Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Croc Parc, Etang Salé

Last Sunday we visited Croc Parc, a crocodile park in Etang Salé, in the south-west of Reunion.


We were there for a picnic in the grounds (which cover 5 hectares), but we made the most of the occasion to see the crocodiles too, as we hadn't been back since the park opened a few years ago. We found the residents had really grown in size! 

Crocodiles don't need to paddle when
swimming, they use their tails instead

The crocodiles in the park are the species Crocodylus Niloticus (Nile crocodiles) and come from Madagascar.

in the wild this species of crocodile can kill a man

Nile crocodiles can be found in most of Sub-saharan Africa as well as Madagascar.

crocodiles have strong jaws to hang onto their prey

There are currently about 160 crocodiles in the park.

Crocodiles spend the night in the water

The Egyptians used to worship the crocodile/Nile god Sobek, as those who worked or travelled on the Nile hoped that if they prayed to Sobek he would protect them from being attacked by crocodiles.

impressive foot!

Today crocodiles are protected under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora aka the Washington Convention).

walking the plank

They can grow up to 6 metres in length and weigh nearly a tonne. As reptiles they are cold-blooded and need the sun to warm their body up to their activity temperature (30-33°C).

crocodiles like to bask in the sun 

The sex of Nile crocodile hatchlings is determined not by genetics, but by the average temperature during the middle third of their incubation period. If the temperature inside the nest is below 31.7°C, or above 34.5°C, the offspring will be female. Males can only be born if the temperature is within that five-degree range. Generally 16 to 80 eggs are laid.

two's company

Their bodies are covered in thick bony scales

Crocodiles have a more triangular shaped head than alligators and caimans, and when their mouth is shut all their teeth can be seen (as opposed to those of the upper jaw for alligators and caimans).

eyes, ears and nostrils are on the top of the head

Crocodile tails are flattened for sculling

In the park at 4pm on Wednesdays and Sundays they are fed.

In the wild their diet would be fish, antelope, zebra, cattle and warthogs, but in the park it's chicken carcasses!

In the main crocodile enclosure was a tree noticeable as it has many nests: those of yellow Village Weaver birds.

Aside from the crocodiles there are other things to see in the park - we came across this panther chameleon in the wild, known locally as an "endormi" ('sleepy') as it moves very slowly (though it can be incredibly fast when catching a prey).

Endormi (furcifer pardalis)

the endormi safely back in its natural habitat

The park is also a botanical garden of sorts, with different plants and trees labelled.

Ophiopogon intermedius, a member of the lily family

There are is also a play area for children, eating places, some farm animals on display (ponies, guinea pigs, farm birds etc), and a bandstand area.

jazz band 

park bench

sunset on the way home

Useful links:
  • Croc parc website (in French)
  • Parc Botanique et Zoologique Tsimbazaza (PBZT, Tsimbazaza Botanical Park and Zoo) is in Antananarivo, Madagascar. I first visited the crocodiles here in 1991.
  • La Vanille - formerly called La Vanille Crocodile Park and now just called La Vanille, this zoo and reserve of 6ha is in southern Mauritius, near Rivière des Anguilles and Souillac. As much as crocodile farm as a park it houses 2000 crocodiles but also has an insectarium and 1000 giant tortoises.

La Vanille crocodile park, 2001

Turtles at La Vanille crocodile park, 2001

Monday, 28 May 2012

Plaine des Palmistes to Plaines des Cafres via Piton Textor

For this hike we started at Plaine des Palmistes at an altitude of just over 1300 metres at a car-park and picnic area called the 'Kiosques de Bras Piton'. 

sign shortly after the start of the hike.

The weather was damp (later on we had rain) and the going was quite tough and muddy, with lots of tree roots strewing the path.  Initially the forest is composed of cryptomeria trees, but later becomes the humid forest typical of so much of Reunion's mid-altitiude mountains.

part of the path

On this sort of hike tree roots can sometimes be helpful, acting almost like stairs, but at other times they can be quite treacherous and trip you over. You really need to watch your step.

Initially not too tough, the path rapidly became steeper, and over a distance of 5km until we reached Piton Textor we gained 840 metres in altitude.

part of the hike borders military land

regular white marks show you're on the right path

As we gained in altitude the weather became wetter and the  vegetation sparser.

we passed through an area that burned 5 years ago

at over 2000m altitude, near Piton Textor

Due to the weather Piton Textor (2224m) was swathed in mist and clouds, but could nevertheless be identified thanks to the telecommunications tower on its summit.

