Saint Lu­cia’s Alien On­slaught

The Star (St. Lucia) - - COMMENT - By Lenn Isi­dore

Alien species are a vil­lain­ous cat­e­gory of crea­tures that have been blamed for ex­tinc­tions across the globe. For the sake of clar­ity, let it be known that the term alien species does not re­fer to in­ter­ga­lac­tic space trav­ellers or Spiel­berg’s ex­tra-ter­res­trial from 1982. Alien in this case sim­ply refers to species that have been in­tro­duced to a re­gion where they do not nat­u­rally oc­cur.

In Saint Lu­cia, as is the case with many Caribbean ter­ri­to­ries, the in­tro­duc­tion of alien species is a long­stand­ing and tragic nar­ra­tive. Hap­less pop­u­la­tions of na­tive wildlife, lack­ing the req­ui­site avoid­ance be­hav­ior and de­fense mech­a­nisms to deal with un­fa­mil­iar preda­tors, were quickly dec­i­mated.

Ground nest­ing and ground for­ag­ing lo­cal bird pop­u­la­tions such as the Ru­fus night­jar and the white-breasted thrasher have de­clined pre­cip­i­tously and to­day are at the brink of ex­tinc­tion.

En­demic rep­tiles such as the Saint Lu­cia Racer (one of the rarest snakes in the world) and the whip­tail were completely wiped out from the Saint Lu­cian main­land and now cling to a ten­u­ous ex­is­tence on rock-sized off­shore land­masses. The cribo and rice rat, with no con­firmed sight­ings in over a cen­tury, are likely to have met the most un­for­tu­nate of fates, ex­tinc­tion!

Hu­mans have both will­fully and in­ad­ver­tently brought alien species to the is­land of Saint Lu­cia for cen­turies. The ra­tio­nale be­hind these bi­o­log­i­cal im­ports runs the gamut from completely crim­i­nal to ir­re­spon­si­bly ig­no­rant. Rats came to the West Indies as stow­aways on 17th cen­tury Euro­pean ves­sels and the half-baked bio-con­trol schemes of the 1800s brought the mon­goose two cen­turies later. Only decades af­ter mon­goose ar­rivals, the same er­ro­neous judg­ment – born out of des­per­a­tion for pest con­trol – saw the im­por­ta­tion of the cane toad. Some­where along this same his­tor­i­cal time­line do­mes­tic cats ar­rived with their pen­chant for sur­plus kills, and then in the 21st cen­tury an il­le­gal im­port and neg­li­gent own­er­ship re­sulted in the in­tro­duc­tion of green igua­nas to Saint Lu­cia’s south­west­ern coast.

The aliens had landed, leav­ing col­laps­ing na­tive wildlife pop­u­la­tions and main­land ex­tinc­tions in the wake of their ar­rivals. In re­sponse, Saint Lu­cian nat­u­ral re­source man­agers bus­ied them­selves with the task of sav­ing na­tive species on the cusp of ex­tinc­tion. In 1995, to es­tab­lish an­other pop­u­la­tion of the en­dan­gered Saint Lu­cia whip­tail, sev­eral of these lizards were trans lo­cated from their 9-hectare in­su­lar home of Maria Ma­jor to an even smaller 1.1-hectare off­shore sanc­tu­ary known as Praslin Is­land. How­ever, the con­stant threat of alien in­cur­sions to these off­shore refuges made ev­i­dent the need for ex­ter­nal as­sis­tance.

With pre­vi­ously es­tab­lished in­ter­est in con­serv­ing the Caribbean re­gion’s bio­di­ver­sity, Fauna & Flora In­ter­na­tional (FFI) as well as Dur­rell Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Trust in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the St. Lu­cia Forestry Depart­ment forged a part­ner­ship and in the year 2000, to­gether suc­cess­fully erad­i­cated rats from Praslin Is­land.

In 2008 The Forestry Depart­ment or­ga­nized a for­est in­ven­tory and FFI’s ser­vices were again so­licited and this bio­phys­i­cal as­sess­ment re­vealed the pres­ence of a shock­ing 346 alien plant and an­i­mal species. Ad­di­tion­ally the forged part­ner­ship of the Forestry Depart­ment, FFI and Dur­rell through the ‘Is­lands with­out Aliens’ ini­tia­tive saw the re­moval of cane toads, sheep and goats from the 4 hectare Den­nery Is­land, which had been tar­geted for fu­ture rep­tile translo­ca­tions.

Com­plete erad­i­ca­tion of most of Saint Lu­cia’s aliens may not be fi­nan­cially fea­si­ble. How­ever, the con­tin­ued pro­tec­tion of par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive sanc­tu­ar­ies (such as the off­shore is­lands) from alien in­cur­sions can help en­sure the sur­vival of the rarest of this na­tion’s en­demics.

Through con­tin­ued part­ner­ships with or­ga­ni­za­tions such as FFI, Dur­rell, St. Lu­cia Na­tional Trust and the im­pas­sioned com­mit­ment of lo­cal con­ser­va­tion­ists, there is real rea­son to be­lieve that Saint Lu­cia’s most en­dan­gered crea­tures can thrive again.

Stephen Les­mond of the Forestry Depart­ment hold­ing the Saint Lu­cia racer snake, unique to St. Lu­cia and crit­i­cally en­dan­gered, now only sur­vives on the off­shore is­land of Maria Ma­jor.

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