Young Caribbean conservationists talk about wetlands and shorebirds (the good and the depressing)

It’s a mixed picture.

BirdsCaribbean’s recent webinar on “Shorebirds of the Atlantic Flyway: How Recent Work to Conserve Wetlands is Contributing to Species and Habitat Resilience in the Caribbean and Beyond” took place on September 15, and can be found on their YouTube channel here. I can only describe it as heartening and disheartening, in equal measure. Let us just say that it was full of “ups and downs.” Having said that, the contributions of three bright young Caribbean conservationists were all excellent, and their dedication to the cause of their islands’ fragile environment is admirable.

Introducing the speakers, Trinidad-based ornithologist Alex Sansom explained the importance of Caribbean wetlands as stopover points for shorebirds migrating from north to south – or in many cases, spending the entire winter on some soggy island shore. They face so many challenges, from climate change to developments on the coast. What are the struggles in wetlands conservation?

We got the bad news over with, first. Dr. Jody Daniel, Executive Director of the Gaea Conservation Network in Grenada, recounted a depressing list of recent tourism projects that are wreaking devastation (or have already done their damage) in several parts of the small and lovely island where she lives and works. Her presentation was entitled: “When conservation interests and coastal development collide – a new cautionary tale from Grenada.”

I intend to go into more detail on these in a separate blog post, but suffice it to say that three critical wildlife habitats have either already been destroyed (including the island’s only Ramsar site, Levera) or plans are in the works, with very little community consultation or transparency in the process. BirdsCaribbean expressed deep concerns over these developments back in August, 2020. Keep in mind that this is a small island (344 square kilometres, about the size of Greater London); so, these projects are huge in proportion to the island’s size. And of course, it’s not just about the birds and the turtles and the coral reefs; it is also the degradation of local people’s lives and livelihoods, and even in at least one case, the harm done to native burial sites. Once you have read more, I hope you will sign the petition.

Understandably, Jody Daniel does not look happy in this screenshot, as she describes one area where mangroves have been removed and dry forest cleared (home of the critically endangered Grenada Dove).

Moving on, Joshel Wilson’s contribution was happily more upbeat. Joshel is Wildlife Officer with the Environmental Awareness Group (EAG) – “for the benefit of people and wildlife” in Antigua. The island has no rivers, and just a few salt ponds. The main battle that EAG is fighting is solid waste. Yes, trash, and tons of it, dumped illegally in wetlands, including Important Bird Areas (IBAs). This has affected air quality through open burning, and soil quality. Water sources are being damaged. The environment suffers.

Joshel Wilson explains the problem of dumping in Antigua’s wetlands. It’s a problem in Jamaica, too. Mangroves seem to be a great place for dumping (and hiding) garbage, including larger items.

A large part of EAG’s response to this is in people: creating and mobilising a new group, which emerged, perhaps surprisingly, during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The Wadadli Warblers has become a solid group of over 30 keen birders, which began with an online “Birding for Beginners” training session for new local birdwatchers and citizen scientists. The group’s logo portrays Antigua and Barbuda’s only endemic bird, the Barbuda Warbler, which somehow, almost miraculously, survived the devastation of Hurricane Irma in 2017. The majority of EAG’s work is on Antigua, the larger “sister island,” although they work with non-governmental actors on Barbuda engaged in conservation efforts, in particular Barbudan GO.

Contributing to citizen science through bird counts helps EAG members understand the threats that exist in the places where migrating shorebirds rest and refuel.

Joshel talked about the Caribbean Waterbird Census and other important bird counts (yes, birders like to count and contribute to citizen science). Actually going out into the wetland areas helps EAG members (and of course other Caribbean birders) see for themselves what the challenges are, and where.

At all the wetland sides there is “one common threat…waste pollution, or illegal dumping,” stressed Joel. Just as with International Coastal Cleanup Day efforts across the region, there is a great emphasis on volunteerism. The more local people you can get engaged, the more effective projects like “Trash Challenge Antigua” are. EAG is involved in this, of course, targeting areas that are important to shorebirds. The Challenge, which began in 2019, has become an annual activity, supported by local businesses and organisations. Volunteers collect data and record it on the Clean Swell app created by the Ocean Conservancy under its Trash Free Seas programme.

The EAG is not only about cleanups, however. Its ongoing work is in public education and awareness raising for all ages. It can’t be emphasised enough what an important aspect of conservation work this is, in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Local people have to get on board and “take ownership,” as the saying goes. In these kinds of programmes, evaluation is critical, and so is flexibility. People’s attitudes change, and so do their needs. One commendable feature of EAG’s activities has been teaching members of the Antigua and Barbuda Association for Persons with Disabilities how to identify birds on their own properties and in their backyards. P.S. Check out EAG’s YouTube channel for some great videos, including a series called “Into the Wild with the EAG.”

Conservation education is critical!

The third speaker was Elijah Sands (the first letter in his name could also stand for “Enthusiasm” and “Energy”). His topic was “Helping nature rebound to help people recover: Engaging local communities in mangrove conservation and restoration.”

Hurricane Dorian in 2019 – a violent Category 5 storm – caused major destruction on the islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco, Elijah reminded us. The entire landscape was devastated, from pine forests to mangroves. What’s more, it was pretty much stationary over Grand Bahama for a gruelling 48 hours.

A truly grim landscape in the Bahamas, post-Hurricane Dorian. About 3/4 of mangroves on Grand Bahama and 40% of mangroves on Abaco were destroyed.

“We knew right away that we needed an ambitious restoration programme to give these areas a jump start to recovery,” said Elijah. And indeed, it has been ambitious. Mangroves are very valuable “carbon sinks” and play a key role in shielding humans from the impacts of climate change… “They sacrifice themselves in protecting us,” Elijah added. And of course, mangrove restoration would benefit the sixteen or so important shorebird species that frequent the Bahamas.

Wetlands in the Bahamas have so much to offer in terms of what is called ecosystem services. They are biodiversity hotspots and play a major role in tourism.

The restoration programme began with the collection and planting of propagules, especially red mangroves, and the rallying of volunteers. Collaboration, buy-in and support from everyone – fishers, non-profits, local businesses, youth, school groups, tour guides, and more – was critical. Buy-in also meant fundraising, naturally. The mangroves are important to all of these groups, in different ways. “Everybody loves mangroves,” said Elijah. I told you, he is enthusiastic, and so were the people the Bahamas National Trust was mobilising. Local and national government officials were also invited; you cannot leave them out.

“Conservation is now mainstream, in my opinion,” Elijah added.

Success! Apart from the seedlings, mangrove propagules have been planted directly in the ground, which is quicker and easier (informed by science) – over 20,000 by Elijah Sands’ estimate in the past few months!

There are plans for a mangrove seed bank in the Bahamas. More power to Elijah and his team!

This was an inspiring (and at times rather discouraging) webinar. The level of commitment, collaboration, knowledge building, and information gathering throughout projects like these cannot be under-estimated. The same goes for these organisations and individuals in their ongoing, day-to-day work to preserve our precious wetlands.

Congratulations to Jody, Joshel, and Elijah, and keep up the good work.

Seabirds of the Bahamas. The Piping Plover (bottom left) is listed as Near Threatened.

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