Hunting for wasps and chickens – Bats, Birds and the elusive Galliwasp

My week on Montserrat was busy – I had to meet the various teams of environment department workers who were responsible for the different biodiversity programmes.  I was to meet an old friend of mine, Laverne, who almost single handedly had introduced and fostered use of GIS on Montserrat.  And I wanted to get a grip on the species I was looking at.

The biodiversity action plan was to focus on endemic species in the Central Hills.  My colleagues from Kew Gardens were getting a good handle on the plant species – had conducted transects across the hills and were finding new species almost all the time.  I had a quick job to manipulate their existing data into a format that could be transferred to their master database in London.  There was a guy called Steve who I started referring to as the batman; he was crazy about bats and had a complicated way of recording all his information.  The island conservation team more or less let him get on with it.  Bats are one of the few land mammals in the Caribbean that are endemic – given the chain reaches out in the ocean there are not many other ways to extend your species’ range unless you fly.  The result is that there are several endemic species and subspecies of bats in all the islands and Montserrat is no exception. I chatted with the batman a couple of times by email  but there did not seem much point in changing the way he did things for the sake of local conditions.

Then there were the birds.  I worked with Geoff from RSPB to decide how we would best tackle this.  I showed him the seabird databases I had developed in the South Atlantic, but we agreed this was a different case.  Here they were not trying to count every bird on a rocky outcrop, but to try and sample some shy species in forest undergrowth; most notably the Montserrat Oriole whose numbers had declined sharply after the eruptions.


The Centre Hills from our village

The two other species of interest were different.  The first was an enigma.  It was like hunting the snark, like the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat …. that isn’t there.  It was the Montserrat galliwasp.  A galliwasp is not, as you might imagine, a kind of insect, but a lizard.  For a smooth lizard it is slightly flattened, wide bodied even.  My description is all from books.  I didn’t see a galliwasp in the week I was there.  In fact it had been several years since anyone had seen a galliwasp.  The last time had been about five years ago and the poor creature in questions was in the jaws of a small dog so was not going to do anything to relieve its critically endangered species status.

So I designed a database that was to do a couple of things; one was allow anyone to log reports of people seeing a galliwasp – whether being eaten or not at the time.  The second was that a series of remarkably complex study sites were being set up to see if they could attract galliwasps in to be studied.  I never saw one of these sites themselves but it was described to me in great detail.  They sliced up the site into segments of long grass and short grass, corrugated iron they could hide under, scrubby vegetation.  I was to create a complex database that would describe all the habitats and the number of galliwasps of what sex, age, length and height.  All this for something which had not been seen alive for a generation.

Living in the Community – The Shape of Fintonia

Over the course of the next couple of days we spent training the guys in the techniques and discussing the issues around land ownership in this part of Sierra Leone. We would start early in the morning and we tried out different types of plot.  After the initial trial in the small open clearing opposite the house, we ramped up the difficulty.  I realised there were different types of land use in many Sierra Leone villages and Fintonia was a classic model.  In the centre of the village were most of the buildings.  The immediate surrounds, particularly at the back of the houses, were store houses, latrines and a hard pan of land used for most domestic activities – cooking, washing, laundry, fixing bits and pieces.  In the plots behind this there was usually a kitchen garden where high value and small crops were grown.  I’d seen maps the previous year of villages in Guinea where the word “Peppiniere” was used.  I was a little confused at first but comparing that to where I was in Sierra Leone I now saw it was the same kitchen gardens, predominantly where higher value chillies and other peppers, herbs or spices were grown.  The big cereal crops were grown much further away; I suppose since land was at such a premium close to the housing.  Two types of this agriculture existed.  Sierra Leone was riddled with little river valleys; the humpy bumpy nature of the terrain here meant you were likely to cross one of these every kilometre or two.  While some dried out on the surface every season, they still contained a high water table of wet, organic soil that was vital for good yields.  Irrigated rice cropping occurred here but also vegetables and some fruits would be grown.  On surrounding hillsides land was much poorer quality and drier.  Here other cereal crops such as maize and dryland rice could be grown.  The scrub was being extensively slashed and burnt to make new fields for this kind of cropping.  In between the dryland and the wetland Fintonia had conserved a wedge of high value forest.  Yes some agroforestry went on here, but the forest was also used for beekeeping and the clay extraction, and other activities; there were pools for bathing – women in one area, men in another.


