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Mauritius declares emergency over oil spill from grounded ship

Anxious residents of the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius have stuffed fabric sacks with sugar cane leaves to create makeshift oil spill barriers as tonnes of fuel leaking from a grounded ship put endangered wildlife in further peril.

The government on Saturday declared an environmental emergency as satellite images showed a dark slick spreading in the turquoise waters near wetlands that the government called “very sensitive”.

Wildlife workers and volunteers ferried dozens of baby tortoises and rare plants from an island near the spill, Ile aux Aigrettes, to the mainland as fears grew that worsening weather on Sunday could tear the Japanese-owned ship apart along its cracked hull.

Residents and environmentalists alike wondered why authorities did not act more quickly after the ship, the MV Wakashio, struck the reef on the southeast coast of the Indian Ocean island on July 25.

Mauritius says the ship was carrying nearly 4,000 tonnes of fuel.

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“That’s the big question,” Jean Hugues Gardenne of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation told The Associated Press news agency. “Why that ship has been sitting for long on that coral reef and nothing being done.”

This is the country’s first oil spill, he said, adding that perhaps no one expected the ship to break apart. For days, residents peered out at the precariously tilted ship as a salvage team arrived and began to work, but ocean waves kept battering the carrier.

“They just hit and hit and hit,” Gardenne said.

Cracks in the hull were detected a few days ago and the salvage team was quickly evacuated. Some 400 sea booms were deployed to contain the spill, but they were not enough.

Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth says the spill “represents a danger” for the country of 1.3 million people that relies heavily on tourism and has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our country doesn’t have the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships,” he said on Friday. “I worry what could happen on Sunday when the weather deteriorates.”

France to send help

French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Saturday his country was sending help from the neighbouring island of Reunion, a French overseas territory.

A military aircraft from Reunion carrying pollution-control equipment would make two flights over the spill site, while a naval vessel carrying booms and absorbents would also set sail, authorities in Reunion said.

“When biodiversity is in danger, there is an urgent need to act,” Macron said. “You can count on our support.”

Greenpeace said the fuel and oil leak into nearby lagoons threatened the survival of thousands of species which were at “risk of drowning in a sea of pollution”.

The spill near Pointe d’Esny was likely “one of the most terrible ecological crises ever seen on the small island country,” the environmental group said in a statement.

“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’s economy, food security and health,” said Greenpeace’s climate and energy manager, Happy Khambule.

The country also has appealed to the United Nations for urgent aid, including experts in containing oil spills and environmental protection.

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