Jun 13, 2014

Vallee d'Osterlog Endemic Garden - Inauguration

Courtesy BeachComber Magazine, May 2014
The Vallée d’Osterlog Endemic Garden located at Le Val, spanning 275 hectares of land and sanctuary of rich biodiversity with several species of endemic fauna and flora, was inaugurated on the 11 June 2014 by the Minister of Agro-Industry and Food Security and Attorney General, Mr Satya Veyash Faugoo.

On that occasion, a Visitor’s Centre was inaugurated, and a Visitor’s Guide and a poster launched. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Regional Integration and International Trade, Dr Arvin Boolell and the Minister of Civil Service and Administrative Reforms, Mr Sutyadeo Moutia, were also present.
In his inaugural address, Minister Faugoo said that the Vallée d’Osterlog Endemic Garden is the first of its kind created and possibly the last as well since it is a unique place with many indigenous flora and fauna which cannot be found elsewhere. Already some 67 endemic plants have been identified and there are still more being discovered, he stated, adding that the vast biodiversity of the Valley has to be preserved, in line with the Maurice Ile Durable vision.

For his part, Minister Boolell said that the Valley has great potential and also holds immense value added which can be created. ‘It is important to give the site the visibility it deserves and hence enable one and all to appreciate the Valley’s flora and fauna which is unique in the world’, said Dr Boolell. There are a lot of international treaties and conventions which Mauritius has ratified which are in line with the protection of the environment as well as with the country’s resolve towards achieving sustainable development, he further stressed.

In his speech, Minister Moutia qualified the Valley as a jewel, and also highlighted the importance of protecting the environment and keeping the Valley as natural as possible.

Vallée D’Osterlog
The native forests which originally covered most of Mauritius have almost completely disappeared except for a few inaccessible areas which have been spared the onslaught of deforestation. These remaining forests still hold a great diversity of plant species of great conservation value.

 Source: BeachComber Magazine, May 2014.

“Well, yes. They really are ebonies.”
This sentence spoken by Oumesh Thumiah, one of the youngsters working at the Vallée d’Osterlog Endemic Garden Foundation, sums up the somewhat straggly appearance of these two trees. Standing out at the entrance to the valley, their wispy trunks stretch some forty feet into the air before you note a few branches. Greyish bark, covered with patches of lichen, conceals the trees’ inner souls, black as a moonless night. Three centuries ago, it was on this black ‘gold’ that the major powers wanted to get their hands, this precious wood used for fine carpentry, marquetry, cutlery handles, sculpture and making lutes.

The exploitation of trees for their wood or clearance to provide agricultural land from the time when settlement occurred towards the end of the 16th century almost wiped out the island’s ebony trees, as other endemic species. Nowadays, endemic forest only covers around 2% of the country and is found mainly in the South-West (the Black River Gorges National Park), the South-East (in the Ferney Valley and the Bambous Mountain range for example), the South (Bel Ombre) and islands off the coast, such as Round Island and Ile aux Aigrettes.

The Osterlog Valley is one of the least-known areas, just as not much is known about the origin of its name. Some claim that it is a mis-spelling of the family name of the one-time owner of the land during colonial times, a German by the name of Osterhog.

You might wonder how old the two trees are which greet visitors on entering the valley, but it’s difficult to say as there is no precise record. They have probably been here, however, for more than a hundred years. Even if they’re not the only survivors in the country, their presence suggests there may be some other pleasant surprises in store for us.
We are not let down. No sooner within the forest’s shade, where the vegetation is not yet very dense, you start to come across one species after another, such as the bois balai (Grangeria borbonica) and the bois de natte à petites feuilles (Labourdonnaisia revoluta).

We can still see the clearing. This is only the start; there are some 685 acres of state land flanking mountainous terrain. These lands have been under the responsibility of the Foundation, which falls under the Ministry of Agro-Industry, since the adoption of legislation in 2007.

The first pathway sets the tone. It’s already steep and mosquitoes are having a field-day. The path has been cleared of some invasive species such as the traveller’s tree endemic to Madagascar (Ravenala madagascariensis).

We can see a modest-sized tambalacoque (Sideroxylon grandiflorum) in front of us.

In the 1970s, only thirteen specimens over 300 years old were recorded in other parts of the island. Other younger specimens have since been found but the tambalacoque remains one of the best-known yet rarest vestiges of the large trees that used to cover the island.

