted with a rainbow of flowers from the great trees that flame like magic bonfires to fragile violet-shaped magenta blooms, lying like a thousand shed butterfly wings among the grass, which itself can be green or yellow, or as pink as the sunset.
In the dawn of the world, Mauritius was formed — when the great volcano pustules were still bursting and spilling out fire and lava. In a series of cataclysmic convulsions, the island was wrenched from the sea bed and lifted skyward, the hot rocks glowing and melting so that cyclone and tidal wave, hot wind and great rains, molded and fretted it, and tremendous earth shudders shook it and lifted it into strange mountain ranges, churning the tender rocks as a chef whips egg whites until they become stiff and form weird peaks when lifted up on a fork tip. So the strange-shaped mountains of Mauritius grew; miniature mountains all under 3,000 feet, but as distinctive, unique and Daliesque as if carefully designed for a stage backdrop. A multitude of coral polyps, as numerous as stars, then formed a protecting reef round it and contained the lagoon, which encircled the island as a moat encircles a fortress.
Gradually, as the earth formed, seeds arrived, either sea- or air-borne, to send their roots into the volcanic soil, now soft and rich, watered by many bright rivers. Following, came birds and bats carried by errant winds, tortoises and lizards like shipwrecked mariners on rafts of branches and creepers from other lands. These settled and prospered and gradually, over millions of years, their progeny evolved along their own lines, unique to the islands.
So the Dodo came into being; and the big, black, flightless parrot. The tortoises grew larger and larger until they were the size of an armchair and weighed over two thousand pounds, and the lizards vied with each other in evolving strange shapes and rainbow colors. There being no major predators except an owl and a small kestrel, the creatures evolved without defense. The Dodo became flightless, fat and waddling, nesting on the ground in safety, as did the parrot. There was nothing to harass the slow, antediluvian life of the tortoises; only the quick, glittering lizards and the golden-eyed geckos needed to fear the hawk and the owl.
There, on this speck of volcanic soil in the middle of a vast sea, a complete, unique and peaceful world was created slowly and carefully. It waited there for hundreds of thousands of years for an annihilating invasion of voracious animals for which it was totally unprepared, a cohort of rapacious beasts led by the worst predator in the world, homo sapiens. With man, of course, came all his familiars: the dog, the rat, the pig and, in this instance, probably one of the worst predators next to man, the monkey.
In an incredibly short space of time, a number of unique species had vanished — the Dodo; the giant, black, flightless parrot; the giant Mauritian tortoise, rapidly followed by the Rodrigues tortoise; and that strange bird, the Solitaire. The dugong, which used to throng the reefs, vanished, and all that was left of a unique and harmless fauna was a handful of birds and lizards. These, together with what is left of the native forest, face enormous pressures. Not only is Mauritius one of the most densely populated parts of the globe, but as well as dogs, cats, rats and monkeys, a number of other things have been introduced in that dangerous, unthinking way that man has. There are, for example, twenty introduced species of bird, which include the ever-present house sparrow and the swaggering, dominating mynah. There is the sleek and deadly mongoose and, less damaging but still out of place, the hedgehog-like tenrec from Madagascar. Then there are the introduced plants and trees, so that the native vegetation is jostled and strangled by Chinese guava, wild raspberries, privet and a host of other things. In the face of all this, the indigenous flora and fauna of Mauritius can be said to be hanging on to their existence by their finger nails.
In spite of my misgivings after my exchange with the High Commission, I found Mauritius, although indeed remote, was neither unknown nor inaccessible. Within a few days, Air France, who wonderfully stage-managed the entire trip, wafted us halfway across the world in the lap of luxury, our every want catered for by voluptuous air hostesses; so much so, that John Hartley and I felt we would be reluctant to leave the plane and brave the outside world again. But when the island came into view, we were seized with the excitement that always engulfs one when a new country suddenly presents itself to be explored. It lay, green and smoldering, mountains smudged blue and purple, like some monstrous precious stone in a butterfly-blue enamel setting, ringed with the white-foamed reef and displayed, as a jewel is displayed on velvet, on the dark blue of the Indian Ocean. As our pachyderm aircraft lumbered in to land, we could see the green islets lying within the reef, star-white beaches and the square fields of sugar cane covering, it seemed, every available piece of flat land, lapping the base of the curiously shaped mountains like a green check tablecloth. It was somehow ironical that we, the flightless mammals, were landing, in one of the biggest flying edifices known on earth, on the area of land that covered the remains of one of the earth's strangest flightless birds; for the Dodo's graveyard, from which were extracted the bones on which our tenuous knowledge of the Dodo is based, lies beneath the tarmac of Plaisance airport.
