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Mauritius - GEOGRAPHY
The island of Mauritius lies about 800 kilometers east of Madagascar between longitudes 57 18' and 57 49' east, and latitudes 19 59' and 20 32' south. Pearl-shaped, it is sixty-one kilometers long and forty-six kilometers wide at the extremes and has a total land area of some 1,865 square kilometers--about the size of Rhode Island. Mauritian territory also incorporates the island of Rodrigues, some 600 kilometers to the east, which is 119 square kilometers in area. Two tiny dependencies to the north of Mauritius, the Agalega Islands and the Cargados Carajos Shoals (also known as the St. Brandon Rocks), are unpopulated. Nonetheless, their location permits the nation's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to cover about 1.2 million square kilometers of the Indian Ocean. Just off the Mauritian coast lie some twenty uninhabited islands. Mauritius and France both claim sovereignty over Tromelin, small islands that lie 483 kilometers to the northwest. Mauritius sought to regain sovereignty, lost just before independence in 1968, over the Chagos Archipelago (1,931 kilometers to the northeast), which includes the Diego Garcia atoll.
Mauritius and Rodrigues are part of the Mascarene Islands, a chain of volcanic islands that include Reunion, the nation's nearest neighbor at 145 kilometers to the southwest and governed as an overseas territory (département) of France. The islands are perched on submarine ridges, including the Mascarene Plateau that runs for some 3,000 kilometers in an arc bowed outward from the African mainland, and the Rodrigues Fracture Zone that ripples eastward and connects this underwater plateau with the massive Mid-Indian Ridge.
Mauritius is relatively young geologically, having been created by volcanic activity some 12 million years ago. There has been no active volcano on the island for more than 100,000 years. The island consists of a broken ring of mountain ranges, some 600 to 800 meters above sea level, encircling a central tableland that slopes from a level of 300 meters in the north to 600 meters in the southwest. The mountains are surrounded by low-lying, sometimes hilly, coastal plains, except in the southwest where the drop-off is precipitous. The mountains are steepest toward the center of the island and are probably the tips of the eroded original shield volcano. The sea has built up a ring of coral reefs around most of the 160 kilometers of coastline, which form many shallow lagoons, white coral sand beaches, and dunes. Two of the best harbors are Port Louis and Mahebourg. Politically, the island is divided into eight administrative divisions called districts and one municipality where the capital, Port Louis, is located.
Lowland plains and gently undulating slopes cover about 46 percent of the total land area. Low-lying plains make up most of the Pamplemousses, Rivière du Rempart, and Flacq districts; southern Grand Port District; the heavily populated northwestern section of Plaines Wilhems District from Beau Bassin to Quatre Bornes and to the sea; and smaller areas around Chemin Grenier. These areas are planted with sugarcane and mixed vegetable crops. The districts of Port Louis and Black River and the more hilly interior plains leading up to the tableland support tea, rice, and sugarcane cultivation and include areas of savanna and scrub forest.
The central tableland covers about a quarter of the island. A large plateau spans most of the districts of Moka, eastern Plaines Wilhems, and western Grand Port, where mostly sugarcane and vegetables are harvested, except around Curepipe and Vacoas, where tea is grown. The southern part of the tableland--in the districts of Black River, Savanne, and southern Plaines Wilhems-- is much smaller and heavily dissected with a diverse topography. It contains tea and forest plantations, including reserves of indigenous trees.
Mountains cover about 18 percent of the terrain. The MokaLong Mountain Range is situated in the northwest near Port Louis, and its highest peak is Pieter Both (823 meters). The Rivière Noire Mountains and Savanne Mountains are in the west and southwest, where Mont Piton of the Petite Rivière Noire (828 meters) is the highest point on the island. The mountains are broken into four ridges that produce deep valleys, gorges, and waterfalls. The Grand Port Range lies in the east, and to its north are the isolated Mont Blanche (520 meters) and Fayences Mountain (425 meters).
Rivers and streams dot the island; many of them are formed in the crevices between land created by new and old lava flows. Drainage radiates from the central tableland to the sea, and many rivers are steeply graded with rapids and falls. Torrential flows are common during storms and cyclones. Marshes and ponds lie in the tableland and on the coastal plain, but the country has only two natural lakes, both crater lakes. The largest of several manmade reservoirs is the Mare aux Vacoas.
Rodrigues Island was formed earlier than Mauritius, but in a similar fashion. It sits lengthwise on an east-west axis, along which runs a spine-like mountain range some 600 meters above sea level. The north-south spurs of these mountains cut deep crevices into the terrain.
The other dependencies of Mauritius are coralline rather than volcanic islands. The two Agalega islands are connected by a sandbar and covered with coconut palms. The Cargados Carajos Shoals are a group of more than twenty islands, none more than one square kilometer in area, which are primarily fishing stations.
Mauritius has two kinds of climate. Below the 400-meter level on most of the windward (southeastern) side of the island and below 450 meters on the leeward side, a humid, subtropical climate prevails. Above these altitudes, the climate is more temperate, but there is no sharp break, and variations in exposure, altitude, and distance from the sea produce a wide range of patterns. The island has two seasons. The hot and wet summer lasts from November through April. February is the warmest month with temperatures averaging 27° C in the lowlands and 22° C on the plateau. Cyclone season runs from December through March, and the storms, which come from the northeast, have caused much destruction on the island over the years. For example, Cyclone Hollanda hit Mauritius February 10, 1994, leaving 1,400 persons homeless, and damaging 60 percent of the electrical system and 50 percent of the telephone network, as well as destroying between 20 and 30 percent of the sugarcane plantation. The overall cost of this cyclone was estimated at US$81 million.
Winter, lasting from May through October, is cool and dry, influenced by the steady southeasterly trade winds. July is the coolest month and has average temperatures of 22° C in the lowlands and 16° C in the plateau. Rainfall is abundant, ranging from 90 centimeters per year in the western lowlands to 500 centimeters in the tableland--an average of 200 centimeters per year overall. Nonetheless, the high rate of evaporation and uneven distribution necessitate irrigation. Humidity is frequently above 80 percent.
Mauritius has fertile soil that supports a variety of vegetation. All but 1 percent of the native hardwood forests that once covered most of the island have been cut down, threatening the survival of several bird species. Sugarcane is now the dominant crop, covering half the arable land, but other cash and food crops are grown as well. Coral reefs and marine life off the northwest coast have been hurt by pollution, mainly from large hotels. To prevent the destruction caused by rapid and poorly planned development and in response to foreign criticism for its lack of environmental protection, the government established the Ministry of the Environment in 1990. In July 1991, the legislature passed the Environmental Protection Act, which requires an environmental impact assessment for all new projects. The ministry has also established standards for existing industry, followed by inspections. Steps are being taken to induce the construction industry to shift from the use of coral sand (in the early 1990s the building trade used 600,000 tons of coral sand annually) to basaltic sand. Marine parks are being zoned to protect coral and marine life, and a sewerage master plan is being developed to prevent the discharge of untreated sewage into the ocean. Solid waste management is upgrading the handling of waste, and the principle of "the polluter must pay" is being introduced.
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