Into the Jungle – Conservation against Livelihoods

We were ready for our first appointment and since it was with the national park staff we didn’t have far to go.  As some people were still cleaning their teeth and abluting, the rest of us gathered in a big square.  This made it quite a tricky meeting as you never knew which way to face.  As well as the park staff, our big partners working in the region; Bioclimate and CARE international staff were also present so it was quite a crowd.  But formalities through, plans made, and outcomes highlighted, we piled into our vehicles and drove to the nearby village we passed through the night before – Kortor.

While the national park is on the far side of the Little Scarcies River, the camp we were staying in is on the Kortor side, indeed the land has been granted as a gift from Kortor’s chief.  There have been problems raised with this, as it means the park wardens do not have a proper presence in the park.  Their role is to try and conserve a large area of land and there are examples of incidences of occasional cultivation, firewood collection and even logging going on.  Perhaps bizarrely, there are several small villages in the park.  When the park was declared, some people did not agree to the compensation and relocation package, a rather nice way of saying they were being evicted.  Even thirty years later these villages still stubbornly live on.  Fortunately it looks like their footprint is fairly small; what is more damaging is the pressure at the borders from villagers heading in to raid resources, including bushmeat and trophy animals.  The problem is worse on the Kilimi side where there is no permanent park warden presence – at least in Outamba there are some people trying to moderate the impact and publicise the usefulness of the park.

It is a tough job and it contains the usual variance between conservation against livelihood that tasks communities, governments and international organisations worldwide.  We all agree in principle that the conservation of our biodiversity is essential, but when the poorest people live nearby, who are we in the west to limit their opportunities when we have heavily transformed our own environments for our own economic gain.

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The Centre of Kortor

To arbitrate in this debate, STEWARD tries to have an impact.  By showing the value of keeping forests and harvesting their fruits, medicines and game sustainably, it can maintain a balance of biodiversity and resource for the communities.  STEWARD has high respect in Tambakka Chiefdom and also in the other places it works.  Few development projects have made it to these remote parts, and STEWARD has been careful to build up the trust of the chiefs, elders and communities close to the park before suggesting changes in the way they operate.  Two key people in this were Momoh from Bioclimate and Martin from CARE.  With very different styles, they had become highly respected and liked members of the communities across the region; and if you were introduced by them to anyone, you were already given a lot of consideration.  They were invaluable to outsiders like me who were only on the ground for short times.

Into the Jungle – First explorations

Although it was dark I could see the ferry terminal was tucked underneath a long concrete bridge and Haba drove across this into the city proper and wound his way steeply uphill for about twenty minutes.  It was not that far a distance but almost every inch of journey was on heavily potholed roads.  These roads were full of taxis and belching buses, and although it was getting past 8pm, most of the roadside stalls were doing brisk business, including the bars.  We eventually did leave the hubbub behind as we climbed through a quieter residential area.  At long last, Haba did a hairpin turn and drove fiercely up a concrete ramp into the forecourt of the Hill Valley Hotel.  Hill Valley – what a name.

Clinging to the side of a steep hill, it was built on about four levels, and each building had three or four storeys. It had a heavily wood panelled reception and it took a while for my formalities to be sorted out, I then went up to the highest part of the hotel and was shown a rather grimy room, again with dark decoration and deeply varnished wooden furniture.  It was getting late but I felt I needed some food so headed downstairs;  a very tall Englishman greeted me as  I walked in to the restaurant; this was Hugo who was to be working with me on the project.

I was still a little sketchy about what was happening.  The project was funded by USAID and was run by the US Forest Service (USFS) International Program.  But it contained a lot of formal partners, including my own contractors, Thomson Reuters, and for this next week or so, some external organisations who were contributing to the project.

What was the project?  It was called STEWARD or Sustainable and Thriving Environments for West African Development.  The basic premise was that the Guinea Forest was an important biome for biodiversity and potential climate chance mitigation, but also an important resource for local communities and contained some rich mineral veins and logging potential.  The project was to try and find ways to preserve what was left of pristine forest in two main areas, conserve the rest and improve the cultivation and natural resource management by those communities so that the pressure on removing the rest was halted and the forests could be safeguarded as a sustainable resource for generations to come.

