Winston Nanan and the Caroni Swamp

If Trinidad's Caroni Swamp is famous for its spectacular flocks of Scarlet Ibis; Winston Nanan is its champion

Environmentalist Winston Nanan. Photograph by Mark MeredithPhotograph by Mark MeredithPhotograph by Mark MeredithPhotography by Mark Meredith

When he was 11, Winston Nanan’s father pulled him out of school and sent him into the swamp.

 

It should have been an inauspicious start to a small boy’s career, and may have seemed plain short-sighted on his father’s part. But Simon Oudit Nanan knew what he was doing. It transformed the life of young Winston and, it could be said, gave the swamp a future.

Simon Nanan had many mouths to feed: Winston was the oldest of seven girls and five boys. But he had another family of sorts: the birds and animals of the Caroni Swamp.

If you look out of your window on the descent to Piarco airport in Trinidad, you’ll see the swamp hugging the coastline just south of Port of Spain’s sprawl: a maze of waterways and lagoons studded with green islands of mangrove. Look a little closer and you might see a small boat chugging along a narrow channel. And if you had a high-powered telescope, you’d probably see Winston, now 56, at the helm, holding forth to a small group of people on a subject school could never have taught him.

Today, Winston Nanan is an ornithologist and wildlife photographer, a pioneer of eco-tourism in Trinidad, and one of the world’s leading authorities on wetland habitats. The tours he leads to see the Scarlet Ibis are among Trinidad and Tobago’s oldest and best-loved eco-attractions. If you’re in Trinidad, even for just a couple of days, make the brief half-hour journey from Port of Spain to the Caroni Swamp. Get there in the late afternoon (phone in advance, 645-1305) and you will be rewarded with a magical few hours in a world utterly different from the one you left behind.

Your boat leaves the wooden jetty as the sun is sinking towards the horizon, the narrow waterways turning to orange glass. Reflections and shadows cast by bizarre formations of gnarled and twisted mangrove roots and shoots crowd in on every side. Blue Herons stand motionless among the foliage, oblivious to the boat, with eyes only for their supper lurking somewhere beneath their feet. Beyond the banks, gloomy cathedrals of tangled mangroves echo to an eerie choir of insects and frogs. There may even be a macajuel — boa constrictor — hanging out over the water on a slender branch, head buried in knotted coils, scaly lumps blending into the background.

Your boat emerges from these faintly claustrophobic channels into large lagoons dotted with islands of mangrove. You’ll see different wading birds, egrets, more herons, maybe an osprey. And, half submerged, perhaps a spectacled cayman. Winston and his guides have seen them six or seven feet long. But whatever time of year you visit, low tide or high, you’ll see the Scarlet Ibis.

Your guide will bring the boat to rest beneath a canopy of mangrove, hidden from the Ibis returning to roost from nearby Venezuela. And you sit and wait in the gathering dusk. Before long they begin appearing: twos, threes, sometimes dozens at a time, their heads and long curved beaks stretched out on slender necks before them, gliding effortlessly home for the night. People will tell you of their brilliant colour, luminescent red burnished by the sinking sun, glowing like coals against the deep green mangroves.

The Caroni Bird Sanctuary tours have provided Winston’s family with a living spanning three generations; three of his five sons are actively employed in the business. But they began almost by accident.

“My father was known for his hunting ability. He was very sharp with a gun. He started taking people into the Caroni Swamp on fishing and hunting expeditions. Many people started bringing their families along at weekends to look at the Scarlet Ibis. They marvelled at the bird — in Trinidad, it’s a species that’s only seen in the Caroni Swamp, a place they never realised was so beautiful. This prompted my father to start a little tour industry, to see the Ibis. It proved to be more lucrative than fishing or hunting, and so I was taken out of school to help him with what was becoming a growing business.”

Like any 11-year-old, Winston jumped at the opportunity to escape the confines of class. While his sisters and brothers perched on hard school benches in the heat, Winston was feeling the breeze on his face. Common Entrance worries were a world away. “For me, life was fun. At the age of 11 to be taken out of school, roaming about the swamp, driving an engine . . . ”

It didn’t take Winston long to realise there was more to the tour business than steering a boat. “The people we took out started asking things about the area, the vegetation, the species of birds and wildlife which lived here. I knew nothing, and I felt very foolish.” So he got himself books, binoculars and cameras, and between the ages of 12 and 16 immersed himself in a fascinating subject, recording everything he saw on paper and on film. When he was just 16 he had an article, illustrated by his own photographs, published in National Geographic, the holy grail of magazine journalism. He didn’t stop there; he went on to publish with the Smithsonian Institution and, later, in the Encyclopedia Of North American Birds.

“By 1956 I had started to document things seriously and scientifically. I built a library in which I collected theses done in different areas on different wildlife subjects. I looked at how that work was done, and furnished my research using those methods. In those days I had to write to organisations like the Ford and Wildlife Foundations for funds. Acquiring money for research was difficult, but I managed to fund my programmes and spent many years documenting individual bird species, their life cycles and behaviour, until I was able to talk in detail about them.”