Fintonia – with thanks to Google Earth

Living in the Community – Demba tries the unit

I was given a few moments to talk about the project; I had to do a little work to clarify some of the simplifications Momoh had made on our behalf.  And we unrolled the maps and showed them the preliminary work we had done.  I had simply taken a satellite image and drawn many of the key buildings, roads and other features on top.  We presented a copy of this to the Paramount Chief and I posed rather awkwardly for a photograph for the website.  A few words of thanks from the Paramount Chief himself, where he told us that he trusted the good work of the project so far, and that any friend of Momoh’s was a friend of his.  We were so grateful for this – I must admit in all the years I have worked in Africa I have been uneasy over my imposition on the communities in which I work.  When I have a fixer or a local who introduces us to those communities, I am so much more relieved and confident we shall get cooperation.


Handing the chief a copy of our satellite map

I was a little overoptimistic here, but for reasons that did not reveal themselves for several days.  We commenced our training with the three guys straight after the meeting with the chief.  We started by heading back to our own guest house and spreading the materials over the table on the veranda.  I explained to them the basic theory of what we were doing and got them to orientate themselves from the printed out satellite image.  Then Kofi took over and gave them a detailed lesson in how to use a GPS.  He had quite a sophisticated GPS, which used a pen and a touch screen and for people who rarely used a small mobile phone, let alone any other digital device, it took a bit of getting used to.  We wandered across the road in front of our house to an area of cleared land right on the edge of the village.  Kofi walked around the edge of the plot with the GPS and came back, saved the result with his magic pen and showed the trainees the results on the little grey screen on the unit.  The GPS had recorded his movements every few seconds and he had created a neat little square on the screen.  He handed the unit to Demba who eagerly took it in his hands.  Kofi was a good trainer – very serious and strict but incredibly patient.   With this GPS there were several things to do to set up the unit ready for walking the boundaries.  Then you let it go and it made beeping noises when it was recording data.   We stood next to the road as we watched Demba walk half way round the field.  Then he said “It has stopped beeping”.  Kofi walked over to fix it.  He completed the walk.  Kofi helped him press all the right buttons to ensure that he saved the track in the unit and we took a look at the results on the screen.  There were one or two short lines in different places in the screen and that was all.  Kofi reset it and off he went again.  This time he was more successful at having a track that went all the way round the plot but it was a very peculiar shape.  I’d spotted what was going wrong.  With a GPS you have to have the unit exactly where you want it to record – there is no point in walking a boundary if you wiggle around any obstacle, or hold the machine away from where the actual boundary was.  And some of the lines went haywire, points all over the place.  The problem stemmed from Demba being in too much of a hurry to get round.  GPS is like a Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb trail.  It does not record every step you take, but records a point every few seconds.  If you walk too fast you end up with very few points and in some places, where there is tree cover, for example, the precision of the location accuracy can drop.  With this unit, it can average out and help make a smoother picture of the route you took, but only if you walk slowly.  This guy kept on cutting corners which made the shape of the plot very dubious.  If he had stood in each corner he would have got a much cleaner shape on the GPS.

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.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Mourning a buddy

It was late at night and I was numb.  Edsel had been my closest colleague and a fantastic friend for over ten years.  In the morning I was still numb and spent the morning sending a couple of emails to his friends and colleagues.  Edsel had a very split life; he was a true Kittitian and had a huge network of family and friends on the island itself, but those people barely knew a lot of his international  work colleagues with whom he had shared so many memories – he still had his connections in Nashville through Vanderbilt University.  That conference in Jamaica was for the GIS community in the Caribbean and both of us had served on the committee for several years.  He was well known and liked by everyone he came in contact with, but now I was that link to those GISers.


