In big ecotourism destinations – Kenya, Guyana – visitors travel miles over a few days to catch a glimpse of their iconic species. TT, says Faraaz Abdool, offers different micro-climates and eco-systems short distances from each other. Plus, one of the highest densities of bird species in the world.
For a country that has been heavily dependent on the oil and gas industry, we can be forgiven for overlooking the ecotourism potential of these two tiny islands at the southern end of the Caribbean. From the perspective of the nature-based visitor though, here’s what brings TT to the top of the list.
When considering ecotourism – whether in the same country or another – mostly for the purpose of enjoying wildlife in their natural habitat, one tends to consider the most charismatic megafauna. Lions for their regal allure, elephants for their sheer size and complex social lives, and giraffes for their unbelievably long necks; these are the animals we first see as babies, animal illustrations adorning cribs and bibs, welcoming us into the world. To experience these animals in the wild involves embarking on a safari to various well-established and well-trodden ecotourism networks within the African continent. However wild and adventurous, almost unreachable for most of us, most African countries – we are reminded – have been catering to eco-visitors for decades and are well equipped to ensure that almost all creature comforts are available.
Wildlife in big countries
As an example, within Samburu territory in Kenya, the utter remoteness of the lodge meant that there was no wi-fi or telephone connectivity. We all received whistles on our room keys to be used in case of emergency. However, a combination of solar power and a small generator meant that warm showers and sleep under a ceiling fan were possible. At night, the stars lit the pathways and elephants wandered silently through the camp. By sunrise, though, we would have to get in our safari van and drive for an hour in the featureless scrub to find a leopard having breakfast with her cub, under a tree where a pair of pygmy falcons kept a lookout for their preferred prey.
Closer to home, in neighbouring Guyana, the situation is incredibly similar. Northern South America is famous for its savanna habitat, and one can easily mistake one continent for another. The parallels run very deep, especially in the ecotourism experience. Both places are home to spotted cats and legitimate giants. Guyana is known as the “land of giants”, concealing giant river otters, giant anteaters, and a considerable list of other superlatives.
Even though the flora and fauna are impressive in these areas, the immense scale of the landscape can be daunting. The almost one million acres of protected forest in the Iwokrama Forest Reserve harbours hundreds of species of birds including the enigmatic Guianan cock-of-the-rock and downright terrifying harpy eagle, but it takes the skilled driver several hours to traverse its breadth. Surprisingly, very little wildlife can be seen from the single road bisecting this jungle – even though keen eyes may spot jaguar paw prints on the unpaved surface! There is simply too much space, the animals have room to roam a comfortable distance away from any anthropogenic activity, our Guyanese guide explained.
Wildlife on islands
On an island, however, all is scaled down. Far too often islanders push the habitat to the other extreme, to a point where there is simply too little space. Any wildlife that is especially sensitive to human habitation can easily be pushed to the edge of existence, others that are a little more flexible have a better chance of survival. If there is an additional threat – hunting or capture for the pet trade as examples – a species’ fate may be sealed before alarm bells go off. The majestic and near-mythical imperial parrot on Dominica suffered precipitous declines due to habitat loss, being hunted for food, and trapped for the pet trade despite its status as the country’s national bird. Thanks to concerted conservation and education outreach programmes, the imperial parrot’s greatest threat is now mega-hurricanes like Maria in 2017 that likely halved the population within a few days of intense rain and whipping winds. Another parrot on the same island has fared much better due to its adaptability in diet. The red-necked parrot occasionally raids citrus plantations in addition to its usual menu of forest fruit – but like the imperial parrot they too require large, mature trees for suitable nesting habitat.
Within the Caribbean, there are more than 180 endemic species, some confined to a single island such as both parrot species mentioned; others may be endemic to a few islands within the region. The birding experience on each island typically involves an understandable focus on finding the endemic species. In total, there are over seven hundred bird species distributed throughout the Caribbean, from The Bahamas in the north to Grenada at the southern end of the Lesser Antilles. TT is omitted from this list, as our two tiny islands have an astounding 495 bird species on record!
Within the total surface area (for our two islands) of 5,131 km2 some 495 recorded bird species set this country apart from any other Caribbean nation. From a birding perspective, many of our island neighbours to the north would exhaust their sightings within a day or two – but here we have enough to keep serious birders interested for a fortnight. Furthermore, the occurrence of surprises – rare or vagrant sightings – keeps people coming back for more. The secret lies in a combination of factors; our islands’ equatorial position along a major migratory flyway combined with each island’s special geological history contributed to a unique and attractive blend of species.
Ecotourism in TT is poised to become a major economic force, as the natural and human-made infrastructure is already in place. No journey within either island should exceed three hours, and around every corner is a friendly parlour. If we are kind to the natural systems that we exist alongside, the various habitats will be healthier, and wildlife will become much more evident within the landscape. For the future, we can envision a country where a grassroots economy built on persons enjoying transformative experiences in nature can flourish.