The doors of the plane opened and we were lapped in the warm scented air and dazzled by the brilliance of colors that only the tropics can provide. In thick clothes — it had been snowing in England — one felt the sweat prickle out all over one's body and dribble in uncomfortable rivulets down one's back and chest. We were ushered through Customs with the minimum of fuss, thanks to the enchantingly charming gentleman with the euphonious name of Lee Espitalier Noel — there were, we discovered, over two hundred in the family, which caused them to give up exchanging Christmas presents — who had a delicious French accent that would have made Maurice Chevalier sound cockney.
It was here that we discovered one of the many incongruities of Mauritius. In an island that had been an English colony for over one hundred and fifty years and was still a member of the Commonwealth, where English was taught in schools as the official language, everyone gaily and volubly spoke French. We also found a strange amalgamation of the English and Gallic cultures; although traffic progressed on the left-hand side of the road and hand signals were correct and as graceful as a ballerina's dance movements, the driving was of the suicidal variety that the French nation delights to indulge in.
Our Creole driver drove at a ferocious speed down the road lined with halfgrown sugar cane, the stems a delicate pinky-blue and the leaves acid green, through villages of tin and wooden houses, thronged by groups of women, gay as butterflies in multi-colored saris, surrounded by dogs, chickens, goats, humpbacked cattle and children in an exuberant melee. Each village was fragrant with the smells of fruit and flowers, alight with trailing shawls of bougainvillea, each shaded by a giant banyan tree, like a hundred huge, black, melted candles with green flames of leaves fused together in a mammoth, sheltering, shade-quivering bulk.
I was enchanted by the signs we passed —"Mr. Tin Win Wank" who was licensed to sell tobacco and spirits On and Off (the premises, one presumed, rather than as the spirit moved him); the mysterious signpost in the miles and miles of sugar cane that said, simply and unequivocably, "Trespass," and as to whether this was as a warning or invitation, there was no indication. When we slowed down for a group of grunting, fly-veiled pigs to cross the road, I was delighted to observe that the village contained a "Mr. Me Too," who was a watchmaker, and a "Mr. Gungadin," no less, who finding his premises at a crossroads had, with a flash of Asian originality, called his shop "Gungadin Corner Shop." This was to say nothing of the neat little notices everywhere in the cane fields under the banyan trees saying "Bus Stop" or, on several occasions, ones adjuring you to "Drive slowly School crossing." In this Alice in Wonderland atmosphere one had a vision of a large wooden building on rollers, full of enchanting children, being drawn back and forth across the road. Other place names in Mauritius had fascinated me as I pored over the map before leaving, and now we passed through some of them.
Eventually, drugged by heat, jet-lag and all the tropical scents, dazzled by sun and color, and terrified by our driver's ability to avoid death by inches, we arrived at the rambling, spacious hotel spread out in groves of hibiscus, bougainvillea and casuarina trees along the blue and placid lagoon, with the strange mini-Matterhorn of Le Morne mountain looming up behind it. Here, we were greeted with gentle, languid charm and wafted to our respective rooms, thirty yards from where the blue sea whispered enticingly on the white beach.
The next day, we went down to meet the McKelveys of Black River, where the captive breeding program, sponsored by the International Council for Bird Preservation, the World Wildlife Fund and the New York Zoological Society, has been set up. David and his attractive wife, Linda, greeted us warmly and started telling us some of the trials and tribulations attendant upon trying to track down and capture specimens of the thirty-three Pink pigeons and the eight kestrels, which were the total population of these, some of the world's rarest birds, in a thickly forested area the size of Hampshire. That Dave had met with success at all was a miracle. He was an attractive-looking man in mid-thirties, with dark hair and blue eyes that beamed with enthusiasm. His somewhat nasal voice seemed just a shade too loud, as if pitched toward that section of the audience furthest back in the hall. He had that nimbleness of wit and phrase that makes the speech of humorous Americans among the funniest and raciest in the world. The rapid, wisecracking speech, studded with superlatives like a dalmatian with spots, was in Dave's case accompanied by the most extraordinary power of mimicry, so that he not only told you how the pigeons flew in overhead and landed and cooed, but imitated them so vividly that you felt you were witnessing the event.
