The Wild Fowl Trust: oasis of the oilbelt

The Petrotrin oil refinery has been a vital piece of southern Trinidad’s landscape, but nestled in its heart is a Wild Fowl Trust

‘As proud as a peacock,’ as the saying goes. Photograph by Andrea De SilvaA pair of macaws put on a colourful display. Photograph by Andrea De SilvaGuide Alana Jute explains the type of vegetation found at the Wild Fowl Trust, Pointe-à-Pierre. Photograph by Andrea De SilvaOne of the black-bellied whistling duck, also known as red-billed whistling duck, that visit the Wild Fowl Trust each year. Photograph by Andrea De SilvaScarlet ibis keep watch while perched on a rod at the Wild Fowl Trust, Pointe-à-Pierre. Photograph by Andrea De Silva

Our tour guide dropped her voice and stepped gingerly across the boardwalk to a mango tree by the water. Between the shiny green leaves of a low-hanging branch was a tiny scarlet head. “That’s the red-capped cardinal,” Alana Jute, the guide, said sotto voce. “He might be our next national bird. He has all the colours. A very handsome guy.” The small bird flew off just as the photographer came up, eluding her lens.

Never mind; the Pointe-à-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust had plenty of other fabulous photo opportunities, whether it be the slow-swimming turtles basking in the murky water of one of its lakes, or the lines of black-bellied whistling tree ducks going for a swim, fuchsia water lilies opening in the dawn, or eerie-looking snake birds with preternaturally long necks folded against their chests.

The trust celebrated 40 years of existence last year, many of those under the wing of its current president, Molly Rowena Gaskin. Gaskin took the post of president in 1981 after serving as secretary for three years. She is widely acknowledged as the bane of despoilers of the environment everywhere in Trinidad; it was under her that the trust began its extensive environmental education programme.

Started by two hunters on a three-acre spread with one lake as a refuge for native ducks, the trust now boasts two lakes on 74 acres of land, three nature trails, a boardwalk, breeding programmes for endangered birds, and a guesthouse, Petrea Place.

Saying all that doesn’t give a sense of how beautiful the place is.

Set in the enormous Petrotrin oil refinery compound in Pointe-à-Pierre, south Trinidad, the trust is an oasis in the industrial landscape. Bougainvillea flowers tumble down bushes at the entrance to the trust’s carpark, which is about ten minutes’ drive from Gasparillo junction. A peacock ambles around watching the carpark, magnificent tail feathers dragging on the lawn. A wooden bungalow beyond the carpark houses the learning centre, the heart of the trust’s educational programme.

That programme is central to the trust’s mission. Its motto is, “To know is to love, to love is to preserve.” Teaching students, guides, scouts and other visitors about nature is the first step in that process.

Jute, 27, was a full-time trust educator (their name for the guides who, among other things, conduct the daily tours of the reserve) before going to the University of the West Indies to study environmental resource management. There are two other educators, both full-time, and they see 60–100 students daily. The tour Jute gave our group took us around the smaller of the trust’s two lakes, a slow walk taking about an hour to complete. It didn’t go into the more adventurous forest trails that form another part of the trust, but stuck to the wheelchair-accessible boardwalk around the wetland area beside the learning centre.

Early on, a visitor would notice beautifully crafted ceramic tile signs along the trail. Made by the local firm Ajoupa Pottery, they identified the species of birds likely to be seen at various points.

Large boards by the first lake highlighted environmental concerns, like the relationship between inland development and coastal conditions.
The main activity of the trust, however, is conservation. “The trust is actively involved in research and captive breeding of endangered waterfowl and other wetland birds for release and reintroduction into natural wildlife areas. Many of the 86 species of birds recorded in the trust breed naturally in the forested and lake areas there,” says the collector’s-edition Forty Years: A Scrapbook of Memories, 1966-2006, published by the trust last year.

Conservation is a vital activity in Trinidad, where even protected species like the national birds are still hunted for meat and sport.

Take the black-bellied whistling tree duck, or ouichichi, for example. It was one of the ducks the trust’s founders, Richard S “Dick “ Dean and John Cambridge, hunted when they worked at what was then Texaco (later Petrotrin). Today the species is fairly rare. “There are not that many of them around, because of hunting,” said Jute. The small, gregarious black-and-tan birds are sleek and cute, smaller than the less elegant-looking wild Muscovy ducks with their plump bodies and bright red protuberances around their beaks.

To my eye, Muscovy ducks looked more like the common poultry species that ends up in many a pot, a suspicion Jute confirmed. “Trinis consider these the real duck for currying,” she said. The species has been hunted since the 1500s and is now making a comeback, thanks partly to the trust’s work.

“We’ve released some into Oropouche and Caroni [swamps].”The stars of the breeding programme are the scarlet ibis and blue and gold macaws. Scarlet ibis are one of Trinidad and Tobago’s national birds, but that is no protection against poachers. The trust’s breeding programme produced the first ibis born in captivity locally, in 1991. “They’re very quiet birds,” said Jute of the pale pink specimens in the large wire enclosure north of the smaller lake.

They aren’t their signature bold scarlet colour, because of a shortage of carotene in their diet; the supplement was scarce for some reason in recent months, Jute said. (Their natural diet of shrimp and crabs is too expensive for the trust to maintain, so they feed their ibis fish with carotene to give them colour.)

“It’s sad that people are hunting our national bird. It’s so beautiful to see them when they come in on evenings to roost. They’re hunting them right there in Caroni, too.”

A successful breeding programme sees the regular release of ibis into the wild, replenishing the natural population.

A wetland bird, like the ducks, the ibis shares its endangered-species rank with the blue and gold macaw. Macaws are spectacularly colourful and capable of being trained to speak, both of which qualities make them attractive in the illegal pet trade. Trouble is, they breed selectively and depend on a particular habitat—the endemic moriche palm is both food and nest for them. It’s found only in deep forest, and that in itself is becoming more and more rare. The trust has bred both the birds and the palms on which it depends.
The tour winds up in front of the learning centre, where Gaskin and trust vice-president Karilyn Shephard are talking to a group of university students on environmentalism. Twenty-odd years of involvement haven’t dimmed their enthusiasm for their work, and the trust is still collecting honours. It holds a national award for environmental education, and just last year was honoured by the Hilton Trinidad for its contribution to environment and conservation. Gaskin herself was honoured by the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) as one of “25 women leaders in action” for UNEP’s 25th anniversary in 1997.

Outside, a red-capped cardinal makes another appearance in a bower by the lake. A line of ouichichi ducks marches to the water. A fat pork tree, hardly known nowadays in the city, bears fruit. Another day at the trust draws to a close.

 

For membership and other information, call The Pointe-à-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust is open Mondays-Fridays and public holidays 8 am-5 pm, and Saturdays and Sundays 10 am-5 pm. To get to the Petrotrin compound, take the Gasparillo exit on the Uriah Butler Highway. Go west to the gates and the security guards will direct you to the trust. (+868) 658-4200, ext 2512.