Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Iguanas poached out of Sand Hill


Mark Fraser

 The nesting season of the Marine Leatherback Turtle has now reached its peak as the last of this reptilian species crowd our coarse sanded beaches come nightfall.

There has been much emphasis on protection of these ‘eco-touristic’ creatures from harm’s way as large groups of spectators form long lines to witness the egg-laying ritual. Tired and overworked officials of the Forestry Division stretch manpower resources into long hours of patrol.

But what of our other reptilian species that nest during this same period but remain exposed to heavy poaching because there has been negligible attention to their nesting sites?

Sand Hill is part of the ecology of the Nariva Wetland. It is an elevated area of sand that represents a virtual iguana’s ideal nesting site where hundreds of these large lizards find maternal solace. At least these were the statistics up until a few years ago before poachers began targeting the site.

This column accompanied game wardens on a patrol at Sand Hill and found that there was a notable scarcity of fresh nests at a time when laying activity of the iguana should be at a peak.

The patrol was organised by Glenford Doyle, Game Warden 1 and supported by Judith Ramkissoon Game Warden 2 and Michelle Parris and Nigel Bishop Honorary Game Wardens.

My hosts had just done a night of patrol and tired as they were, they were more than willing to do another couple of hours. Apparently these long hours of work were not unusual as there were only 14 game wardens to service the entire country, yet, turnover of cases for illegal activities far exceeded that of other arms of enforcement. True patriotism at its highest!

We entered the Sand Hill area and proceeded to the top of the hill under the intense heat of the sun. These were ideal conditions for the nesting of the iguana as the sand was warming to incubatory temperatures. Fringing vegetation had grown somewhat so that the clear views we once had across the wetland were replaced by foliage. This would obviously prove to be an advantage to persons illegally in the area who could see patrols coming in from certain vantage points without being seen from the outside.

Cicadas sang their songs calling for rain, blue emperors flitted among the underbrush and all was as it should have been except for one thing. This was peak nesting time for the iguana and there were no signs of our arboreal friends coming out to lay their eggs in the sand. They were also absent from the branches of the surrounding trees. 

For our entire time on Sand Hill we encountered only two nests that exhibited fresh trails of the iguana going in and out. Other nests were quite old and undisturbed having been robbed of their contents eons ago.

Our walk around the base of the hill revealed discreet tracks parting the tall grasses of the wetland. These trails connected the Bush Bush swamp forest to Sand Hill and represented convenient alternative escape routes for poachers who had espied the approaching law officers or who were warned of their approach via cell phones from those on the outside.

One officer told the story of a poacher making a dash for escape to the swampland through the Roseau fringing the hill. His sorry passage through all that sharp prickle must have been ten times more painful than if he had been caught and charged.

It was sad to experience the barrenness of what was once a fully occupied iguana incubator. Not one iguana raced across the sand to or from a nest. Not one iguana stretched along the branches of its favourite bois mulatre tree. Even the hawks were absent.

On our return to the outside we met a group of persons boiling a pot. They reported of bags and more bags of iguanas being brought out of Sand Hill over the past few weeks. Maybe it took some to know some, who knows!

This column felt the frustration of the patrol officers and shared in their determination to continue efforts in protecting this important nesting site. Hopefully some of their meager number could be spared from other crucial areas across Trinidad to save what’s left of a once thriving iguana population.