A Causeway to Catastrophe in St. Lucia: Native Species Face Extinction if Resort Goes Ahead

This is UNESCO’s International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. But have business interests overseas and in the Caribbean got the memo yet? One wonders. I have more to say on this subject, but firstly…

Karetta Crooks Charles, Communications & Advocacy Officer at the Saint Lucia National Trust, shared this press release with me a few days ago. This is a matter of great concern. St. Lucia is an exquisitely beautiful island – but quite small. Some years ago now, I remember visiting a slightly ramshackle open-air restaurant near the famous Pitons, where we were served incredibly strong rum concoctions (on an empty stomach) in coconuts by an ageing British aristocrat and former friend of Princess Margaret. I believe he has since passed on. I remember there was a large ganja plant. It was all very laid-back then. Well, that was then, and this is now…

St. Lucia National Trust staff conduct routine checks for incursions by invasive species in the Maria Islands Nature Reserve.

But I digress. Suffice it to say that St. Lucia’s tourism “product” has always seemed small scale and friendly – if not always eco-friendly. Now there are plans to build a large development (apparently for wealthy Chinese horse racing and casino fans) – including a causeway linking the main island to an even smaller island that is a Protected Area. The impact on the wildlife and environment would be devastating.

Please find the press release from St. Lucia National Trust, Durrell and Fauna & Flora International expressing their grave concern:

The Maria Islands (Photo © Toby Ross, Durrell)

Causeway to catastrophe for Saint Lucia’s endangered wildlife

Plans to link offshore island refuge to mainland would spell disaster for the world’s rarest snake and other threatened species.

Conservationists across the globe are expressing grave concerns about a proposed development in Saint Lucia that would mean certain extinction for some of the country’s most valuable wildlife. The next phase of the so-called Pearl of the Caribbean Project poses a serious threat to the country’s ecological, cultural and archaeological heritage. Most alarming of all is the proposal to build a causeway linking the Maria Islands to the mainland, a move that would have calamitous consequences for this offshore wildlife haven, which is officially a protected area.

Maria Islands Nature Reserve, one of only two Wildlife Reserves on Saint Lucia, is home to critical populations of six endemic Saint Lucian reptile species, including the world’s rarest snake – the Saint Lucia racer – which is found only on the island of Maria Major, and 90% of all remaining Saint Lucia whiptail lizards. The reserve is the last refuge of an extraordinary community of native species that have been wiped out on the mainland by a combination of habitat loss (in part due to ill-advised development), persecution and invasive alien species.

The non-venomous St. Lucia Racer (Erythrolamprus ornatus) is the world’s rarest snake, living on the Maria Islands. (Photo: (C) Jeremy Holden/Flora & Fauna International)

The causeway proposed by the company Desert Star Holdings Caribbean Star (DSH) would undoubtedly be a bridge too far for the beleaguered snake and whiptail lizard – both of which are already on the brink of extinction and categorised as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – and for the other offshore wildlife. It would literally pave the way for an invading army of rats, mongooses and other non-native predators, condemning the remaining reptile populations on the Maria Islands to the fate already suffered by their mainland counterparts. To date, the sea has provided an effective barrier to these predators accessing the island. A causeway would remove that barrier.

The harmless, non-venomous Saint Lucia racer is so vanishingly rare that it was actually feared extinct. Hopes were revived following a painstaking search in 2011 and 2012 by a team comprising staff from the Saint Lucia National Trust, the Saint Lucia Forests and Land Resources Department, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (Durrell), which located 11 snakes. However, with the entire global population now estimated at fewer than 20 individuals, it is clear that every individual matters if we are to save this species from extinction.

These same organisations are collaborating on a coordinated conservation programme to safeguard the future of Saint Lucia’s unique biodiversity and, in particular, the endemic reptiles confined to the Maria Islands. News of the proposed land bridge – which would destroy a delicately balanced ecosystem and scupper current efforts to save the Saint Lucia racer and the rare plants, lizards, seabirds and migratory birds that depend on this island sanctuary – was greeted with dismay by the conservation community.

The St. Lucia Pygmy Gecko (Photo: © Stuart Brooker/Durrell)

The irony is that a misguided attempt to enhance the tourist experience is in danger of destroying the very natural heritage and beauty that attracts so many visitors and, in the process, jeopardising one of Saint Lucia’s most important sources of revenue.

“Managing this site is not a new-found interest for the Department,” said a Senior Forestry Officer at the Saint Lucia Forestry Department. “We and our partners, in-country and from overseas, have been actively managing this site to conserve Saint Lucia’s biodiversity for over three decades. The proposed causeway is simply not compatible with the need to keep these highly sensitive islands and their wildlife free from invasive alien species.”

Bishnu Tulsie, Director of Saint Lucia National Trust said, “We will do all in our power to ensure that these priceless and fragile assets are protected for the benefit of every Saint Lucian and for future generations. We call on all Saint Lucians who genuinely care about our heritage to support us in our conservation work and to ensure that Maria Islands and the Pointe Sable Environmental Protection Area are not destroyed.”

