Writing about writing

Back in July of this year, the cape-sized bulk carrier MV Wakashio ran aground on a reef just off Mah├ębourg, on the south-east coast of Mauritius and a couple of kilometres from Ile Aux Aigrettes where my fodies live. I won’t re-hash all of the details here, but suffice to say that it was (and continues to be) a devastating situation which has the potential to set back the Ile Aux Aigrettes restoration by decades, with knock-on effects on the conservation work that happens there. 2020 is the year that keeps on giving.

I have all of the data I need for my thesis, so nothing that happens on Ile Aux Aigrettes now will impact on my PhD. But I love Mauritius and that islet deeply, and in the days and weeks that followed I lived on news sites, reading countless updates and opinion pieces about what had happened and why. Two things struck me. Firstly the lack of consideration that oil can affect terrestrial systems as well as marine; obviously coral reefs, mangroves and marine organisms are a huge concern in any spill, but toxicity effects are seen on land, and in terrestrial species, as well. And secondly, that many people, even some who should have known better, don’t know the difference between a fody in Mauritius, and an actual Mauritius Fody.

This may seem like the utmost in pedantry, but scientists tend to be pedants. The way I see it, is that there’s little difference in raising awareness if you raise awareness of the wrong species, and many if not most of these news reports featured photos of the wrong fody. There are two fody species found in Mauritius; the most widespread is the invasive and common Madagascar Fody, Foudia madagascariensis; not native to Mauritius and potentially damaging to the endemic Mauritius Fody Foudia rubra through competition and interbreeding. The Mauritius version is endangered, and very very difficult to spot on mainland Mauritius as they are only found within the Black River Gorges National Park.

Which is why Ile Aux Aigrettes is so important- it hosts nearly 400 Mauritius fodies, the only functional population; and seeing pictures of the shore of the islet coated in oil was awful. Prompted by these badly written and factually incorrect articles showing the wrong bird, I had the idea to write my own. It would be factual about the Wakashio situation but also deliberately and carefully a love letter to Ile Aux Aigrettes; to the islet itself, and also to fodies, and the conservation work happening there, and the people doing that work. For the most part, the article came together very quickly, and some sections arrived almost fully formed in my head, barely seeming to need writing at all:

“Ile Aux Aigrettes now is a tiny slice of paradise, full of birds, reptiles and plants that are difficult or impossible to find anywhere else in the world. The coral rock of which the islet is formed is porous, and the sea moves beneath you, providing an acoustic backdrop even when you are some distance from shore. As you walk along the trails, gigantic tortoises doze in the undergrowth like flatulent boulders; you spot pink pigeons sitting smug in the canopy and Mauritius olive white-eyes preening in pairs; but the most conspicuous bird is a small, brightly handsome green and orange species, which buzzes past your face, chases between the trees, and constantly chatters and sings all around you.”

The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation were hugely helpful to me in writing it, especially Vikash Tatayah who gave me a lot of background on IAA and the work that’s happened there; and of course Carl Jones who was happy for me to grill him over Zoom and who gave me insights into his future plans and dreams for the Mauritius islets.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I had a plan for the shape of the article but no idea what I was going to do with it, until one weekend the autumn edition of The Niche, the magazine for members of the British Ecological Society, arrived. In it there were contact details for the editor, saying that article suggestions were welcomed. So, with permission from Vikash and MWF, I emailed the editor, outlining my research, the background of IAA, fodies, and the Wakashio, and asking if an article about it all would be of interest. She replied within 24 hours saying, basically- “Yes, 3000 word feature please, can you finish it in a month in time for the next edition?”. So I got to work to finish what I’d actually already started.

The first draft was very well received by my supervisors, MWF and Carl; the editor suggested only minor style changes and a bit more background information. I could have carried on picking at it more or less indefinitely, but deadlines are useful for forcing you to stop doing that! Being able to submit my own photos of fodies was a huge thing for me too; MWF provided me with a couple of the oil, but the rest that The Niche are using are my own, that I took in Mauritius while I was there. And about ten days ago, I got some even better news; my article is the cover story and one of my favourite photos of a male fody is being used as the cover photo.

The magazine comes out on Wednesday, and I’m not allowed to post the cover until then. But I will be back on Wednesday with the cover, and a PDF of the article itself. I am very proud of it. The prompt for this whole thing happening is awful; but more photos of fodies in the world, and awareness of (the correct species of) fody, are both very good things. I am excited to see what the world thinks of it.

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