This was a tall order; the pressures on the system were great as logging the great gallery trees was eating away fast at the remaining good “jungle”.  However, the whole ecosystem was not really jungle.  Particularly in the northern zone, there was a proper dry season, and away from the rivers the huge tropical trees could not survive.  The predominant natural landscape was a thick woody bushland, petering out over areas where soils were very bad, or where localised seasonal inundations would be too stressful for trees, leaving a grassy lowland (or in the French a bas fond).  In this complex of natural vegetation types, rapidly expanding populations using mainly shifting agriculture had degraded the vegetation.  Fires regularly burned in the dry season too, some of which used to clear scrub but could get out of control.

STEWARD had built up a series of practices with local communities to conserve the land, intensify agriculture through better practices of manuring and compost, replant trees in community forests, arrange people to mobilise to control fire breaking out.  And because these areas were transboundary – that is the northern area straddled the Guinea/Sierra Leone border, and the southern one crossed between Liberia and Guinea, issues of harmonizing laws in all these countries was vital.  There was no point in recommending something on one side of a border only for the other side to continue desecrating the environment.

Return to Cayman – Is it conservation?

With so many conservationists in our party, the inevitable debate surfaced about whether this place, nick named Sting Ray City, was for the benefit of sting rays or people.  There are several tour operators who head out daily to this sandbank  but the government regulates how many tours, how many people on each tour, how  much of the squid they can feed in one session, and how long you are allowed to stay with the rays.  Obviously the rays are thriving, we saw well over a hundred just from where we anchored.  And it helps educate and build awareness amongst people who otherwise could be fearful, or worse, take action against the ray in the same way sharks are demonized in many parts of the world.  The truth is that there is a relationship between humans and rays on Cayman Island, not quite symbiotic but certainly having some benefits both to conserve a good population of these animals and provide a key tourist product for the islands.

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Whose benefiting from this tourist attraction?

And it was a privilege to be stroked by a sting ray.  How Steve Irwin ever got killed by one still confuses me.  So much has been written that it is not worth going over the details again; yes he was incredibly unlucky to have the rays sting pierce his heart, most get a nasty gash on the foot or leg.  But I’d always thought his sensational approach to educating people about animals was abusive to so many of the animals he encountered, that when the ray caught him, the rest of the animal kingdom went “YES!!!!”

Time to leave these beautiful animals, and time to leave Cayman.  The contrast with my previous time here was so great, and I pay tribute to the local conservationists who took us places that few tourists bother to explore, as well as one of those experiences that rank at the top of world must dos.  Cayman has a brash American, rich man’s paradise angle to it, but deep down it is a lovely old Caribbean island with a rich and unique biodiversity, and we should ensure it is nurtured for ever more.

Return to Cayman – Meeting the rays

The conference over, there was a little free time the next day before we needed to head for the airport and several of us who did not have high level meetings to attend or other business on Cayman thought about how we might spend it.  Top of the list was Cayman’s number one environmental hot spot , more known that even the Turtle Farm.  To reach it we had to head out on to the water and into that major lagoon that Grand Cayman surrounds.  The launch spot for this trip was not so far from the hotel and we all boarded a powerful cruiser and pulled slowly down the channel between the mansions and villas.  Beyond the mangroves, the captain threw down the throttle and we surged out into the North Sound.  It took less than ten minutes to reach our spot, a sandy bar not far from the lip of the lagoon where it hit the coral reefs and the Caribbean Sea beyond.  It was so shallow here, the turquoise water was as azure as…. well more like topaz, but I’m not a specialist on precious stones. And for some curious reason a crowd of a dozen tourists were standing still up to their thighs in water, some barely up to their knees.

We were about to do the same thing. The boat had been brought to a steady slow cruise as we approached the sand bar and now it was stationery, a small anchor locked into the sand beneath to keep us in the same position.  We were given instructions by the crew and one by one we lowered ourselves down the ladder astern and stood in the water waiting for things to happen.

It did not take long – from across the sand came a squadron of dark rhombus shapes. They swooped in fast, decelerated as one and broke formation to disperse amongst the tourist groups.  We were now completely surrounded by about a hundred sting rays.  Despite their name and fearsome reputation, they were the gentlest and most inquisitive fish I have ever come across.

Return to Cayman – Encounters with the blue iguana

One of the elements of the conference were that the local Cayman Island guys wanted to show off their conservation successes, of which Cayman had many.  Although many of the Caribbean Islands had iguanas, Cayman had an endemic one that was so beautiful called the Blue Iguana.  Fred Burton and his team had worked hard to bring this animal back from near extinction.  At the back of the botanic gardens, which itself was a beautiful place, was a set of compounds from which a breeding programme had been established.  It is always difficult establishing how many animals there are.  Many are shy creatures and hide away in the dense bush, and you may not see individuals that you can recognise clearly unless you have some way of tagging them.  You might see other evidence though; burrows, footprints, the most obvious might be the scat, or the faeces of the animals.  Problem then comes is how you work out how many animals are represented by this kind of evidence.