“Durrell has committed the last 30 years to supporting Saint Lucian partners to protect and restore their natural heritage,” said Matthew Morton, Eastern Caribbean Programme Manager for Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. “The Maria Islands are a jewel in the natural crown for Saint Lucia and source of national pride. This causeway would spell the end for the Saint Lucia racer; it’s that simple.”

“Saint Lucia has long been respected as a leading light in conservation and sustainable development for its many great achievements, such as bringing the Saint Lucia parrot back from the brink of extinction,” said Dr Jenny Daltry, Senior Conservation Biologist at Fauna & Flora International, adding, “Why jeopardise the survival of unique wildlife and an admirable reputation for the sake of a non-essential causeway?”

National and international conservation staff working on the Maria Islands. (Photo: (C) Jenny Daltry/Flora & Fauna International)

For further information (including high resolution images), please contact:

Sarah Rakowski (Communications Manager, Fauna & Flora International) Tel: +44 (0)1223 747 659
Email: sarah.rakowski@fauna-flora.org

Saint Lucia Forestry Department
Tel: +758 468-5365 – ask to speak with the Chief Forest Officer Email: forestrydepartment@govt.lc

Alexandra Sheers (Head of Marketing, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust) Tel: +44 (0)1534 860 081
Email: alexandra.shears@durrell.org

Aerial view of the Maria Islands (Photo: © Jenny Daltry/Flora & Fauna International)

Background notes:

  1. Though only a small area (around 12 hectares in total), Maria Islands Nature Reserve has at least six reptile species or subspecies that are endemic to Saint Lucia, of which five occur only or almost entirely on the Maria Islands. These are:
    •   Saint Lucia racer – listed as Critically Endangered and found only on the Maria Islands, specifically Maria Major.
    •   Saint Lucia whiptail lizard – listed as Critically Endangered, with 90% of the world population found on the Maria Islands.
    •   Saint Lucia thread snake or worm snake – listed as Endangered, with a significant population on the Maria Islands.
    •   Maria Islands pygmy gecko (subspecies) – proposed to be classified by IUCN as Endangered, with a significant population on the Maria Islands.
    •   Maria Islands worm lizard (subspecies) – proposed to be classified by IUCN as Endangered and found only on the Maria Islands.
    •   Saint Lucia anole – proposed to be classified by IUCN as Endangered, with the highest known density found on the Maria Islands.Also globally designated as an Important Bird Area and a Key Biodiversity Area, the reserve is also incredibly important for seabirds and invertebrates – many of which have not yet been described and are likely to be endemic as well.
  2. The Saint Lucia whiptail lizard famously carries all the colours of the Saint Lucia National Flag on its body.
  3. DSH is a Cayman Islands-registered affiliate of a Hong Kong-based thoroughbred horse company run by Teo Ah Khing, an architect and entrepreneur who founded the China Horse Club. The Pearl of the Caribbean is valued at over USD2.6 billion and occupies a 700 acre site in the south of Saint Lucia. In addition to the causeway, the project will comprise a racecourse, marina, a resort and shopping mall complex, casino, Free Trade Zone, extensive entertainment and leisure facilities, villas and apartments.

About Fauna & Flora International (FFI) (www.fauna-flora.org)

FFI protects threatened species and ecosystems worldwide, choosing solutions that are sustainable, based on sound science and take account of human needs. Operating in more than 50 countries worldwide, FFI saves species from extinction and habitats from destruction, while improving the livelihoods of local people. Founded in 1903, FFI is the world’s longest established international conservation body and a registered charity.

About Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (www.durrell.org)

Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust is an international charity working to save species from extinction. Headquartered in Jersey in the Channel Islands, Durrell focuses on the most threatened species in the most threatened places. Established by author and conservationist, Gerald Durrell, in 1963, Durrell is unique among conservation organisations in integrating four core areas of operation: Field Programmes which undertake conservation action where it is needed most, the Academy which builds the capacity of conservation practitioners, the zoo in Jersey as a centre of excellence in animal husbandry, research, training and education and Conservation Science which underpins all activities.

Durrell first became active in Saint Lucia over thirty years ago following an invitation from the government to support efforts to restore the Saint Lucian Amazon Parrot, which since became a stunning example of species recovery. Since that time, we have supported local partners restore offshore islands, local forests and key species including the Saint Lucia Iguana, Saint Lucia Whiptail Lizard, White-Breasted Thrasher and Saint Lucia Racer Snake.

About Saint Lucia National Trust (www.slunatrust.org)

The Saint Lucia National Trust is a membership, non-governmental organization established by an Act of Parliament in 1975 to protect the island’s patrimony- the natural and built heritage. Twenty six sites are vested and/or owned by the National Trust ranging from offshore islands to historical military structures.

The Saint Lucia whiptail lizard (Cnemidophorus vanzoi) is an endemic lizard protected under the island’s wildlife protection act and listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. It sports the colours of the St. Lucian flag. (Photo: Twyla Holland/Flora & Fauna International)

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