As tonnes of oil pollute the shoreline of the once bustling tourism destination of Mauritius, locals are using their bare hands in a desperate attempt to save the island from ruin.
An environmental emergency was declared after a Japanese-owned ship ran aground offshore on July 25 and began spilling tonnes of fuel into the Indian Ocean.
The region would normally be teaming with foreigners seeking a pristine island experience, but a further blow from the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a severe drop in numbers.
If the island cannot contain the 1000 tonnes of oil lapping against its shores, travellers may never return.
Parts of island could go the way of its famous extinct bird, the dodo.
Before tourism became the backbone of the economy, sugarcane crops were king. Now locals are falling back on their traditions to save the country.
Communities are packing sacks with natural fibres from its stalks, and using waste products such as empty soft drink bottles to help protect their island.
Speaking to Yahoo News Australia from the city of Curepipe, local ecological strategist Sunil Mokshanand Dowarkasing said locals are working to protect fragile ecosystems.
“Many of them are fishermen, these people know the secrets, the legends of the wind,” Mr Dowarkasing said.
“Those who know the sea, those that know the lagoon, they have that advantage over everybody else.”
A French government crew has been working to help locals, and Japan announced on Tuesday that they will send a small group to assist.
Every level of the ecosystem ‘drastically’ affected
As the cleanup continues, conservationists look to previous spills, noting that they have the capacity to affect all levels of the ecosystem.
Lawrence Chlebeck from Humane Society International told Yahoo News Australia that this can include everything from plankton and coral to whales and dolphins.
“Every level of the ecosystem is drastically affected by these events,” he said.
“Even if the oil spill isn't outright killing an organism or an animal, it can lead to sub lethal effects that can lead to a disease, illness, cessation of reproductive abilities.
“So obviously oil spills are incredibly disruptive on so many levels.”
Japan’s delayed response sparks anger
Australia is believed to have the third highest diaspora of Mauritians in the world.
An “island paradise” is how Melbourne resident Annick Uppiah remembers her home country.
“I know that when we were in Mauritius, everything was so tropical and green,” Ms Uppiah told Yahoo News Australia.
“When we were back to Mauritius, everything was dried up or the lakes were gone, all the tropical fruits have gone - cut down.”
Ms Uppiah said it is difficult to view the devastation unfold from afar in Australia.
She said it was nice to see the locals banding together, using what they can to clean up the oil, although Ms Uppiah questions why Japan stalled their response to the disaster.
“It just makes me angry, you know, just because I feel like they think, ‘oh well, they're not powerful enough to do anything’, they can walk away from it and just leave the devastation to the locals,” she said.
Nagashiki Shipping, the Japanese company which owns the ship announced on Monday two ships arrived at the scene to pump oil from the endangered vessel, adding it would work with local authorities.
“The oil removal efforts are intensifying with UAE, the Netherlands and Japan offering assistance in addition to the French who are already present,” a Greenpeace spokesperson said in a statement to Yahoo News Australia.
Investigation underway, cleaning efforts continue
In addition to the cleaning efforts, which have been ongoing, the government has launched an investigation into what happened.
However, those on the ground are bracing for the worst. People are building boudins, while civilians are being asked to stay away because their presence could make the situation worse, the Greenpeace spokesperson said. There is a chance the spill is toxic for them.
Not only are the locals at risk, but also the wildlife.
“Thousands of species around the pristine lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d’Esny and Mahebourg are at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius’ economy, food security and health,” Greenpeace said.
With Associated Press
Do you have a story tip? Email: email@example.com.