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Despite these challenges, the current population of iguanas is estimated around 750, including both the captive population and that in the wild.  Now this does not seem like a huge number, but considering there were only a dozen at the turn of the century, and Cayman’s habitat is constantly under threat from development for its 60,000 human inhabitants, it is not a bad track record.

When you see a blue iguana, you can appreciate how wonderful it is to have saved it.  I like iguanas anyway   – they have the most striking skin, armoury and colour patternation.  I remember when I lived in the Virgin Islands, I used to grab brunch in a bar in Red Hook Bay, St Thomas – usually as I was waiting for a ferry back to Tortola.  It was called Molly Malones and the deck out the back was shaded by a grove of mangrove trees .  You could look up in any of these and find an iguana lolling around on the branches.  They were on the roads everywhere in the USVI – some got mashed up but others would aggressively lurch their heads as you as they went by – you had to fear for your tyres.

In Cayman, add that stubborn attitude and  the curious exterior with a sheen of blueness across it, and you have the most beautiful creature to watch.  As well as the ones in the pen, there were many roaming free in the Botanic Gardens. We had arrived to attend the conference’s opening ceremony and as it was still before noon, several were out on the grass warming themselves up for the day.  One came wandering in to the marquee that was laid out for the meeting – possibly to decide what the smell of buffet he had detected had to offer.

The presence of nearly a hundred people in the tent did nothing to discourage him.  He stomped determinedly across the grass, paused to re-orientate himself as to the source of the smells, and moved steadfastly forward.  It gave us all a chance to see the remarkable pattern of scales, over his wattles, down his forelegs, and the deeply veined cloak with the small comb like ridge of spikes down his spine that he wore.

Return to Cayman – The Environmental Warriors of the OTs

Having worked in several overseas territories, predominantly on environmental projects, I had got to know an amazing group of enthusiastic scientists who valued the special nature of the small islands they conserved.  A group called the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum had been established which brought these specialists together at a conference every couple of years to talk about their successes, their trials and tribulations.  As well as people from the OTs themselves, many of the agencies that helped them out were involved too.  This included some big players that are well known in the UK, like the Durrell Foundation, the Royal Society for Protection of Birds and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.  When I had been in the BVI,  I was give the chance to go with a large delegation to one of these conferences in Bermuda.  Flying via New York, we arrived on the island in the middle of the night. It being March, I was amazed what a different climate it was from Tortola – most of the time it was dull and misty, and fairly chilly!  Despite this there were plenty of coral reefs and palm trees around and I was confused by the mix of tropical and temperate signals I was getting.

As well as the conference, the field trips around Bermuda were fantastic, especially to Nonsuch Island.  Bermuda is one of the most urbanised of the OTs, and predominantly expensive properties which gave it the air of looking like Surrey but with fringing reef.  Surrey with the fringe on top, as it were.

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taken by UKOTCF , me in green t shirt

Several years later, with me back in the UK, I was approached by members of the forum to present at another of these conferences in Grand Cayman.  It was to be about the Ascension Island work and I was pleased to have a place to talk about the stuff Edsel and I had done.  Moreover, I was delighted to be able to meet up with so many familiar friends from around the OTs and it would be fantastic to get another chance to explore Grand Cayman properly after the curtailed trip the previous year.

Walking the Beaches – The oddly dressed Englishmen

The twelve kilometre stretch of coastline was the easiest of the lot to walk – even where the few Pas Geometriques villas touched the shoreline the beach was wide enough or the rocks were flat enough to traverse quickly.  Apart from picking up the freshwater springs along the beach, and a couple of bad planning decisions to put hotels right next to eroding areas of sand, there was little to record and it turned into a nice day for a long walk and chat to Jeremy.  We must have looked strange to the tourists.  Italians seems to favour this stretch of coastline in particular and both the women in string bikinis, the men in Speedos, both sexes holding garish drinks garnished with every type of fruit and vegetable, and happily shouting, singing, dancing or basting in sun oil, they would stare at these two English men in their baggy short sleeve shirts and baggier shorts, both grubby from days of walking in the heat, carrying clipboards and what must looked like oversize mobile phones (GPS).  What was more our behaviour just did not fit in with the relaxed and informal atmosphere of these places; we would ignore the palm trees, the bars, the swimming pools, we would walk up to bits of low wall and stare at the cracks; we would stoop down at the water’s edge and…. did he really just dab his finger in the sea and lick it?  For some reason no-one dared ask us what we were up to, or whether we had legitimate business at the resort.

