“The Dutch ate them all.” One hears this often from the local Mauritians, when animals are the subject under discussion. I hear it first at the La Vanille Nature Park, as the guide takes our little group on a guided tour.

Throughout its history until independence, Mauritius had an influx of people from different parts of the world. While the French and English converted the country into a vast sugar bowl, and the Indians who started as labourers integrated to become administrators and stay on, the Dutch, the Mauritians believe, were a hungry race who ate their way through most of the wildlife on the island. The dodo became extinct much before the Dutch could claim credit for it, but crocodiles, rabbits and deer all haplessly found themselves on the dining table.

Today, thanks to the efforts of a few conservationists, many of the animals are back. But to ensure no risk, they are kept in semi-captivity in nature parks.

The La Vanille Nature Park is framed by green mountains. A bower of white flowers frames the entrance archway. The Park’s main attractions are the crocodiles and turtles. The crocodiles sun themselves luxuriously on the edge of the water in their enclosure. There have been bouts of rain, and the sun is a welcome respite, it seems. In an hour, they will move in frenzied activity as feeding time comes around. Visitors to the park can watch, if they like such things. I don’t, and turn down the offer to hang around.

The first crocodiles in the park were a male and four females, imported from Madagascar. Their offspring were placed in heated indoor nurseries for a year after which they were released into ponds. Today, the park boasts thousands of this reptile. To ensure they breed safely, the park has a system of incubating eggs, and tending to the young through infancy. The babies are grouped by age, and kept in enclosures. It’s interesting to walk through and see how they grow into fierce, scaly monsters.

The turtles are more engaging. They are used to humans, and crawl about, even breaking their own speed records as they race to take a bite out of the leaves visitors are allowed to offer. Their beautifully designed shells are dusty, and speak of great age. Indeed the oldest, who is above a 100 and weighs more than 250 kg is ancient, and snoozes regardless of the activity around.

One of the surprises is the daily outing the resident iguana gets. As he stands at strategic points, perched on a stout stick, he provides a photo-op, and is not averse to being stroked.

The park owners, serious about conservation, have extended their efforts to open another such park on the island: The François Leguat Giant Tortoise and Cave Reserve in Rodrigues. They have also adopted a part of the Madagascar lowlands to save its biodiversity, as well as taken up the conservation of 100 acres that have the almost extinct ebony trees in Mauritius.

At the Casela Adventure Park, in the western part of the island, another conservation effort is teamed with experiences visitors will never quite forget.

The lions are asleep after their morning repast, so we enjoy our own in the bright and airy restaurant. We have an hour to roam around, and as rain clouds gather, we decide to give walking with the lions a miss, and opt to say hello to the tiger cubs instead.

One has to choose what to see here, as the Park, started in 1979, is spread over 250 hectares encompassing three ‘kingdoms’: Safari, mountain and central. It is a haven for 1,500 birds, giant tortoises, Bengal tigers, white lions, lynxes, pygmy hippos, white rhinos, and many others, including giraffes. Perhaps nothing is a better testimonial to the Casela’s conservation efforts than the fact that Princess Stephanie of Monaco, a fierce crusader for elephants, is a patron.

The tiger escapade is adrenaline-raising stuff. Five cubs, yellow and white, let themselves be photographed with us. We are lucky, because they have chosen to climb the rock in the middle of their enclosure and lie there in a rare group, soaking in the sun. As we take turns to sit behind them, they get restless. Some decide to play, then a mock fight ensues, which is stopped midway by a remonstrating paw swipe from a slightly older cub. I make bold to stroke the white cub closest to me; the fur is rough under my fingers. When the tigers have had enough of human company, they wander off in different directions. Born in captivity, the cubs are still handled by caretakers, and can be controlled with admonitions and the brandishing of a stick.

In fact, the lions and other animals are freed from their enclosures at night, to the wide, fenced-off foothill of the Rempart Mountain behind the park. The park has had many healthy births, and might be one of the few places in the world where the Bengal tiger is safe.

The large walk-through aviary is an example of forward thinking, where birds fly around as we walk through.

A blue parrot is among the rare species here, and I am surprised to see it carries the legend ‘Indian parrot’. Don’t remember seeing one in India. The 250-strong staff is still growing and we are among the 400,000 visitors the park receives every year.

It has been an invigorating visit. At the store, I buy a t-shirt emblazoned with a large ochre lion.

It is a reminder that when man cares to think of the comfort of captive animals he can find ways of making it happen. If only zoos in India would follow this example.

Sathya Saranis a journalist and editor based in Mumbai