Requiem for the Monk Seal

Some animal speceis have disappeared from the Caribbean forever. But others are being saved.

A matter of survival: baby turtles start a hazardous dash for the safety of the sea. Photograph by Noel NortonBack from the brink: the St. Lucia parrotEndangered: a giant leatherback heaves itself onto the Trinidad sand

The blood of the heavy animals stained the blue water around the open wooden boats. Grunting sailors, fearful of sharks, dragged the beasts over the gunwales. From the high square aftercastle of a sailing ship moored nearby, a redheaded man watched the killing.

The man was Christopher Columbus, the year was 1492 and the dead or dying animals were Caribbean Monk Seals, Phocidae monachus tropicalis.

Theirs is a dubious claim to fame. They were the first New World animals Columbus logged in the journal of his historic voyage of discovery. His crewmen slaughtered and devoured eight of them on the islet of Alta Vela, south of Hispaniola.

Today they are extinct.

Once, the seal was abundant; by the 18th century, sealing in the Caribbean was a major industry. The bewhiskered eight-foot, 400-pound Caribbean Monk Seal–today’s seals and dogs are closely related–was slaughtered for its oil and fur.

But by 1911 the only significant Monk Seal colony in the Caribbean numbered about 200 in the Yucatan Keys. Fishermen discovered the herd and killed every single member of it.

The last reliable sighting of the Caribbean Monk Seal was made in 1952 in Jamaican waters. Subsequent surveys of the Caribbean in 1972 and 1980 revealed absolutely no trace of them at all. Today, the odds of finding a Caribbean Monk Seal alive are as good as spotting Elvis Presley in an American supermarket.

The shameful fate of the Monk Seal is shared by other species, including small unknown mammals whose fragmented remains form a tantalising mystery; lizards, parrots, rails and doves. “There has been massive depletion in the West Indies,” says Hans Boos, curator of Trinidad and Tobago’s Emperor Valley Zoo in Port of Spain.

Their demise is not simply the disappearance of a thing of beauty from nature’s gallery. “None of these creatures exists on its own for its own sake,” Boos says. “Each is linked to the rest like the knots in a seine net. Once the knots are undone the net is useless.”

And nothing is so small that its removal won’t have an impact and cost. For example, says Boos, when a species of orchid was driven from the Aripo Savannah in Trinidad, the wasp associated with it disappeared too. “Next, the prey of the wasp left and that in turn led to soil erosion.”

For visitors from temperate dimes, the diversity and abundance of wildlife in the Caribbean remains an extraordinary spectacle. Boos and other professional and amateur conservationists are fighting a rearguard action to preserve what’s left of it.

And there are success stories among the monotonous round of failures. Notable among them is the rescue of the Jacquot, one of the fourteen (there were at least 23 in 1492) species of parrots alive today in the West Indies.

In 1975, because of hunting, and the levelling of the forest where it lived, experts declared that the bird faced oblivion. Then something remarkable happened. Jacquot was elevated to the status of a national symbol, and its fate changed.

Business and religious leaders extolled its virtues while community groups organized to save it and musicians wrote calypsos in its honour. Help came from British conservation groups and zoos which provided much of the material used in raising consciousness about Jacquot. Most importantly, St. Lucia’s school children were taught about the need for conservation and the significance of saving Jacquot. Today, a special bus tours villages in outlying districts promoting conservation.

St. Lucians have become convinced about the need to protect the parrot’s domain, the key to its salvation, and have created reserves for its survival. Meanwhile, foreign zoos continue to provide Jacquot with life insurance by successfully breeding the birds in captivity before returning them to the wild. Today there are at least 250 Jacquots alive and well in St. Lucia, twice as many as in 1975.

As the dry season reaches its zenith in March and April, one of the great spectacles of the natural world occurs on some of the beaches of Trinidad and Tobago. Often trailing phosphorence in the waters behind them, great leatherback turtles struggle through the surf to nest on the rugged shore.

The elephantine leatherback, Dermochelys coriacea, is a global traveller which pre-dates the dinosaurs. The bigger of these great turtles can weigh a tonne (over 2,000 pounds).

They too are endangered. Unlike other sea turtles, the leatherback has no shell and yields no calipee, the ingredient used for making turtle soup. But that hasn’t stopped its slaughter, or the harvesting of its protein-rich eggs.

Sea turtles were already popular victims back in 1620 when the Bermuda Assembly passed “An Act Agaynst The Killing of Ouer Young Tortoyses” and declared “so excellent a fishe” in danger of extirpation and worthy of protection. The turtles continue to enjoy broad legal protection in the islands. But they remain endangered, because of the failure to enforce conservation laws.

But the prospects of Trinidad’s nesting sea turtles are brightening. At two major nesting grounds, where a few years ago as many as a dozen turtles were being slaughtered every few days, poaching has been virtually eliminated. Cases of citizens so outraged that they clung to the backs of turtles to save them from poachers, and armed stand-offs between poachers and game wardens, led to the nesting areas being declared prohibited areas. Access is controlled and visitors pay to enter.

Of equal significance is the fact that local communities have begun to protect the turtles. Instead of slaughtering the turtles, for what by repute is their not very tasty meat and dubious aphrodisiac powers, communities are learning that the turtles are worth more alive.

Eleven young villagers from Matura on Trinidad’s east coast have been trained as nature tour guides. The group has started its own venture, Nature Seekers Inc., which has won official status, ensuring it an unchallenged place on the turtle beach.

The birth of Nature Seekers was the result of helping villagers develop a sense of pride in the world-renowned wonder on their doorstep, says Carol James, head of the wildlife section in Trinidad and Tobago’s forestry division. The fact that the president of Matura’s village council, Christopher Mitehc, is a foe of poachers, and patrols the nesting beach almost nightly during the laying season, also helped.

James believes that conservation can provide a dividend for communities other than Matura. “There’s a tremendous cost benefit when these things (projects like Matura) are pursued,” James says. Nature Seekers guides relieve her officers of the almost impossible task of patrolling the beach while controlling access to it. They generate local revenue and ease the financial strain on hard-pressed officialdom. Better-protected beaches will attract more tourists, and hopefully more turtles too.

The concept has a name-ecotourism-and it’s attracting nature-loving tourists to destinations from Antarctica to Costa Rica.

It is not a perfect concept. Himalayan passes are now littered with the detritus of tourists, and in Kenya’s game parks lions and zebras are mobbed by tourist buses. Even on the turtle beaches, enthusiastic spectators can easily frighten the turtles away.

But ecotourism offers Caribbean nations like Trinidad and Tobago a means to protect resources they might otherwise lose. Christopher Columbus’s style of tourism is no longer welcome.