The locals were even less interested in us; occasionally one would watch us, most greeted us as we walked past but hey ho, just eccentric Englishmen – better not engage as you might end up with more than you bargained for.

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Odd beachwear

As it was a week day when we walked the beach, the many stretches of public beach were all but deserted.  Once or twice you may find a dog walker, some locals would have parked their cycles next to a filao tree and were standing knee deep in the lagoon with long fishing rods, but for the most part we would walk along this picturesque coastscape of filao trees and grassy banks, black rocks, white sand, an ever present wind on our backs and the swirl of waves breaking continuously along the reef and beach.

The Other Mauritius -Beyond the tourist image

Although at first sight the island looked like a dense uniform xerophytic scrub with a few footpaths, it was in fact subtly diverse.  The western side seemed more lush, possibly not so windblown.  In here, amongst the trees, were a number of wide glades, and huge feeders were slung up between trunks.  I saw about a dozen pink pigeons feeding from these -once you were that close you got the idea just how huge these birds were, and the vibrant colorations put all other pigeons to shame.

They had three distinctive plumages, as well as bright pink feet.  Their heads were a creamy colour with just a hint of rose; the tail feathers a vibrant orange with again a soupcon of pink running through them, and their wings were a brown colour but with dark pinkish highlights.  They happily posed for photographs – as long as they were able to access the feeders.  We saw more off in the bushes having a snooze,  and occasionally fluttering around.  You got the impression they were a bit bored of flying.  It was so much effort and they are big birds.  You can see how some of these island species might decide it is not worth investing in any more and start to evolve to walk only.  Maybe in a few million years MWF can evolve pink pigeons into their dodo cousins.

We walked past a whole host of nursery beds and saw how the MWF are rehabilitating the island’s vegetation.  We were shown areas where invasive species had once taken over and it had now been cleared by volunteers allowing natural vegetation to regenerate.  This was helping the endemic animal species and as we were walking down the path we heard some chomping in the undergrowth.  About four feet in from the path we could just make out the shell of one of the giant tortoise.  Nothing was going to disturb him from his feed of the newly restored vegetation and we could never quite get him to turn his head enough to get a good photograph.  But you could not mistake the rasping noise.

We finished off our tour at one of the highest points of the island and saw again the extensive views back to Mahebourg, Lion Mountain and further up the east coast.  In the gazebo shading us from the sun we saw two of the protected skink species which still reside.  Although nowhere near the size of the giant Mauritian skink, the telfair is still quite bulky and we snapped away and listened to more stories from our informative guide.

Ile Aux Aigrettes truly is an ark, and so amazing to see the successes, many hard fought, to repopulate areas with the original animals of Mauritius.  The main island still has many threats – it is hard to stop the populations of rats and domestic animals from ransacking the eggs of the birds and reptiles, but at least here, although in some ways a prison, it is also a fortress against invasion of those threats, and a base population can be established.  And the rewards are many – so many beautiful, exotic and, of course, unique creatures.

It just was another example of how unique Mauritius is.  And while it markets strongly on the beaches, the coral reef, the watersports and high class resorts, I found some of my weekends off where I explored the lesser known byways of the country some of the most refreshing and rewarding myself.

The Other Mauritius – Lessons in Island niches

We gently negotiated the shallows close to the island and pulled up against a wooden jetty.  We disembarked and stretched our legs, and of course the first thing we did was look back to the mainland from where we had come.  We were taken by the tall slim guy to a collection of huts inland from the jetty.  In a small room that he called a museum, we were given an introduction to the foundation and its work.  He was very eloquent, speaking in both French and English to the mixed group.  The foundation had been set up in the 1970s to restore populations of various animals and plants that were on the verge of extinction.  The museum was devoted partly to those that had got away – those species who were already extinct before the foundation was able to do any good.  But they were rightly proud of their success stories.  After all I had seen for myself the released populations of Mauritian kestrels and pink pigeons in the Black River Gorges National Park. One of the most fascinating exhibits in the museum was a model of the Giant Skink, and animal that has been estimated to have been extinct since the 1650s.

It looked like any skink I have seen, the neat little lines of scales along its back, its slightly rounded but sleek looking head and the beady black eyes.  But the model, a life size, is nearly a metre long.  This would have been more like an iguana than the little friendly lizards that run up and down the walls of many a tropical house.  We also learnt of the Rodrigues and Mauritius Tortoises, with the most enormous necks to reach up to the fruits in the shrubs around.  Another magnificent sculpture gives an idea of what incredible creatures these must have been , before they too became extinct once man colonised the Mascarenes.

