By Yessenia Soto
“Before, people used to say, ‘What does it matter if that snake disappears or the birds go somewhere else?’ Now locals, students, and fishers warn us when they see a rat, or when someone is cutting a tree or killing a snake.”
In Antigua and Barbuda, there are two unwanted tenants who arrived hundreds of years ago but remain a threat to the local communities and ecosystems — black rats (Rattus rattus) and the small Asian mongoose (Herpestes javanicus). These invasive species took control of the country and some of its offshore islands, which are home to endemic species like the famous Antiguan racer snake (Alsophis antiguae). In their grip, the Antiguan snake population fell to about 50 individuals and it is now listed as a critically endangered species. The same fate has befallen other species of plants and birds endemic to the islands.
Invasive species are considered the number one threat to biodiversity in the Caribbean islands. The Offshore Islands Conservation Programme (OICP) of the Environmental Awareness Group (EAG) was launched in 1995 to prevent the Antiguan snake and other endemic species from disappearing completely and to restore the health of these ecosystems and improve the quality of life of the people of Antigua and Barbuda. In 2012, with fundsfrom the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), EAG launched an OICP project that removed rats from 13 offshore islands. We spoke with Natalya Lawrence, the OICP coordinator, about the problem of invasive species and the challenges and achievements of their project.
Question: How did invasive species come to the Caribbean islands?
Lawrence: During the time of colonization, Europeans brought rats over on their ships — since rats had no predators here, they reproduced rapidly and became a pest. The small Asian mongoose was brought over to control rats, but these two species have very different activity patterns — the mongoose is diurnal and the rat is nocturnal. Therefore, the mongooses did not get rid of the rats and themselves became another pest. Both easily moved to the offshore islands in the boats of fishers or visitors, or as castaways during storms.
Q: What impact have these species had on biodiversity and the people of Antigua and Barbuda?
Lawrence: Invasive species are a major threat to the country’s wildlife, especially the endemic species that are our natural heritage and a source of income through tourism. The Antiguan racer snake (Alsophis antiguae) is considered one of the rarest in the world and it has been on the verge of extinction mainly because of rat predation, although humans also attack it. Other species fared even worse and died out, and many people of the country do not even know they ever existed. Other vulnerable endemic species are also affected, such as the hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), the West Indian whistling-duck (Dendrocygna arborea), and others. The islands heavily impacted by these invaders lack plants and are even very quiet because the birds are gone — they are not attractive and this is bad for tourism. Another problem is that these pests may carry infectious diseases that can also affect humans.
Q: Why has it taken hundreds of years to control this problem?
Lawrence: It is not easy to eradicate a species. It takes effort, resources and personnel to kill them, by placing poisons or traps and then removing them. Education campaigns and collaboration from different sectors are needed to keep people from introducing these species and monitoring their presence. Awareness should also be raised about the importance of our wildlife species so that people understand the importance of eradicating the invaders. Interestingly enough, Caribbean people are typically very religious, and they have a bad image of snakes due to the reference made in the story of Adam and Eve, so for many it is not entirely bad that there are rats that kill snakes or people that kill them. They can’t imagine the value of these snakes or other species. Finally, there is always the threat of natural disasters that are so common in the Caribbean — just one storm can wash invaders onto an islands, and all of the work previously done to eradicate them is immediately lost.
Q: What was the purpose of EAG project funded by CEPF?
Lawrence: We increased local capacity to control alien species and to make sure that 10 offshore islands of Antigua were kept rodent-free. This is really important, because as I just mentioned, reinvasion can happen at any moment. We also set out to do eradications on two additional islands to help us protect more land from invasive species and enable endemic and globally threatened species to recover, and also would help create sustainable livelihoods for locals by making the islands more attractive to tourism. Tourism is the main industry of our small country, but it has promoted mainly as traditional beach tourism which is causing increased real estate development and additional threats to our ecosystems. We wanted to promote nature tourism, because our natural heritage is what makes us special and provides more direct benefits to local communities.
Q: Thanks to your work, 13 islands are now rodent-free. How was this success achieved?
Lawrence: The project lasted for two years and included conducting censuses and monitoring wildlife, eradication activities, monitoring biosafety, and more. We worked closely with Fauna and Flora International’s “Islands without Aliens: Building Regional Civil Capacity to Eradicate Alien Invasive Species” project by providing training for local residents, staff and volunteers, and thanks to this new local capacity, these efforts and positive results are continuing. It is important to highlight that, at the end, we were able to do eradications on three islands instead of two, as it was originally planned. Another key element was to promote environmental education among communities, fishers and local schools, raising awareness about the invasive species problem and the importance of conserving our wildlife. We taught fishers about checking their boats and equipment to avoid transporting invaders, we gave talks in schools and communities, and we invited locals to participate in restoration activities. With help from the Ministry of Education, environmental education was included in the national school curriculum and we implemented our “floating classrooms” initiative–now some 550 students have learned about invasive species and visited the Antigua Offshore Islands Key Biodiversity Area to watch birds — and they saw an Antiguan racer snake for the first time! We also worked closely with tour operators to teach them about how these efforts will benefit nature-based tourism. Additionally, we did interviews on the radio, television and in the national press and a lot of promotion on social networks, so that the message would reach the largest number of people possible.
Q: How has this eradication benefited the islands’ ecosystems and communities?
Lawrence: Island restoration takes time and you have to let them recover, but on many of the islands where we worked, in less than one month we were seeing new vegetation and hearing sounds of life instead of the silence that prevailed before. Then, we recorded seabirds nesting again, including species that we had not seen before. Thanks to this project, the area restored increased from 160 to 207 acres (64.79 to 83.85 hectares), the Antiguan racer snake population grew approximately 20%, and the population of female hawksbill turtles and hatchlings increased to about 11%, to give a few examples. These developments have already benefitted tourism and according to tour operators, there was a 10% increase in visitation to the area and tourists are more interested in nature tourism, which is good for the sector and the local economy.
Q: What are the project’s long-term impacts?
Lawrence: With regards to the environment, the main impact will be ecosystem restoration, as the soils will be more stable, important species could be saved from extinction, and wildlife habitat will be enriched. Perhaps, since locals will find them to be more valuable through increased tourism, it will be less likely that habitats are converted into real estate developments. With regards to people, the biggest impact is the change in their attitudes and behavior. Before, people used to say, ‘What does it matter if that snake disappears or the birds go elsewhere?’ Now, the locals, students, and fishers warn us when they see a rat, or when someone is cutting a tree or killing a snake. I believe that the project helped create citizen conservationists concerned about their environment and who now see opportunities for sustainable development based on the conservation of their natural resources.