Featured image: taxidermic rougette, with faint reddish-orange “collar” still visible despite fading. Image: Wikimedia CC, citron
A triple thread of discrimination, exploitation and subjugation runs through many historical extinctions. These injustices have long constrained the agency of entire strata of human societies. Above the disadvantaged many, a revolving cast of small elites have sat and called the shots. How many wage-slaves in the so-called rich world possess one iota of the power of the super-rich? And what of the agency of those trapped in the sweatshops and subsistence farms of the world?
Of course, injustice is not just an economic issue. Racism, misogyny, religiously-inspired bigotry and much more besides all fuel the malign inequities of the modern age. Moreover, cruelty and callousness amongst humans has a long, sad history of bleeding far beyond the boundaries of our own species.
This is one such tale. It is a story of slavery, in this case carried out for the benefit of French and British plantation owners, at the expense of the life and liberty of many living around the Indian Ocean. This tale of despoliation on Mauritius and Réunion also accounts for the extinction of a small and singular bat species: the rougette.
The Dutch abandoned Mauritius in 1710 and five years later France laid claim to it. French settlers had already established themselves on nearby Île Bourbon (later Réunion) decades prior. One hundred-and-twelve years of Dutch activity on Mauritius had profoundly harmed its ecosystem. Six bird species and one lizard are thought to have vanished, with likely much more besides. Yet Mauritius retained a great many wondrous species.
Amongst these was the small Mauritian flying fox (Pteropus subniger), also found on Réunion. Alluding to the band of reddish fur around their necks, the French often called them rougettes. The Pteropus genus contains some of Earth’s largest bats, such as Pteropus vampyrus, whose wings might span five feet. As suggested by their English common name, rougettes were far smaller, about two feet from wingtip to wingtip. When the French began settling Mauritius in earnest during the 1720s, the creatures were common.
This would not last. Mauritius’ new masters had a plan for it. Thousands of enslaved African, Malagasy and Asian people were shipped there to work in the lucrative sugar industry. For over a century Île de France, as the island was renamed, would be a brutal slave colony. Though the percentage of Île de France covered in sugar plantations grew quite slowly, about one-sixth of the already disturbed forests were felled under French rule. The enslaved were tasked with carrying out the backbreaking clearances.
Rougettes were especially vulnerable to deforestation due to their unusual roosting habits. Early observers wrote that up to four hundred might roost inside a single old hollow tree. Most of the rougette’s congeners roost on tree branches, not crammed together in crevices. As old-growth forest was destroyed, suitable roosts for this bat grew scarcer. P. subniger suffered a further consequence of human cruelty: enslaved people were fed appallingly, with those working the sugar fields given far fewer calories than required, and negligible quantities of protein. Survival depended on supplementing what were basically starvation rations.
Eating the native fauna was the best hope for long-term survival available to enslaved people on Île de France and Île Bourbon alike. The eighteenth-century French observer De la Nux claimed rougette hunting on Île Bourbon originated with enslaved Madagascans, though this is unverifiable. Anyhow, by the eighteenth century rougettes were, in De la Nux’s unsympathetic opinion, part of the diets of ‘numerous poorly off and unfastidious people’. P. subniger were fatty creatures, an adaptation to the cooler temperatures of their favoured high-altitude forests. This made them an invaluable source of calories for many denizens of the French Mascarenes.
Eighteenth-century engraving of enslaved people on cleared land near Port Louis, in north-western Mauritius. Image public domain.
In 1815, after the French Revolution broke the power of the Bourbon kings and Napoleon lost his wars, Britain became the colonial master of Île de France, restoring the name of Mauritius to the island. Île Bourbon stayed under French rule.
Deforestation cost Mauritius around a quarter of its remaining virgin forest over just twenty years of British rule. Simultaneously sugar cane cultivation expanded vastly, though cane fields did not replace much of the forest. Instead the felled wood fuelled the sugar-mills. Despite all this, at least one record suggests Mauritian rougettes may have remained reasonably common into the early 1830s.
Everything changed for Mauritius on 1 April 1835, with the formal abolition of slavery. Three in every four of Mauritius’ inhabitants were told that they were now free. Tragically “emancipation” was a poisoned chalice. Whilst Britain’s government compensated former slave owners for their “inconvenience”, nearly eighty thousand former slaves on Mauritius faced two unpromising options. Either they could serve an “apprenticeship” to their former masters, or try to eke out a life away from the settled parts of the island. Unsurprisingly the majority chose to abandon the savagery of the plantations, heading for isolated parts of the island to practice slash-and-burn peasant agriculture. Though this internal diaspora of the desperate likely harmed rougette populations, especially in those parts of the highlands which were settled, none of those involved had chosen to be on the island in the first place.
Much the greater act of ecological harm in the wake of 1835 was the work of the “plantocracy”. It proved profitable for plantation owners to import indentured Indian labourers to replace their slaves. The sugar industry boomed. The cost was the suffering of tens of thousands of Indians and the halving of Mauritius’ forested area in just a decade.
On Île Bourbon things were no better. Slavery remained legal there until 1848, when political upheaval in France led to formal abolition and a new name for the island: Réunion. In an inversion of the situation on Mauritius, it was impoverished white settlers who occupied the highlands of Réunion which harboured the island’s remaining rougettes.
The rougette as it once was. Hand-coloured French engraving from the late nineteenth-century. Image public domain.
In the end, nearly two centuries of plantation agriculture-driven hunting and habitat destruction would drive P. subniger extinct. The final record on Réunion came in 1862, with the animal last reported on Mauritius two years later. Live rougettes were not heard of again.
The sting in the tail of the bats’ demise is that, being primarily nectarivorous, plants which they pollinated might have passed into oblivion with them. We’ll never know.
Cheke, Anthony & Hume, Julian P., Lost Land of the Dodo (London, 2009)
Flannery, Tim & Schouten, Peter, A Gap in Nature (London, 2001)
Macmillan, Allister, Mauritius Illustrated (London, 1914)
Various authors, IUCN Red List, online (2017)
Various authors, Volume 1: Truth and Reconciliation Committee Report (Mauritius, 2012)