A little further on, the light-green crest of a langue de vache fern (Microsorum punctatum) – the local name is quite appropriate given its dozens of hanging, lengthy fronds – decks the angle of the first branch of an ebony, a few yards above the ground. An arranged marriage, perhaps, between two rare endemic species.
Quite a bit more effort is needed to see even rarer specimens. You have to leave the path and climb up to some scattered undergrowth a few yards higher, to come across a bois clou (Eugenia bojeri). With a somewhat ordinary, slanting trunk, hardly wider than a yoghurt pot, and with a few large leaves, it is nonetheless one of the rarest plants in the world. In the 1960s, it was even thought to have died out, until a few specimens were discovered a few years back in another valley in the South-East and then eight others in Osterlog itself.

In the semi-darkness of the undergrowth, faced with roots, slippery stones and flattened palms, you have to advance with care. You then join a promontory which opens up views of the surrounding mountains and the slopes dropping down to the coast and an infinite expanse of ocean. You then plunge back into the shade of the trees in search of two other rare endemic species: a tall colophane (Canarium paniculatum) with an unusually imposing trunk and clearly extremely old, and a vacoas (Pandanus iceryi), whose roots dabble in the edge of a stream above which stretches the forest’s canopy.

The latter tree is fruiting, quite a rare sight.

This is the last sight as the visit is drawing to an end, after slightly less than two hours walking, except that, just off the return path, a deep black mass draws your eyes to the ground, the remains of an ebony that perhaps fell down decades ago and which is in the slow stages of decomposition. Without its bark, the fascinating colour of the wood is clearly visible.

We return, then, to the clearing that marks the southern entrance to the valley, having covered less than 10% of the 685 acres of the reserve, access to which is strictly controlled. The team studying the site’s biodiversity has still to explore some 250 acres, which may produce some further surprises.

How’s your tree Creole? |

The list of endemic plant species found in the Osterlog Valley includes a number which have acquired Creole (and often very descriptive) names. As you walk along, you may come across a “bois cassant” (Faujasiopsis flexuosa), a “takamaka” (Calophyllum tacamahaca), a “bois bouquet banané” (Ochna mauritiana), a “langue de vache” fern (Microsorum punctatum), a “bois corail” (Chassalia coriacea), a large-leafed “bois de natte” (Labourdonnaisia glauca), or a “bois margoze” (Colea colei). Alongside these native plants, many exotic plants are also found with equally colourful local names: “piquant loulou” (Rubus alceifolius) with leaves resembling those of a raspberry plant and vicious thorns, “liane cerf” (Hiptage benghalensis), “arbre de Noël” (Ardisia crenata) which nonetheless looks nothing like a Christmas tree, or a bush bearing the famous “goyave de Chine” (Psidium cattleianum). In other parts of the island, family outings are often organised at the beginning of winter to pick this juicy little fruit.

Opening up the forest |

Visiting the Osterlog Valley is currently only possible for scientific and study reasons. However, the Mauritian authorities want to make it into a place where people can find out about the natural environment typical of transitional forests (located between the coast and high altitude areas), which used to cover the sides of some of the island’s mountains before the arrival of settlers and the deforestation that followed. In the medium term, part of the forest may be opened to the public, once funds become available for this aspect of the project. At the entrance to the valley, a visitor information centre is planned with a conference room, a herbarium and an exhibition space dedicated to endemic species. It will be a two-storey building on stilts over a pond, collecting rainwater for re-use and having its own electricity supply from solar panels. The layout planned around the centre includes an endemic plant nursery, an orchid house and three marked paths, varying from 4.2 to 6.1 kilometres in length and of varying difficulty, through the forest and towards viewpoints. The most adventurous will eventually be able to tackle a 1.6 kilometre via ferrata, running along the edge of a cliff.

Study and protection |

A dozen people are employed by the Vallée d’Osterlog Endemic Garden Foundation, whose director, Sunanda Jugessur-Sungker, is a botanist and environmentalist. Since 2007, some of the team have been cataloguing the animal and plant species in the valley in order to better identify the endemic species. This long drawn-out task goes hand-in-hand with painstaking efforts to protect local species, especially the very rare ones. Clearing the ground indiscriminately of invasive species to ‘protect’ native species is out of the question as endemic plants may be crushed in the process. In any case, the forest’s ecosystem is complex. “For example, removing the trees which protect plants we want to conserve from the glaring sun could, on the contrary, expose them too suddenly to too much sun and heat. You have to proceed very carefully,” Oumesh Thumiah tells us. The first assessments of animal life here were published in a paper in June 2011. They indicate the presence of several species of bats, insects, mollusks and birds, including the Mauritius black bulbul (Hypsipetes olivaceus), an endangered species.

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