Across the West Indies, Teachers and Conservationists Try to Save a Rare Duck and Its Wetland Habitat

Caribbean conservation groups and teachers are teaming up to educate children and communities about the decline of the endemic West Indian Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna arborea) and the dwindling wetland ecosystem it inhabits. The Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds (SCSCB) has developed an island-hopping outreach and educational program to raise awareness about the importance of wetlands conservation in concert with conservation groups throughout the West Indies.

Biologist Lisa Sorenson, who is coordinating the West Indian Whistling-Duck and Wetlands Conservation project, explains that the World Conservation Union considers the deep-brown, long-necked duck to be vulnerable to extinction, due to habitat loss from tourism and development projects, predation by introduced species, and hunting pressure. “The Whistling-Duck is a flagship species for wetland conservation,” she says. “It is a beautiful, elegant duck, a threatened regional endemic, and a bird that everyone in the Caribbean should take pride in and help to conserve.”

West Indian Whistling-DuckWhile the Whistling-Duck, so-named for its shrill, high-pitched call, was once widespread in the Caribbean, today breeding populations are known to exist only in the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Cuba, Cayman Island, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Antigua, and Barbuda. During the day the birds roost in flocks in mangroves and swamps. When night falls, they fly out to feed on fruits, berries, and seeds.

As part of the project, the SCSCB, a regional coalition of 300 groups whose goal is to increase the ability of NGOs, researchers, institutions, and citizens to conserve Caribbean birds and their habitats, has published the Wondrous West Indian Wetlands: Teachers’ Resource Book, a 276-page teacher’s manual containing information and activities about the ecology and conservation of Caribbean wetlands. Other materials featuring the Whistling-Duck and wetlands include a slideshow, coloring book, puppet show, bird identification cards, and a mangrove identification booklet and poster.

The program’s educational materials are distributed through two-day wetlands education training workshops for teachers held throughout the region. The first day of the workshop includes presentations about wetlands, tips on how to convey environmental concepts to students, and demonstrations of some of the workbook’s exercises, including a “Pour-a-Pond” activity that shows teachers how to create a mini-wetland in their classroom using a plastic sheet and readily available aquatic invertebrates, such as water boatmen (Corixa spp.), backswimmers (Anisops spp.), dragonflies (Hemianax spp.), damselfly (Odonata spp.) nymphs, and midge larvae (Charborus spp.).

Sorenson notes, “We use ‘peer teaching’ in our workshops, where the teachers choose different activities from the book and present them to the rest of the participants. The idea is if they’ve done the activity themselves, the more comfortable they’ll be with the material and the more likely they’ll teach it to their students.”

Thanks to funding from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Division of International Conservation, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Wetlands International, Birdlife International, the American Bird Conservancy, the United Nations Environment Programme and other donors, all of the participating teachers receive a free copy of the resource book and all accompanying teaching materials.

Program Staff and TeachersOn the second day of the workshop, program staff and teachers visit nearby wetlands to learn about ecosystem ecology, identification of birds and mangrove tree species, and to practice all of the field activities in the resource book. Exercises include nature observation techniques, wetland assessments, conducting wetland clean-ups, setting up a simple research transect, and ecology games. Sorenson emphasizes, “There’s nothing like experiencing the wonders of a wetland firsthand. We’re delighted to see how much the teachers enjoy being in the field and seeing wetland birds.”

At the beginning of the workshop, teachers are asked about their opinions of wetlands. “We get the same responses every time,” Sorenson says. “Teachers are worried about quicksand, mud, mosquitoes, diseases, snakes — they believe that wetlands are generally a very unhealthy place to be. We have a discussion to dispel these fears and misconceptions, and by the end of the workshop they are completely turned around. The comments on the evaluations typically say ‘I had no idea wetlands are so important, interesting, and beautiful, and now I appreciate their value.'”

Nadia Spence, coordinator of the project in Jamaica, adds, “The teacher workshops and materials have sparked interest in our wetland areas and the animals and plants that live there. This interest has also expanded to include clean-ups, additional research on local wetland areas, and participation in World Wetlands Day activities.” Sorenson believes the success of the workshops is due to an emphasis on making the material fun and interactive for participants. Also important is that the educational materials are written specifically to address Caribbean ecology and conservation issues.

Another SCSCB activity to promote public awareness involves encouraging creation of “Watchable Wildlife Ponds,” which are intact wetlands where NGOs participating in the Whistling-Duck project construct interpretive signs and viewing platforms so that local residents, students, and tourists can observe Whistling-Ducks and other wildlife. Ponds have been developed in the Bahamas, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and the Cayman Islands, where the Cayman Islands National Trust developed a series of ten wetland sites that all feature viewing platforms and informative signs. The Trust has also published brochures and maps for visitors, highlighting all of the island’s wetlands.

Despite the success of the project and increased public awareness, Sorenson warns that it is an on-going challenge to see the continuing destruction of wetlands for development projects across the region. In Antigua and Barbuda, mangroves and wetlands are being rapidly destroyed for tourism development projects. Joseph Prosper, a schoolteacher active with the Environmental Awareness Group, a local conservation group, notes that even mangroves where herons nest and raise their chicks have been bulldozed. Prosper has been monitoring West Indian Whistling-Ducks in Antigua for several years. He notes that in addition to the Whistling-Duck, other species at risk include the black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), white-cheeked pintail (Anas bahamensis), ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis), masked duck (Nomonyx dominica), clapper rail (Rallus longirostris), Caribbean coot (Fulica caribaea), and the magnificent frigatebird (Fregata magnificens). Prosper believes that more information must be collected on the status of wetlands on the islands. He points out that, “Despite the importance of mangroves and wetlands and the alarming rate at which they are being destroyed and degraded, Antigua and Barbuda do not have accurate, quantitative data on the amount that has been lost in recent years or the amount that remains.”

Tourism may be one way to increase wetlands protection in the West Indies. “People come to the islands not just for the sun and the sand, but to see their unique natural beauty,” Sorenson points out. “If you fill in these beautiful and valuable wetlands to build hotels, it’s a lost opportunity.” She believes that promoting the enormous economic potential of nature tourism and bird watching to the tourism boards of each island could help reduce habitat destruction.

— Melissa Krenke

Contacts: Lisa Sorenson, tel +617/353-2462, fax +617/353-6340, lsoren@bu.edu, www.scscb.org; Nadia Spence, tel +876/960-3693, fax +876/926-0212, nwatson.jet@cwjamaica.com, www.jamentrust.org; Junior Prosper, tel +268/773-1159.

To learn more about migratory species conservation, visit the Western Hemisphere Migratory Species Initiative Pathway.

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