1998, Emmanuel Spicq, Study Tour, La RÚunion

Travel scholarship to La Réunion

By Emmanuel Spicq

La Réunion

La Réunion is an active volcanic island in the Mascarene archipelago, including Mauritius and Rodrigues, in the Indian Ocean. Its 2,512 square kilometres are very mountainous. Le Piton des Neiges (3,069 metres) and the volcano, Piton de la Fournaise (2,631 metres), are the highest points. The climate varies from lush and tropical on its windward coast, to dry and tropical on its leeward coast, with temperate and alpine conditions on the high plateau and mountains respectively. This diversity, along with the steep inaccessible slopes
and ravines, has produced the richest island endemic Mascarene flora.

The purpose of my visit was to strengthen the relationship between the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Réunion Island (Conservatoire Botanique National de Mascarin). The publication of the `Flore des Mascareignes’ is a joint project between Paris, Kew and Mauritius. It seems that Kew concentrates on Mauritius and Rodrigues, Paris on Réunion. I would like to see, in the future, stronger links between all parties.

Mascarin Botanic Garden (12 ha) has an extensive collection of threatened endemics, a tropical orchard and a large palm collection. My schedule involved working with Mascarin Botanic Garden, as well as meeting organisations such as the Forestry Division and the University. I also tried to discover the whole island. My highlights were:

  • Studying two threatened endemics in-situ and ex-situ and producing a short paper on them: Foetidia mauritiana Lam. (Lecythidaceae) and Dombeya populnea (Cav.) Baker (Sterculiaceae).
  • Spending five days in the most remote valley in the centre of the island, Le Cirque de Mafate, along with the Mascarin propagator and the field botanist.

Mafate has no roads, accessible only by a six hour walk. Mascarin Botanic Garden is surveying a rare remnant part of the semi-xerophile forest in Bras des Merles.We identified and mapped new populations of rare endemic species e.g. Foetidia mauritiana, Dombeya populnea, Terminalia bentzoe and endemic palms.We were surprised at the large size and age of some specimens, these having been hidden in the steep inaccessible ravines.We also saw the extent of damage caused by exotic plant pests such as Lantana camara, Rubus alceifolius and Hedychium spp. which are taking over the endemic flora. A careful programme is done by the Forestry Division (Office National des Eaux et Forêts) to eradicate these pests by combined manual and chemical control. The native plants are also under threat from local people who collect them for medicinal and magical purposes.Mascarin Botanic Garden tries to encourage the people to cultivate their own plants.

Now I would like to share with you further interesting sites I visited:

  • The spectacular landscape of the central valleys which are old collapsed craters: Cirque de Salazie, Cilaos and Mafate.
  • The capital town Saint Denis with its old colonial mansions, its green spaces, particularly the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle and its Botanic Garden.
  • The Museum of Agriculture and Rural Life Stella Matutina, an old refurbished sugar cane factory which explains the agricultural history of the island and its implications on social life.
  • Le Jardin d’Eden which is an ethnobotanical and landscape garden. Le Domaine du Grand Hazier is a 300 year old creole estate with an amazing orchard where a lot of useful plants were first introduced to La Réunion.
  • I tried to climb the volcano twice but the weather conditions were poor and I was forced to abandon it for safety reasons.
  • The high altitude vegetation (above 2,000 metres) in the Bébour Forest, and Bélouve Forest which is planted with Tamarin des hauts endemic to La Réunion Acacia heterophylla. Then the ericoid vegetation comprising tree heather Phillippia spp. and tree ferns Cyathea spp.
  • The main agricultural industries of the island: the Vanilla Processing Company De Floris and the Vanilla Co-operative. The other visit was to the sugar cane factory of Bois Rouge, which produces 100,000 tonnes of sugar per year for France.

This trip has been a great success because I met interesting people from whom I have learned a great deal in a short time. I would like to thank everyone who assisted me in my travel, especially my sponsors — The Stanley Smith Travel Fund Scholarship, The Kew Guild, The Cooke Trust and Bill and Jane MacAlpine.

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