Safe Haven: Trinidad’s Wildfowl Trust and Nariva Swamp

Anne Hilton visits a nature reserve on an oil refinery compound in Trinidad and finds a model for thoughtful conservation programmes

Residents of the Wildfowl Trust: the purple gallinule. Photograph by Roger NecklesScarlet Ibis has successfully bred a the Trust since 1991. Photograph by Roger NecklesThe deceptive anhinga (snake-bird) swims with only its long snake-like neck showing above the water.  Photograph by M.R. GaskinThe Main lake at Wildfowl Trust. Photograph by M. R. GaskinThe Wildfowl Trust’s Mahogany Walk. Photograph by M. R. GaskinThis resident of the Wildfowl Trust is normally found in mangrove swamps. Photograph by Roger NecklesWhite-faced whistling ducks at the Pointe-á-Pierre Wildfowl Trust. Photograph by Roger Neckles

It must be the most original setting for a nature centre in the entire Caribbean, if not in the world. The Pointe-a- Pierre Wildfowl Trust sits in the middle of an oil refinery.  (Which is why visitors, be they local or foreign, must make bookings well in advance. The guard at the gate of the refinery checks all who want to enter, and those who aren’t expected are turned away.)

The Wildfowl Trust is a wetland habitat devoted to conserving and breeding endangered waterfowl and other bird species for re-introduction into the natural environment. It occupies 26 hectares of surprisingly tranquil and beautiful land — with woods and lakes — in the middle of the Petrotrin oil refinery compound near San Fernando, and has been rewarded by a steady increase in the local wildfowl population.

From the gate, the road to the Trust winds up hill and down dale, past oil company houses with well-tended gardens, a small church, lakes and more (rather larger) houses and grounds, till it reaches the Wildfowl Trust’s car park. From there a path leads down to the new Learning Centre (a gift from the Canadian Government). There is a small museum of Amerindian artefacts, an exhibition of shells, posters, charts, souvenirs; guides can show visitors around the centre. There may be a class or two of schoolchildren with their teachers or a community church group on an environmental tour.

Older visitors may prefer a quiet stroll around the lake, watching the ducks and other waterfowl and resting from time to time on benches beneath the shade trees that overhang the water. The anhingas intrigue most visitors; called “snake-birds” in Trinidad, they do look exactly like a snake swimming in the lake, their bodies completely submerged and only their long, snake-like necks showing above water. Like the cormorants that, to the uninitiated, look so much like anhingas, they jump up on branches overhanging the lake, spreading their wings out to dry.

The more serious-minded naturalist will want to inspect the captive breeding enclosures and to see the national bird of Trinidad, the scarlet ibis, close-up in all its astonishing bright-red plumage (the Trust has managed to breed scarlet ibis in Trinidad for the first time since the 1960s). Bird-watchers and wildlife photographers can make arrangements for a special tour, very early in the morning or late in the evening when the birds are most active. Otherwise, for painters, for a quiet family outing, or for a peaceful day in the middle of a hectic Carnival-in-Trinidad vacation, the Wildfowl Trust is a haven where you can relax in harmony with nature.

There are trails through the woods that surround the lakes. Children enjoy the Faerie Woods, boys want to explore the Devil’s Ear Trail, while adults probably prefer the lush tropical vegetation of the Forest Walk. The really energetic can tackle all three trails to make a complete circuit of the Trust’s property.

The founder of the Wildfowl Trust, Richard Deane, an ex-duck-hunter turned conservationist, would be astonished and overjoyed to see the project today. Deane’s concern about the scarcity of native wild duck led to the foundation of the Trust in November 1966 as a sanctuary where native ducks could be bred in captivity for release back into the wild. He persuaded the refinery to let him use its lakes and surrounding areas for the captive breeding programme. Financial help came from industry and business, from governments and non-governmental organisations, both in Trinidad and overseas.

Richard Deane needed technical help with the breeding programme. This he got from Slimbridge, the wetland wildlife sanctuary in England founded by Sir Peter Scott. It was Sir Peter himself who designed the logo for the Pointe- à-Pierre Wildfowl Trust.     Richard Deane retired in 1974. There was an uneasy four-year interregnum with no one in charge until in 1978 Molly Craskin, the current president, took over day-to- day operations (she is assisted these days by Karlyn Shephard). Since then the Trust has gone from strength to strength, with development of the breeding programme, construction of the Learning Centre and the opening of forest trails.

Over 86 species of birds can regularly be seen at Pointe- à-Pierre, including song-birds, waterfowl and wading birds. Molly Gaskin’s special pride is the rare masked duck (Oxyura dominica). In 1991 a nest of anhingas was discovered on one of the lakes; that discovery was particularly exciting because it was the first time these birds had been recorded as breeding in Trinidad and Tobago. Also in 1991 three pairs of scarlet ibis nested and raised healthy young birds.

The Trust does not confine its activities to the lakes and surrounding areas of the refinery complex. It constantly reaches out to the community, visiting schools, clubs and community groups to alert the public of Trinidad and Tobago to the urgent need for conservation in their tropical island home. The Pointe- à-Pierre Wildfowl Trust is a striking example of industry and conservation working hand in hand to preserve a fragile ecosystem: it is well worth a visit (just remember to make arrangements well in advance).

The Nariva Swamp

About 45 kilometres to the east of the Wildfowl trust, on Trinidad’s Atlantic Coast, lies one of the last big wetlands of the Caribbean, The Nariva Swamp.

Stretching over 227 square kilometres, it is home to over 600 animal species, 171 different birds and 57 mammals including a colony of manatees (sea cows), one of the last in the Caribbean. The area includes the Bush Bush Wildlife Sanctuary, protected by law and with restricted access.

The Swamp has long sustained a small cascadura fishing industry. But lengthy debate about the best ways of protecting and developing the area have been given new urgency by the encroachment of rice farmers, bringing with them access roads and canals, chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The matter reached the courts earlier this year. Meanwhile a group of local enviormentalists has been formed to press for tougher protection for the swamp.

Further information from the Wildfowl Trust or the Council of Presidents for the Environment (COPE), tel. (868) 628 2009, fax (868) 645 7623