There comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness . . . that time is now.Wangari Maathai
Last week (March 3) was World Wildlife Day with the theme “Recovering Key Species for Ecosystem Restoration.” In Kenya, it was also Africa Environment Day and Wangari Maathai Day – in honor of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, whose life and work is uniquely inspiring. Her daughter Wanjira continues her work and is very much focused on teaching youth. Her mother was not only a passionate environmentalist, but she also cared about vulnerable human beings, too, and advocated for them – and quite regularly got herself into trouble, being a political as well as social and environmental activist. She was discriminated against as a woman and told to be quiet by the Kenyan President Arap Moi. She was concerned about planting trees, through her Green Belt Movement, long before it became “fashionable” to do so.
Back to the wildlife. It was once called the “Animal Kingdom,” wherein almost infinitely diverse groups of creatures, classified by science, lived quite comfortably in harmony. I recall as a child studying a triangle, with various families of animals perched at each level and apex predators at the top; in other words, more of a food chain. In reality, it is more like a family tree with lots of branches.
But is the Kingdom living in harmony? Is it thriving and healthy? No, it is not.
The Caribbean provides a very mixed picture that does not bode particularly well for our own animals – from spiders to turtles. There is no doubt that human actions have affected the decline of the Animal Kingdom, whether directly or indirectly; and that we will continue to do so, unless we change our ways. When will that be?
Of course, efforts are being made, mostly with the help of various overseas agencies. In Saint Lucia, the United Nations Environment Programme’s Caribbean Environment Programme (UNEP/CEP) has partnered with the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (Widecast) to produce a Recovery Action Plan. The Plan is intended to help Caribbean Governments live up to their commitments under The Protocol for Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW Protocol) to the Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region (the Cartagena Convention).
This Plan examines the numerous factors affecting the survival of the Caribbean’s marine turtles (listing six species, although they are not all evenly distributed across the region). Five of the six species are listed as Endangered and one as Vulnerable. The dangers to turtles range from climate change (a factor behind everything) to habitat destruction (which applies to many other species) to things like sand mining, poaching, and pollution of various kinds, including solid waste and abandoned fishing gear in which they become entangled.
At this point, I should note that Jamaica is almost the only Caribbean country that has neither ratified nor acceded to the SPAW Protocol, which covers the protection of marine areas and wildlife, threatened and endangered marine species, and marine and coastal ecosystems. The Protocol was opened – in Kingston, ironically, which is the headquarters of UNEP/CEP – for signature from 1990 onwards and came into effect in June, 2000. I enquired about Jamaica’s non-participation several years ago, but received no adequate explanation from the Jamaican Government. I would still like to understand why we are not a Party to the Protocol (and there are indeed benefits to signing on). Have we forgotten about it, or is it way down on the priority list?
The SPAW Protocol is focused on protecting our biodiversity: the vast numbers of animals that populate this earth. But there is much more to this subject – it is complex, nowadays. One interesting scientific project is the Convention on Biological Diversity’s DNA Barcoding initiative, which monitors and documents the DNA of each species and deposits them in the Barcode of Life Data System
(with a great acronym, BOLD).
Then there are Jamaican non-governmental organizations like the Oracabessa Foundation, White River Fish Sanctuary, Alligator Head Foundation and the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM) that deserve our unstinting support for the work they do in protecting habitats – and thus protecting our animals, birds, and marine life of all kinds. Much of this work takes place in areas where over-fishing is rife; now many fishermen are involved in conservation efforts, including coral reef restoration. Oracabessa (the site of Ian Fleming’s home, Goldeneye) is famous for its baby turtle releases – a big attraction for tourists, too – and they should be justly proud that they have released 220,000 baby turtles, to date.
Then there is the huge success story of the Jamaican Iguana, once considered extinct, but rediscovered in the dry limestone forests of the Hellshire Hills in 1990 by a hunter and his dog. This has been a story of partnerships (and if I try to mention them all, I will miss some out!) but it has received funding from the Small Grants Programme (SGP) implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and funded by the Global Environment Facility.
The Iguana is no beauty, and Jamaicans have a ridiculous fear of lizards, of any shape or size. However, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) announced on World Wildlife Day that it plans to release 1,000 of the endemic Jamaican Iguana by 2026. And yes, Jamaicans are expressing those illogical fears on social media, to which biologist Damion Whyte responded on social media; he pointed out that this is one of the best conservation stories on the island. The iguanas are only found in small pockets, he pointed out; they don’t “breed up” like crazy, and they are very shy. So for heaven’s sake, pull yourselves together Jamaicans! Nothing to fear. They will not show up on Hellshire Beach (or what’s left of it), nor in your homes. Meanwhile, the Headstart programme at Kingston’s Hope Zoo, supported by several other overseas zoos, is forging ahead with its amazing breeding programme.
Speaking of NEPA, two great young scientists (with so much enthusiasm for Jamaican wildlife it’s almost overwhelming) participated in an online programme for World Wildlife Day. Treya Picking (passionate about crocodiles) and Ricardo Miller (a leading member of BirdLife Jamaica and a fantastic bird guide) are the two scientists. I missed the programme and will have to catch up, but you can watch it on Facebook here.
And a footnote to this: We are very proud of the fact that Ricardo will be presenting to the London Natural History Society on April 7 at 1:00 p.m. London time (I think this is 8:00 p.m. Jamaica time). If you would like to tune in (registration is free) this is the link. He will be talking about “Jamaica: Hot Spot for Endemic Bird and Overwintering Migrants.”
So, there is always hope – and there should always be hope, as we seek to change things for the better. But, really and truly, we have to work at it, and work harder for our precious Animal Kingdom. Otherwise, it may just fall. It is already tottering, because of our deliberately destructive habits, right here in Jamaica. For a start, we need to stop destroying our creatures’ homes – trees, mangroves, forests, wetlands – with bulldozers and trucks. Let’s start there.
In the words of Ms. Maathai’s daughter:
Let us keep the faith and push on. Let’s push for better governance and for better engagement amongst ourselves. Get involved in spaces that you feel inspire you, because the future…is great. We have to make it work so that we can enjoy it and thrive for generations to come.Wanjira Maathai