"I walked in those God-damned woods looking for the roosting sites until I sure as hell felt like a water-shed, the way I was rained on. I thought maybe I would get to growing mushrooms between my toes as a sideline. I felt about as hopeful as if I was looking for Dodos. I used to stay up there until way after dark, and let me tell you, it's blacker than the inside of a dead musk ox's stomach on those hills after dark. Then one day, wham, there they all were, flying in to Cryptomeria Valley, their wings going 'whoof, whoof, whoof' and then, when they settled, they kind of bowed to each other and then went 'caroo, coo, coo, caroo, coo, coo.'"
Dave burbled on in this vein as he led us from his house to the walled garden nearby, where an enthusiastic local aviculturalist had donated the aviary space for the project.
"Now," said Dave, as he led us up to the first aviary, "now you are going to see one of the rarest birds in the world and one of the most God-damned beautiful too, and tame as a newly-born guinea pig. They were from the start. There!"
In the aviary sat three undeniably handsome pigeons. They were much larger than I had imagined and more streamlined, but this was due to their extraordinarily long tails and necks. With their reddish-brown plumage and the delicate cyclamen-pink blush on their necks and breasts, they were large and very elegant members of the family. They had small heads perched on long, soigné necks, which gave them a look rather like a feathered antelope. As we approached the wire, they peered at us in the mildly interested, oafish way that pigeons have, and then, dismissing us from what passed for their minds, they fell into a doze. I felt that even though their rarity made them of great biological and avicultural importance, one could hardly say that they had personalities that inspired one.
"They look rather like a wood pigeon that has been dyed," I said, unthinkingly, and Dave gave me a wounded look.
"There's only thirty-three of them left," he said, as though this made them much more desirable and beautiful than if there had been twenty-five million.
We moved on to the aviary that contained a pair of Mauritian kestrels. They were small, compact birds with wild, fierce-looking eyes but, here again, they bore such a close resemblance to the European and North American kestrels that only an expert could tell them apart, and the uninitiated could well be pardoned for wondering what all the fuss was about. Was I, I wondered, being unfair to the Mauritian kestrel just because it closely resembled a bird that I had been familiar with from childhood, had kept and flown at sparrows? Did this make me less anxious to enthuse over it than if it had been something as bizarre as a Dodo? After mature reflection for at least thirty seconds, I decided that this was not the case. Nothing could be more boringly like a guinea pig than a West Indian hutia, a rodent to which I was passionately attached and whose future was as black as the kestrels'. No, it was simply that I was more mammal than bird-orientated, and so a small, dull mammal appealed to me more than a small, dull hawk. I decided that this was remiss of me and made a vow to make amends in the future. Dave, meanwhile, was regaling me with the fate of a pair of kestrels that had been foolish enough to nest on a cliff face that was not totally inaccessible.
"Monkeys," said Dave, dramatically, "the forest's full of the damn things. Big as a six-year-old child, some of the males. Travel in huge troops. You can hear them, 'aaagh, aaagh, aaagh, eeek, eeek, eeek; yaah, yaah' (that's the old male), and then there are the babies, 'week, week, week, eeek, eeek, eeek, yaah, yaah, yaah.'"
Excerpted from Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons by Gerald Durrell. Copyright © 1977 Gerald Durrell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsA WORD IN ADVANCE,
1 MACABEE AND THE DODO TREE,
2 PINK PIGEON PALAVER,
3 ROUND ISLAND,
4 THE FRUGIVOROUS FLIGHT,
5 THE ENCHANTED WORLD,
7 PINK PIGEON POSTSCRIPT,
TAILPIECE (December 1983),
A BIOGRAPHY OF GERALD DURRELL,
A MESSAGE FROM DURRELL WILDLIFE,