Back in the city, the Tourist Board had noticed the Nanans and their tours. They began directing visitors looking at Trinidad as a tourist destination to go to the Caroni Swamp. Travel writers and agents found themselves gliding among mysterious mangrove islands in the final hours of daylight to see an exclusive performance, as extravagant as any Carnival spectacular. Word spread, and the tours became a draw in an infant eco-tour industry. Wildlife photographers and film-makers descended in small flocks; the BBC filmed leaf-cutting ants as part of a David Attenborough epic.

You can see the Scarlet Ibis in some South and Central American countries — if you have several days to spare to do it. What makes Caroni unique is its easy access. “Trinidad put the species on the map,” Winston claims. “It’s the only place in the world where you can be sure to see them, and the only place which doesn’t require a day or more of travel to reach their roosting and nesting grounds. Here, they’re half an hour from town.”

The man who knows the swamp and its secrets better than anyone is keen to stress its other attributes. “Although Caroni is known for the Scarlet Ibis, we are beginning to make people aware that there is tremendous amount more to be seen here: 186 species of birds, and mammals which include silky anteaters, marine opossums, mongoose, caiman and crab-eating raccoons.”

After 45 years in the Caroni Swamp, Winston Nanan still delights in its beauty; but his appreciation is tinged with sadness for its past and fear for its future. He’s seen at close quarters the depletion of the swamp and, in particular, its most famous inhabitant.

Before Winston was born, most people came into the swamp to shoot the Blue-winged Teal duck. But there were some people who shot anything that moved, including the Ibis. Winston Nanan doesn’t blame them now, because the swamp wasn’t protected by law and the Ibis was on the Crown hunting permit. The birds which were shot ended up on the dinner table or decorating part of a lavish Carnival costume. Simon Nanan began petitioning hunters coming into the swamp to pledge support for a sanctuary, to protect the Ibis. He achieved his goal in 1948.

As a boy, Winston saw the Scarlet Ibis when they numbered between 15,000 and 18,000 birds. That figure has been reduced to an average of a couple of thousand now, except around Christmas, when the nesting season is finished. Counts at that time indicate numbers between four and six thousand.

Caroni has suffered the typical problems of a specialised eco-system living cheek-by-jowl with an encroaching human population. Farming and construction are the major culprits. Today, Caroni is a salt-water swamp. But when Winston left school, it was a freshwater swamp. And because of that change, the vegetation and the species which thrived in it have changed, too.

Thirty-odd years ago, before the Caroni Arena Dam was built, the swamp was fed by fresh water from the Caroni River, filled by rain washing off the slopes of the nearby Northern Range. This water brought with it humus and enriching nutrients. But the dam changed that, and areas once inundated with fresh water dried up. The wildlife that inhabited them disappeared.

Vegetation growing on the mud flats had created a trap for fish and shrimp, which got marooned on the tide, creating a feast for the birds. When the flow of saline water from the Gulf of Paria began, it killed the plants and the natural food traps they made. The fish and the shrimp drifted out with the tide. Fewer and fewer birds came. To add insult to injury, a foreign fish, the tilapia from South America, was accidentally introduced from a nearby fish farm. It liked to eat vegetation and set about the swamp with vigour.

But the swamp is nothing if not adaptable. The birds and creatures which live there have adapted to the change; the mangroves flourish. The evolutionary process goes on: the spectacled caiman, known as a freshwater reptile, is now found all year round in the salt-water swamp. It used to come in during the rainy season, when the saline content was diluted, but now you can see it during the salty dry season.

Winston, whose family led the way in highlighting the unique variety of Trinidad’s accessible wildlife, is not too impressed by the new-found enthusiasm for eco-tourism. “Eco-tourism is a good business, when it’s a responsible business. But it’s not done with the professionalism I would like to see. We have too many agencies who know nothing about bird-watching. Taking people to Asa Wright Nature Centre and putting them on the veranda, pointing out a few things, is not bird-watching. Bird-watching is going out into the field, identifying different species, talking about their characteristics and behavioural aspects.Everybody sells a bird-watching tour now, so I have pulled back from the market in Trinidad and Tobago and just run the Caroni tours.”

In truth and in fact, as Winston is fond of saying, more and more of his work takes him to South and Central America. There, he takes people down the mouths of great rivers like the Orinoco, talking about the birds, mammals, insects and reptiles, illustrating these lectures with a lifetime’s work of slides learnt on the hoof in his father’s boat.

He used to be sent abroad, all over the world, to sit at seminars where, he said, audiences were told not to chop down trees, which they knew already, and that “in order to save your country, you need to save the world”. He doesn’t see it like that. Winston believes that if you save your own little backyard, then you start to save the world. You do this by educating people about the birds, the animals, the plants, the sea; walking them through the forest, generating an awareness. He has donated a challenge trophy to Trinidad’s schools for essay-writing on the importance of wetlands. (Ironic that the little boy without O and A levels and degrees should now be educating high-school students and would-be graduates about our planet, how to understand it, and how to help it.)

As for the swamp, it’s too important now for the country, or the world, to lose. Thanks largely to Winston and his dad.