Faraaz Abdool, birder and environmentalist, wonders what’s going on at Asa Wright Nature Centre, closed 20 months because of covid19.
Is the world-famous Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWNC) slowly slipping from our landscape and history? Are the verdant hills which once were its crowning glory now reclaiming the lodge? As the saga surrounding this eco-tourism pillar continues, only one thing has become clear – there are far more questions than answers.
Most people have fond memories of the place, its location, and the many birds which frequented the grounds on the property. Innumerable visitors from all walks of life have traversed its corridor to the main veranda. Gentle footsteps quicken as the majestic Arima Valley looms into view. Eyes open wider, most gasp unconsciously under sensory overload. The scent of the lush forest. The frenetic twittering of more birds than one can focus on at any given moment. The buzz of their wings as bejewelled hummingbirds rocket past inches away from one’s face. The more you look at the surrounding “bush,” the more life becomes apparent.
The bounty seemed endless and you’d be justified in this assumption. Feeders overflowing with bananaquits and purple honeycreepers would distract the eye away from a lurking great antshrike in the shadows. Golden tegus and red-rumped agoutis basked in the security of this sanctuary. Crested oropendolas decorated the trees. From the same veranda, spectacular sightings had birders lining up eagerly to press their eye on the Centre’s spotting scope. What waited for the viewer was a lottery as much as life itself is. One day it could be a bearded bellbird picking the fruit of the jamun tree, gently rolling and softening it, before tossing its head back to swallow it in a single swift motion. Another day it could be a majestic ornate hawk-eagle, one of TT’s most exquisitely decorated predatory birds. Each day, Mother Nature tossed a different coin.
Natural systems are sustainable by design. One always flows into another, then to another, and ultimately back to where it all began. It seems as if the AWNC has been attempting to operate unnaturally and has therefore unsurprisingly encountered some stumbling blocks in its journey. The time TT is spending without the presence of an operating AWNC is hopefully short, as local and foreign lovers of the place are heartbroken that the Centre remains closed. As is prudent in times of stillness like this, honest reflection always proves invaluable.
Let’s take our attention away from the possible causes for the Centre’s closure for a moment, and direct it instead to the intangible, unquantifiable effect a visit to this magical place can have on the attentive person. AWNC is not merely a lodge, it is (unconsciously and subliminally) the sum of experiences one begins to accrue from the moment you head north on the Arima-Blanchisseuse Road. Julie ffrench, daughter of Richard ffrench (who was one of the founding members of the AWNC and author of A Guide to the Birds of TT) describes that feeling as “joy and contentment in equal measure.” She goes on to say, “It’s unique and precious. Puts TT on the international birding map. A treasure, which, if lost, will be another nail in the coffin for the nation.”
The AWNC is understated but magical. When searching for a stopover between Australia and Suriname, birder Siri Omberg booked a stay at AWNC. She loved it so much she returned twice from her native Australia. The AWNC attracts repeat visitors from all corners of the globe. Omberg has wonderful memories of “kind staff members, creative gardeners and cooks” to accompany her unforgettable experiences of capturing the unique and enigmatic oilbirds on video.
Even operating as a basic but charming forest lodge far from city centre, the pandemic still caused the wheels to stop turning. Many of us are holding onto some shred of hope that the AWNC will reopen soon, and with any luck this new chapter would be distinct from the previous. Some have suggested a “smaller, tighter board of directors,” while others have stated that the new AWNC “needs to stop being so colonial.” Benny Jacobs-Schwartz, a birding guide from Los Angeles, visited the lodge in 2019 with the hope of expanding his international tour guiding business to TT. Although he arrived here brimming with excitement, he quickly realised that the price he was paying for the rooms didn’t exactly match up to the standard he was expecting: “I’ve travelled around the world to eco-lodges, and I don’t always need a ‘luxury experience’ but this place was so expensive, I couldn’t believe how poor quality it was in comparison to what I was paying. They should evaluate other high-quality lodges and consider seriously upgrading the facility, with a focus on the main building and the rooms…Someone with style, vision, and demonstrated experience in birding eco-tourism should be paid to make this lodge what its reputation holds in visitors’ minds.”
The AWNC needs our care, love, and urgent attention. Today, its dilapidated sign whimpers at the entrance to one of the world’s most famous birding lodges. The gate is worn, pushed closed and held in place by a concrete block. Untethered electrical connections wave like crazed, desperate antennae to the sky where a security camera once stood sentry. It was midday but the air blew a cool 21 degrees Celsius. In the distance, I heard the faint “bonk” of a bearded bellbird.
This is not about letting a legacy slip away. Blame does nothing but postpone the solution. Mother Nature has not run out of coins to toss. She still churns them out, every day a unique set of actors takes the stage. It is up to us to model our businesses after her, and we shall be resilient, adaptable, and most of all sustainable.