Edsel in Cayman

I had to compose an email to this community – we were preparing for the conference even while in was in Haiti.  I also got in contact with some of his family in St Kitts and in the UK, including his nephew in St Kitts whom he had taken under his wing.  Within a couple of hours of me sending out this email, I got a dozen replies, from those who knew and respected Edsel as a colleague and sent formal condolences, to those who knew him as a friend and had to admit my message had immediately made them cry.  I even got a few emails from people who knew how close we were – I’ve never come across anyone who had the same vision for how we could help GIS develop in small island nations, or have such complementary skills to see it, and also share the same wicked sense of humour.  These people realised just how much I was mourning as well as going through the motions.  It was tough.  And here I was in the middle of a intense contract in a difficult country miles from my own support networks.  When I was cheerfully greeted by Jean Luc and Chris at breakfast, they quickly saw my mood and knew I had bad news.  I managed to stay composed and in fact the nature of my work – the strict modelling on the computer and the creativity of making good looking maps, helped me to keep things together for the next few days while  I searched for the emotions to find a useful way to vent them.

I became a liaison between Edsel’s family in UK and St Kitts and his GIS colleagues all over the world and did what I could to relay information back and forth, and post messages about him on his Facebook page.

I can’t express everything I felt at that time; you will read elsewhere of our work, our friendship and the adventures we had in many places over the years.  But he was one person I was looking forward to meeting up with when we were old and reflect on our times, and we were robbed of that, as well as to make new times and continue to explore our vision and camaraderie.  I still miss him dreadfully.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Memorial to the workers

We eventually found our way to the entrance to the National GIS (or CNIGS), on an affluent hillside.  I walked up to the reception and asked for my contact, Bobby.  The centre was housed in a number of buildings, many of which seemed to be prefabricated and modern.  The walkways between the offices were all in good condition and seemed new.  There was a good reason for this.  CNIGS had moved from its old offices after the earthquake; the old building of a typical simple concrete construction had pancaked during the quake and killed the director of the institute and nine other staff members.  A large part of the building was destroyed and as well as the horrific loss of life, much of the equipment and the large reserves of data about Haiti were also lost.  I noticed on my way out that a memorial to the staff who lost their lives had been placed against the outside wall of the first building.  On a shiny brass plaque the names of the dead staff were mentioned, and a map of Haiti had been made out of jagged lumps of stone.  I never asked, but I suspected that in fact they were pieces of rubble from the original building.

It was not the first time I came across a personal impact of the earthquake.  Here were a group of people doing a job very similar to mine, working with maps and GIS and data to help the decision makers, the visitors, the community at large, to have the best available spatial data for their meetings, studies, atlases or websites.  They were in their offices doing all those jobs at the time of the quake and in a flash their lives were wiped out.  Standing in front of this tastefully minimalist monument  was a solemn interlude in my busy day, and its positioning on the first building as you came in the entrance meant that the staff were reminded of their dead colleagues every day they came to work.

CNIGS had considerable support from the global GIS community who donated equipment, training, volunteers and then helped them find this new temporary home.  A new permanent building was being designed elsewhere in the city, and new procedures to keep safe the valuable archive of mapped data were in progress, and hopefully safeguarding the lives of the staff too.

