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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Notwithstanding my determination to take a break from all news, technology creates an everywhereness that makes this quite difficult. Reports on the alleged slaughter of in-transit flamingos in the Caroni Swamp hit me predictably hard. Already disgusted with my countryman, the flamingo incident is having an even more insidious effect on my psyche. My passions are near extinguished; I am ushered now into an age of apathy.

It’s hard to care any more, knowing that something similar happened just a few years ago at Orange Valley on the West Coast. At the time, I was still producing my nature television series and was always on the lookout for interesting habitats. The Orange Valley mudflats were ideal as this area attracts a wide diversity of bird species. There was talk in the air of a visiting flock of flamingos, but I wrestled with scepticism because many Trinidadians seem not to know the difference between a flamingo and the scarlet ibis, the national bird. On more than one occasion, I’d been sent on a wild...scarlet ibis chase by locals who insisted they’d seen flamingos at a particular spot.

So it was a real thrill, during one of my visits to Orange Valley, to experience a pair of flamingos on the mudflats. As I searched for the best vantage point on the fisherman’s jetty stretching out over the mudflats, a fisherman cycled up to me and whispered, “Was about 14 ah dem not too long ahgo, yuh know!”

“Where are they?” I asked.

“Boy, dey shoot dem out, yes! Is only dem two remain.”

With that, he mounted his bike and rode off, a trail of cigarette exhaust billowing out behind him.

It felt as though someone had just kicked me in the biscuits. How could anyone conceive of doing such a thing? At Orange Valley, there is considerable ease of access for tourists to get an up-close look at scarlet ibises, vast flocks of laughing gulls, black skimmers, ruddy turnstones, and so on. But that’s just what I see. Here’s what other Trinis see: At Orange Valley, there is ease of access to all sorts of things to kill and eat.

For those condemning the reported shooting of flamingos inside the Caroni Bird Sanctuary, it boggles the mind that, as Trinis, we would shoot ourselves in the foot by decimating a strong addition to the line up of tourist attractions in the swamp. It has always seemed the vast majority of the country isn’t on board with the ecotourism vision. Consequently, the unrestrained consumption of wildlife continues. Wildlife is largely viewed as a natural resource to be exploited, just like oil, natural gas and cow-eyed voters.

Several years ago, I attended four public consultations on a draft wildlife policy. The hunting fraternity was out in full force, outnumbering a handful of wildlife activists there to speak to conservation issues. As a parallel measure, a moratorium on hunting was also established. At the time, I wrote that a moratorium without a sense of direction was pointless. I had suggested extensive studies should be done to, once and for all, provide reliable data on the health of wildlife populations across Trinidad and Tobago. This is the only reasonable way to craft a wildlife policy to govern the sensible management of our natural heritage.

The moratorium was eventually scuttled in the name of political expediency, and who knows what became of the draft wildlife policy.

Personally, I believe an outright ban on all hunting is past due. Building a sustainable ecotourism economy based on the protection of our wildlife is the most practical way of ensuring all citizens benefit from our natural resources. The foreign exchange generated by hotels and tour companies would sustain the country as a whole, rather than a small subset of citizens exploiting wildlife in a wholly unsustainable manner.

Though small in number, wildlife advocates have for years worked for the protection of our delicate ecosystems. However, they continue to battle an enemy of incalculable omnipotence; ignorance. It always amazed me to discover how little average citizens know about local wildlife.

I’ve done talks at schools at which I’ve asked children to name native species. In many instances, children spoke about lions, tigers and elephants. Sounds about right, because that’s what they remember from their field trips to the zoo. Younger generations can’t be condemned for their ignorance if they aren’t being taught enough about the biodiversity of the country in which they live. Indeed, it’s doubtful whether older generations have sufficient knowledge to impart an appreciation of our native species to children.

We can talk about enforcement and fines until we are blue in the face, but without proper education on the importance of biodiversity, conservation of our precious natural resources will always be a steep climb. With ignorance as our default setting, flamingos will continue to be viewed as targets rather than (borrowed) assets.

I’d like to be more upbeat about our prospects for a lucrative ecotourism industry and healthy wildlife populations, but historical precedents and prevailing ignorance suggest these goals are too ambitious for the likes of us.


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