Piton Textor at sunset (photo Wikipedia)

The Piton is quite an important landmark as the road to the volcano passes by its base, as does the GR2 (one of Reunion's most important hiking trails); our path leading up from Plaine des Palmistes; and another hiking path leading to/from Piton de l'Eau.

signboard near Piton Textor

From Piton Textor onwards we were following the GR2 path in the direction of Route Nationale 3, from where we would be picked up.

Fairly quickly once we left Piton Texor we found ourselves hiking along paths between fields of cattle.

The path passes by a place called Chalet des Patres, and we stopped for our picnic lunch here.

A few early arum lilies were flowering here - they're normally most plentiful in October.

arum lily (zantedeschia aethopica)

tree fern

This second part of the hike, from Piton Textor to Route Nationale 3 is longer - 8 km - but the slope is much gentler, as you only lose about 550m in altitude.

looking across the Plaines

clouds rolling in

We arrived happy, tired and a little damp! Altogether the hike was just over 13km long, and took us about 7 hours - including stops for lunch and some other breaks. 

signboard on arrival at Route Nationale 3

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Sunday, 20 May 2012

Coelacanth - the 'fossil fish'

Last night was the 2012 edition of Museum Night, an international event when many museums are open to the public on a Saturday evening, generally until midnight.

Saint Denis' Natural History Museum (source)

We took the occasion to revisit Saint Denis' Natural History Museum, where there was a special exhibition about La Perouse, a famous French explorer whose two sailing vessels disappeared in 1788 in the South Pacific (they were later found to have been shipwrecked in the Solomon Islands).

In the one of the Museum's display cabinets is this impressive fish:

Coelacanth, Saint Denis' Natural History Museum

It's a West Indian Ocean coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae), a fish that was known only through fossils and 'rediscovered' by scientists in 1938 off the coast of South Africa. Sole survivor of a very old group of fish thought to have become extinct over 70 million years ago, it was considered the 'missing link' between fish and tetrapods (vertebrate animals having four limbs). Its discovery by Captain Goosen off East London (South Africa) caused a sensation in the scientific world. It was preserved by local museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, from whom it takes its Latin name.

Brass plate at Latimer's Landing, East London (source)

Found just before Christmas it was too big to fit in a bath, and no deep freeze could be found so it was wrapped in cloths soaked in formalin for four days before she could find a taxidermist could skin and preserve it - unfortunately the internal organs were lost in the process. South African university Professor JLB Smith identified and named the coelacanth, and initiated a search along East Africa for further specimens. It was 14 years before Captain Eric Hunt preserved a second specimen, from the Comoros. Local fishermen had long known of the fish's existence, but it was not targeted because it was poor eating.

Drawing of a coelacanth (source)

Coelacanths are primitive bony fish with lobed fins. Their scales have sharp prickly spines, and most of the skeleton is made of cartilage (like sharks). They can grow to be nearly 2 metres long and weigh up to 100kg. They have been found off Kenya (2), Tanzania (22), Mozambique (1), South Africa (24), Madagascar (4), and the Comoros (200+), and it's in this latter country that I saw this specimen in 2000 in Moroni's National Museum:

this coelacanth was caught in 1985

In the Comoros, where they are known as gombessa, most specimens have been caught off the islands of Grande Comore and Anjouan. Along with ylang-ylang cultivation (flowers used in perfume) the coelacanth is one of the small island nation's few claims to fame.

ylang-ylang in my garden

Individual coelacanths can be identified by the distinctive pattern of white spots on the dark slate coloured body. They eat a range of fish, squid and octopuses which they probably swallow whole, as un unusual 'hinge' in the head allows the coelacanth to open its mouth very wide. They are ovoviparous, which means that after mating and internal fertilisation the large eggs (about the size of an orange - 9 cm  diametre)  are retained in the female, and live young pups are born. (A single coelacanth caught in Mozambique contained 26 near-term pups each about 32 cm long).

Coelacanth anatomy (source)

About 120 species of coelacanth are known from fossils. In 1997 a separate  species, Latimeria menadoensis, was discovered to live off the coast Indonesia. In the western Indian Ocean they live at depths of 54-700 metres, and in 1998 the total population of the West Indian Ocean coelacanth was estimated to have been 500 or fewer; they are consequently considered critically endangered.

A few facts about the Comoros Islands:

photograph by French diver Laurent Ballesta

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Further reading:

Suggested books:

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