I had obtained most of the data that I needed from CNIGS, for which I was very grateful as it saved me a lot of time.  I was so used to spending days scurrying round many offices spending hours explaining the project, gaining the trust of the staff, trying to get data and in many cases being frustrated when either bureaucracy or downright pigheadness got in the way.  I am always amazed when I find generous people who understand that releasing the data in to your hands will add value to its existence, help the nation you are in and you are not robbing anyone of anything.  The next day was spent by me in the hotel  sorting the huge amount of data into something that I would be able to use in the next visit for the final outputs.  Christophe and Jean Luc headed north to visit some existing fish farms.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – At the ministry

I was glad of the sleep, despite being several hours behind UK time, I was fatigued from nearly two days on the go.  It meant the next morning I was not too groggy to wake up for an early breakfast.  Jean Luc insisted we travel as early as possible to the office; any later than 8 and we would spend the whole morning on the road.  So after a quick breakfast we met our driver at the reception and descended the windy road into Petionville.  We got through the town centre quite quickly but soon had joined the steady line of traffic down the main road towards the airport.  We did well though, it took only two hours to get to the Ministry of Agriculture compound at the back of the airport.

The ministry’s building was a large colonial style edifice with striking yellow painted plaster walls, a green roof and white highlights on the large window frames and balustrades.  Mainly two storeys but with an extra storey on stumpy towers and surrounded by tall shady trees; it must have been one of the grandest buildings in the neighbourhood.  It also showed that agriculture had had high status at one time in the country, no doubt related to its plantation history.  From the appearance of the buildings at the back; 1960’s and 70’s construction there had been some investment in agriculture then too, but it was to these newer constructions we headed towards.  For the main building had been a victim of the earthquake, its facade badly cracked in several places, surrounded by a wooden fence it was out of bounds to everyone.  Regrettably I could not see that Haiti would ever have the money to rebuild it.

So behind one of these buildings a small door took us in to a series of modest rooms that acted as the Fisheries Department’s national headquarters.  I met the staff including the chief fisheries officer and we had several meetings.  My main intention was to establish the meeting with the national GIS office and this achieved I talked with staff about what data they did have.  A GIS had been established in the office, as I find in many places, but the staff were not confident in what existed on it or how the software operated.

We lunched in the staff canteen, as far as I could make out, but it was quite unlike any canteen I had ever been in.  A short walk across the compound under the shady trees brought us to a house, little more than a chattel house with gingerbread roof and balustrades.  The main seating area was an open terrace with room for about twenty people.  We sat and had our dinners ordered – that old Caribbean thing about having a big plate of hot steaming rice and peas loaded with some hot spicy meat or fish.  Washed down with the sweetest soda you could imagine.  But the ambience of this location; a quiet oasis in the Port Au Prince valley and the good quality of the food made it a pleasant lunch.

A Tale of Two Swamps – in the DC’s

Namwala is the district centre for the region, but like several old colonial towns in amongst the chiefdoms, has little historical legacy; it was constructed as an administrative convenience – a place where the functions of the district can be collected together.  A small settlement has grown up around this to service the residents, but as we drove through its main street, I could see it was a relatively quiet town.


Entering Namwala on the tarred road

We first paid a visit on the District Commissioner.  As opposed to the chief, this was the Government’s chief representative in the region, and his office lay in a small compound where many of the district’s administration occurred.  It was a one storey building built around an open courtyard; almost like cloisters, but the hubbub inside was hardly monasterial.   In here were offices for health, social welfare, education, business licenses and all manner of other financial and support offices for the whole district, and people had walked, biked, or caught lifts on lorries or buses to do their business.  The queues outside each office were long and immobile and as we gathered outside the District Commissioner’s office itself, I was aware of a hundred sets of faces looking at us; old and young, mainly women but some men of all ages too.  Women held babies that cried or slept; older children were standing still, bored stiff at having to wait so long.  Occasionally an official would emerge from an office, clutching manila files, and saunter slowly along the open corridor from one door to another.

