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Mauritius is a volcanic island, measuring 58km (36mi) from north to south and 47km (29mi) from east to west - about two-thirds the size of Luxembourg or the US state of Rhode Island. It lies in the Indian Ocean, roughly 800km (500mi) east of Madagascar, 3860km (2400mi) south-west of India and 220km (135mi) north-east of its nearest neighbour, Réunion. With about 600 people per square kilometre, Mauritius has one of the highest population densities in the world. As a country, it includes the inhabited island of Rodrigues, some 560km (350mi) to the north-east, and other scattered coral atolls such as Cargados Carajos and Agalega.

The island rises steeply in the south to a central plateau and slopes gently down to the northern coast beyond the mountains that back the capital, Port Louis. Unlike neighbouring Réunion, Mauritius has no active volcanoes, although remnants of volcanic activity - such as Trou aux Cerfs crater in Curepipe and millions of lava boulders - pepper the island. Mauritius is surrounded by a coral reef and lined by a few long stretches of white sand beach. The reef is broken in several places, with the largest break evident in the pounding surf along the black cliffs between Souillac and Le Bouchon on the southern coast. A smaller, less spectacular break occurs at Flic en Flac on the west coast.

The last decade has seen Mauritian conservationists scrambling to protect the paltry 1% of original forest remaining on the island. The largest nature reserve is the Black River Gorges National Park at the south-western end of the island. Other reserves include Le Pouce, Île Ronde, Île aux Serpents, Île aux Aigrettes and Bois Sec. Visitor access is (or will be) restricted at many reserves, as most are tiny in size and enclose the last vestiges of rare species.

There's not much to mention in the way of Mauritian wildlife. You're likely to bump into a mongoose or two during your stay and perhaps the odd Java deer, but without heading deep into the interior, the ubiquitous 'domestic' guard dog is about all you'll see. Inland, look for wild pigs and bands of macaque monkeys. Conversely, Mauritius' trees and skies are rich with birdlife, although many of the most spectacular species are following in the footsteps of the island's most famous one-time resident, the dodo. On the endangered species list are the Mauritius kestrel (once the rarest bird on earth), the echo parakeet (still the rarest of that species) and the pink pigeon. Sadly, the 'threatened' list goes on from there. The predominant species on the island are introduced songbirds, such as the little red Madagascar fody, the jive talking Indian mynah and - most common of all - the red-whiskered bulbul. Beneath the waves, the tally improves. The abundant marine life found in Mauritian waters includes corals, mollusks, turtles, dolphins, four types of whale and innumerable fish. Of the island's 900 plant species, almost a third are endemic to Mauritius. Some of the most common examples are giant Indian banyans, beach-hugging casuarinas and brilliant red-flowering flamboyants.