The dodo bird may be the best known extinct animal. In the 1500s the plump, flightless bird flourished on the African island of Mauritius. By the end of the 1600s and within about 80 years of the Dutch settling the country, the bird was extinct. In recent times, the bird has become a symbol of pride for the small country that now embraces its history as the former homeland of the dodo.
By Lauren Williams

he tiny, tropical island of the Republic of Mauritius is located near South Africa, east of Madagascar. Its seven hundred square miles are home to just over one million Mauritians, who are largely Hindu and Roman Catholic. Although the official language is English, less than 1 percent of Mauritians speak it. Instead many Mauritians speak Creole and Bhojpuri­ – a language largely spoken in India.

The island is also the former home of the dodo bird, which has been extinct for more than 300 years – a bird that is responsible for putting the otherwise unknown nation on the global map. Mauritius is the only known home of the chubby bird, which has since become a point of national pride and has generated tourism for the country. The tourism interest in the dodo being that it is one of the best documented extinct animals that existed, and its death is a direct result of its interaction with humans.

There is Dodo Travel & Tours and The Dodo Museum, dodo snow globes, and the idea for a frothy dodo cocktail has been floated around, according to a 2007 report from The New Yorker. The animal even appears on the Mauritian coat of arms and a statue of the bird is at the SSR International Airport. Zoologists and paleontologists from around the world visit the country to try and uncover the life of these little-understood creatures.


The culture of Mauritius is a combination of Hindu, Muslim, French, Chinese, and African and the food, dances, and holidays observed are a reflection of that diverse blend. Among the holidays celebrated in Mauritius are the birthday of Hindu god Ganesha, the Chinese Spring Festival, the end of Ramadan, fire-walking ceremonies, and Tamil celebrations, as well as the Hindi festival of Holi where women and men joyfully squirt each other with brightly colored waters and powders.

The dodo is one thing that that seems universal on the island nation, the extinction of the bird leaving an impression of resentment and a hatred of colonialism with islanders. Mauritius has a history of imperialism. It was first settled and abandoned by the Dutch, afterward it was settled by the French, and then conquered by the British in 1810.

This anti-colonial sentiment recently came out during the 2006 Dodo Expedition, when paleontologists and zoologists predominantly from England and the Netherlands began a dig on land rich with dodo bird bones.

In the 2007 New Yorker article, “Digging for Dodos: Hunting an Extinct Bird,” Ian Parker reported on the dig and some of the resistance scientists faced when working on uncovering the extinct birds, with local media and citizens criticizing the English and Dutch as greedy, exploiting the dodo for the second time by unearthing its bones.

“… The English-language News on Sunday ran an editorial cartoon showing two goofy, salivating, wide-eyed Caucasians chasing a dodo skeleton,” Parker writes in “Digging for Dodos.” “The dodo was saying ‘You’ve eaten all my flesh, can’t you allow my bones to rest in peace?’ ”

During the dig, it would seem that islanders made little effort to conceal their feelings about foreigners disrupting the land. “Team members rarely left the estate without someone saying, ‘Where are you from? Holland? Oh, you ate the dodos.’ ”

The recent dodo pride wasn’t just a new-found interest in island history and culture from Mauritians, though. This passion for the dodo coincided with the European Union’s ending the practice of buying sugar from former colonies at hearty prices. At that time, the landowners of areas rich with dodo bird bones began marketing their historical treasures, Parker writes. “Sugar goes down, dodo goes up,” says one scientist on the Dodo Expedition.


It’s widely believed that the bird immigrated to the island by flight. A relative of the pigeon and dove, the dodo found no natural predators on the island and had an abundance of food, eventually evolving into a rounder version of itself with useless wings, nesting on the ground and over time growing one meter tall and weighing in at 23 kilograms.

It was when the Portuguese passed through the island that the bird got its name, drawing from the Portuguese word “fool”. Later, when settled by the Dutch, the birds would be called dodaersen or “fat asses,” according to Parker. Mauritius was originally discovered by Arab traders, later by the Portuguese, neither of which settle the country. It was when the Dutch discovered Mauritius that they chose to settle there, introducing non-native dogs, pigs, and rats to the island, and to the dodo four new predators, including humans. Although the bird was described as tough, oily, and foul tasting, its lack of defense mechanisms made it an easy target for its four new enemies who ate it despite its unappetizing flavor. Even though the Dutch arrived in 1598, by 1681 there was no dodo left in existence in the world.

Since its extinction 300 years ago, the bird has developed an almost myth-like story, being portrayed as the absurdly pompous character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and a generally goofy, bumbling animal in cartoons, songs, and pop culture. In 2007, one year after the Dodo Expedition began, Mauritius issued stamps with various images of the bird from historical illustrations.

It’s in this second life, as a legend in popular culture and as a catalyst for tourism, that the dodo has moved away from its image as a less-than-tasty, easy-to-kill target. Instead the extinct bird has developed a positive image. The dodo now serves as a point of pride for Mauritians. It is an animal that paleontologists, zoologists, and even ecologists have an insatiable interest in, and it has served as a lesson for humanity in carelessly using resources to the point that they are no longer available.

 

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