We were allowed to enter the DC’s office within a few moments (when we came out I could hardly discern a difference in the makeup of the other queues).  We were greeted warmly by the DC himself and invited to sit around a couple of those ubiquitous heavy sofas set about a low coffee table that every high ranking official in Africa seems to have.  Ian explained the project and got some valuable information from the DC.  More than the villagers from the previous day, the DC was concerned about the control of the river from the big electrical statutory body, ZESCO.  We chatted for a while, but my eye was turned to a large map on the DC’s wall.  Up to now I had been struggling to find a map of exactly where the modern day chiefdoms were.  All I had was the old maps from the British Overseas Surveys 1:50 000 maps, that I knew were outdated.  This guy had a modern GIS generated map on his wall showing all the names of the chiefdoms.  I talked with him for a while about it and he said it had been created by a commercial company in Livingstone for the House of Chiefs.  I would write to the agency to order but there was little hope of getting a positive reply, so as a precaution I took as many photos of the map as I could, trying not to blur the edges, keep the view perpendicular and not use the flash to avoid reflection, and hope I could stitch the photos back together later.  It is a practice I have learnt the hard way over the years.  On my first trip I had found some wonderful weather data at an agricultural establishment in the Zambezi Valley in northern Zimbabwe.  I had talked to the man for ages about it and handed over my card with address in UK and asked him to send me copies of the data.  How naive; I now realise there was no incentive for the man to do this, and no money to photocopy and post the results.  And as for him copying by hand?  Well; I was very young.  With digital photography it has become so easy to capture data that others have spent time putting together and as long as you attribute its source correctly, data’s value are so enhanced by being spread further.  In the end with the Chiefdoms map I spent several hours carefully piecing together the photographs and making a rough estimate of their extents.

As far as you can go – Living and Working in Jamestown

On my first trip I was in splendid isolation up in my house in the woods, for the other two trips, Edsel and I were given a house at the back of Jamestown.  When we arrived without luggage we were able to  simply walk up the main street, behind the tourist office, drop down into a small courtyard and enter our abode ten minutes after leaving the port.  After a 6 day trip it was the simplest of endings.

The house was large enough for our needs, downstairs was a lounge decorated in a way which would have looked outdated in the 1970s in the UK.  A small kitchen at the back and upstairs a couple of bedrooms and bathroom set on the creakiest wooden floor.  The back of the house was dark as a steep hill and other buildings crowded in.  The front was not much better as it was in a courtyard of several other houses and next to a car mechanics.  But we did not need much and since we were mainly based out of either the National Trust or the Legal and Lands Department, both just a short walk away.

My first visit had identified that there was a need to build an inclusive GIS of all the environmental agencies and also look at it as a prototype for a island wide GIS.  The Legal and Lands Department had a GIS already, and some capacity in the shape of a fabulous young man called Len Coleman.  I’d not met him the first time I had visited; I think he had been away on a training course in China.  When Edsel and I walked into the office for the first time he was so happy to see us – he had been asking for ages to get some more GIS experience and organise the data properly and from what he had read of our work in Anguilla and Ascension, he was excited by our visit.

Aside from the Castle, Legal and Lands had one of the most prestigious government buildings in Jamestown, Essex House.  It was a grand four storey building, although two of the storeys were below the main street level.  Going up an elegant staircase you entered a large wooden panelled entrance hall with a glass panelled reception area.  If you went upstairs you met the surveyors , including the chief man at the time, Gavin.  Len had a large room at the back of the house overlooking a small courtyard garden.  At the far end was another substantial building housing the Legal Section.  People visiting there could gain access through a small subway from the street under the main building.

Like many buildings in Jamestown, Essex House was indeed built with some grandeur, but lack of money and maintenance had let it fade considerably.  Despite this Edsel and I were very happy working here.  GIS was at the heart of the room; there were maps up on all the walls; Len and his colleague Gina were working hard on a project to scan all the property titles for the country and add them to a massive database, massive by small island scales anyway.  The contrast with the other two main offices in which we had worked were strong.  I loved Scotland with its outward bound style offices, but it was often shrouded in a dank cloud and cold.  I loved working  in the National Trust Office in Jamestown; the different ladies who ran the show there each had their own characters and  I always felt looked after by them, in particular the indomitable and always bubbly administrator, Phyllis.  But here with Len we had found the beating core of what we had to do and someone who knew what GIS was about.