Sober to reflect on the losses but we also wanted to see the success stories, so we started our tour of the island.  First of all, our meticulous guide wanted to explain the importance of the vegetation.  He had a good reason too:  He was trying to make us understand a little as to why animals on Mauritius had become endemic species.  He showed us all manner of plants whose seeds had washed up on the shores and they had colonised the difficult volcanic and limestone rocks.  Many travelled in coconuts, hence the palms, some may have come by wind or inside birds guts or stuck to their exteriors.  Then the animals have arrived somehow – perverse in some cases.  Maybe it was plate tectonics which had separated species from their continental brothers, or perhaps bizarre cast away stories of animals stuck to branches, seeds or whatever.  But once on their own little island kingdoms they could become masters of both their environment and fellow creatures.  Each tried to find a niche.  The vegetation was dry and scrubby but quite thick.  The ground cover was available to a large number of creatures, but if by evolution you could breed in longer necks, some animals gained an advantage in reaching the further branches and have more food just for themselves.  This explained the anatomy of the tortoises.

There was evidence that some plants had evolved to take advantage of their relationships with the tortoises.  Some plants ensured their succulent leaves, flowers and fruits were at the tops of their structures; only reachable by one tortoise.  Fruits in particular could be passed through the tortoises’ digestive systems and excreted with all the other rich manure – a perfect place for a new plant to get a grip in a difficult rocky environment.

Then came a difficultly for some of these plants.  When species went extinct, the symbiotic relationship was broken, and the plants found it difficult to reproduce.  MWF are trying to overcome this now by introducing species which fit certain ecosystem niches.  In the case of the old tortoises they have introduced the only giant tortoise that still exist in the Indian Ocean, the Aldabara Giant Tortoise from the Seychelles.  They have long necks (not quite as giraffe-like as the Mauritian ones they replace), and are starting to assist in restoring the vegetation on the island back to how it might have been in the old days.

The Other Mauritius – A visit to the ark

When you take off for London you also get an amazing view – the plane almost always takes off north to south so shoots off the coast and across the reef before turning sharply to the left to run up the east coast.

As it turns you can see the whole scope of Grand Port Bay, including Lion Mountain that I had climbed,  and a series of little islands, and one larger one.  This larger island was one I made an expedition one Saturday towards the end of my first visit via a booked tour.  The Durrell Foundation supported the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation to keep Ile Aux Aigrettes as an ark for the endemic and highly endangered species from the mainland.  The arrangements seemed a little loose and despite my experience of timekeeping on small islands, I travelled down to Mahebourg early as no way did I want to miss the chance to see this spectacle.  I had been told to go to a small car park on the coast just south of the town centre.  It was metalled with shockingly white stones and at lunch time it was roasting hot to sit in the car, so I strolled around trying to find some shade or take a chance to peer off a low wall into the lagoon.  There was a small boat tied up against this wall bobbing about in the water and I could see the low profile of my destination out in the lagoon, barely a kilometre from where I stood.  But there was no office here, and no staff or other tourists at the appointed time.  I stayed around but started kicking the stones  in the car par and cursing how bad arrangements often go in these instances.

Then a jeep roared into the car park with a couple of young people and a family on holiday.  A very tall Creole guy introduced himself, reaching down to shake my hand and he went over to the boat to prepare the ropes for casting off.  Another guy from the jeep got in the boat and started it up.  A third young lady produced a clipboard, took my money and ticked a list.  It all suddenly became very active.  I was invited to sit in the boat; although it was not going to be a long crossing I sat up front to avoid the worst of the splash.  The boat gently chugged out from the jetty then roared into life across the lagoon.  The water was so turquoise, the sun so hot; it was perfection.  It was also nice to get away from the mainland.  For all I was working on a coastal zone project, on this first time to the country I had not managed to get out in a boat till now.  The Ile Aux Aigrettes, our destination, revealed more detail as we got closer and closer.  It seemed almost completely covered in a low dense scrub.  It is formed of coral reef itself, a relic reef that has become raised above the sea level, and hardened into a pitted but very solid piece of limestone.  I could see where waves in the lagoon constantly abraded away at the rock, but only up to where the highest tide came a metre or so above the current water level.  The waves had deeply undercut the limestone but such is the hardness of that rock that it easily supported these huge overhangs.