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Save our botanic Gardens

By John Spence

Port of Spain has two saving graces-the Queen's Park Savannah and the Botanic Gardens. These are havens of "greenery" and, particularly in the case of the Botanic Gardens, of peace and quiet. Over the years both have been under attack from those who are comfortable only with concrete and who see any green spaces as building sites.

The Botanic Gardens has been under attack for many years with its size diminished by expansion on the grounds of the President's and the Prime Minister's residences; by the loss of the curator's residence and offices to other agencies of Government and by the loss of a substantial acreage to the Emperor Valley Zoo.

The most recent attack on the Gardens has come again from the Emperor Valley Zoo which has to expand to the West (where the Gardens has interesting plans for development) and so to acquire a further five plus acres of land from the Gardens. This has been resisted for the last ten years but the movement of the Gardens from pillar to post—that is from Ministry to Ministry (Agriculture to the Environment then back to Agriculture then to Public Utilities and the Environment then back to Agriculture—have I missed a few moves in-between?) has weakened the position of the Gardens. There may have been no Minister to consistently champion the cause of the Gardens in Cabinet and so I fear that the battle may soon be lost.

On the area which may be lost to the zoo the Gardens has planned for the development of a fern gully with a raised walkway; examples of a tropical savannah and a tropical freshwater wetland are planned for the lower end of the gully. Also the headquarters of the Botanic Gardens is to be re-established in this area.

The Emperor Valley Zoo is now (amazingly!) under the Ministry of Tourism. The logical affiliation for the zoo is in a Ministry where it would be alongside the Forestry Department which has expertise in the management of animals (the Wildlife Division). Of the strange decisions made by Government the placing of the zoo in the Ministry of Tourism is one of the strangest.

The Emperor Valley Zoo could not exist without the annual subvention from Government which in 2008 was over TT $ 6 million. Since the zoo is an entirely private organisation with an elected board that could change overnight and since there is no requirement that its members or board have any expertise with wildlife or any animals surely it should be overseen by a Ministry with the relevant competence (with animals) to assess its operations.

Prof Kenny and I have frequently written on the issue of the relevance of the Emperor Valley Zoo. Indeed a Government appointed committee with wide representation from stakeholders recommended the establishment of a Nature Park in Central Trinidad with representative plants (particularly native trees), and animals in large free ranging enclosures as opposed to the cages in which they are now kept at the Emperor Valley Zoo.

No amount of (expensive) upgrade on that site can overcome the problems of an urban zoo. Perhaps in a large city in a large country it may be necessary to have an urban zoo but on a small island such as Trinidad there can be no excuse.

The site of the present Zoo next to the Botanic Gardens should be used for butterfly cages, large cages for small birds, aquaria, and perhaps some snakes.

All other animals should be housed in a nature park overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture (Forestry Division). Some months ago the Zoological Society advertised for consultants for a study on a proposed Nature Park. If this is to be undertaken with Government funding this should be immediately reversed and the task should be undertaken by the Forestry Department. If Government persists with its removal of such activities from Government departments (a move with which I do not agree) then the University of the West Indies should be contracted to undertake this activity since there is within UWI both the National Herbarium for plants and an activity in Wildlife research.

As far as tourism goes visitors would not be attracted to an urban zoo, particularly those from Europe where there are now very strict regulations for the treatment of animals and the management of zoos. Indeed some zoos are closing since they cannot meet the requirements.

On the other hand a Nature Park would be very attractive to visitors and locals alike. I regret to burden my readers with yet another plea to the Government to let good sense prevail with respect to the future of our treatment and display of wildlife. A proper facility (Nature Park) should be set up in Central Trinidad where it would be conveniently accessible from all parts of the island and that could serve recreational, tourism and Biological Conservation needs. A botanist, long on the books, should be appointed forthwith to assist in the further development of the Gardens. No more land area should be taken from the Botanic Gardens which would hinder its development.

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