As dead as a dodo… or is it?

March 28, 2012

A dodo statue

Fine white-sand beaches. Clear warm water. Tropical fish. These were all things I had expected on a recent trip to Mauritius. The dodo, however, was not on the list. Thinking about it now, of course I knew the dodo was Mauritian but, before I arrived, I hadn’t put two and two together – and therefore wasn’t expecting the flood of dodo-related paraphernalia which I encountered across the island.

Yes: on arrival on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, I was hit by dodo-madness! Souvenir shops selling all things dodo: books devoted to the subject, stamps picturing the bird and monuments of it in the streets of the capital, Port Louis. Mauritius’ association with the dodo was, as I found out, quite a source of pride, and the dodo was anything but dead here… as far as souvenirs went, anyway.

And yet, despite all these dodo depictions, no-one really knows what the bird actually looked like. Within 80-odd years of its discovery (by Dutch sailors in 1598), the dodo was extinct and so the image of it today largely comes from drawings, excavated bones and a few written accounts from the time. One of the most famous depictions of the dodo, as the Natural History Museum’s expert Julian Hume explains, is a painting from 1626 by the Dutch artist Roelant Savery.

Despite only being known about for around 80 years, the flightless bird has left a lasting impression, not only on Mauritius’ souvenir t-shirts and keyrings, but also on the English language and culture. The dodo had a starring role in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with Carroll, or so we’re led to believe, basing the dodo on himself. The popularity of the dodo in the book led to the increased use of the phrase “as dead as a dodo”.

How strange that we have a bird, known about for such a relatively brief period and hailing from a tiny island off the coast of Africa, which has yet coined a phrase that continues to be used over three centuries later.  The dodo’s is, in fact, a very sad story – a bird living a life free from predators which suddenly found itself to be threatened (by Western settlers hunting it, and by some of the settlers’ predatorial pets) and unable to fly away. Causing the dodo to go down in history as what must certainly be the best-known extinct bird.

Not only used as a symbol of Mauritius, today the image of the dodo is recognised as a symbol of extinction worldwide. The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust uses the dodo as its logo, its website stating that this “…serves as both a prompt to highlight the importance of conservation action, and as a warning that, should this not be heeded, many more animals face the same fate as the dodo.”

Perhaps it’s some consolation then that the dodo remains alive, at least through our vocabulary (and within Mauritius’ souvenir shops), and that it also inspires the likes of The Durrell trust to ensure that other endangered animals don’t end up as dead as a dodo.

(Helena Hamlyn)