Racing towards survival.
They were the gems most Antiguans barely appreciated: twenty or so pristine, "uninhabited" offshore islands. One, Great Bird Island, hid an even more precious treasure--a harmless, plain Jane of a snake, the grey-brown Antiguan Racer (Alsophis antiguae). No longer found on mainland Antigua--which, with sister island Barbuda, occupies 176 square miles within the Eastern Caribbean--the racer was reclusive and on the brink of extinction. It was an unknown. The Antiguan Racer Snake Project-cum-Offshore Islands Conservation Project (OICP) changed all that.
The project helped transform those islands and gave a new lease on life not only to what has been described as the world's rarest snake, but also to other species and wildlife unique to the islands. It has opened up eco-education, research, and tourism possibilities. On the flipside, it has created new challenges, as the eco-warriors invested in this project--notably the Environmental Awareness Group (EAG)---continue to strive to maintain a delicate balance.
OICP coordinator Donald Anthonyson said, "It will never be completed." In a way, that's good news, because circa 1995, it was all but over for the Antiguan Racer. The Organization of American States, which contributed the lion's share of funding to the OICP, has been key to the turnaround.
EAG treasurer Junior Prosper related that, today, the Antiguan Racer population stands at about 300, spread across Bird (GBI), Rabbit, Green, and York islands. In 1995, he said, there were just 50 snakes remaining, all on GBI, which effectively put the world population of the Antiguan Racer on the Critically Endangered Species list. The racer faced many threats: natural ones, in the form of hurricanes such as 1995's Luis which all but flattened Antigua; predatory ones, in the form of black rats (Rattus rattus); uninformed ones, in the case of humans; and so on.
"The first major thing was just finding them," Anthonyson said. The find was made by the EAG's Kevel Lindsay and Mark Day of Fauna and Flora International. EAG president, Dr. Brian Cooper, explained that a 1991 paper documenting the snake's presence prompted their excursion. At that point, as Anthonyson points out, there was more lore than actual documentation.
That's changed with the involvement of partners like the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT), Fauna and Flora International (FFI), and others. These days, there's no shortage of information about the islands, the snakes, the various unique birds, and the flora and fauna that have thrived as a result of this project. Early measures included a snake population survey and a rat eradication program that were implemented with the aid of United Kingdom invasive species specialist Karen Varnhan.
"The difference that it made was very quickly obvious," said Dr. Cooper. "The snake population grew to the carrying capacity of the island in two to three years." A captive breeding program was attempted in partnership with the DWCT, but the quick revelation was that the snakes didn't thrive in captivity. Introducing the snakes to other offshore islands was much more successful. Still, the sole survivor of the captive breeding program, a racer named Houdina, returned home to serve the project well as the ambassador for her species among targets of the EAG education campaign.
The power of this outreach cannot be overstated. "We got teachers involved, tour reps, everybody," Anthonyson said. They targeted fishermen, school children, people taking tourists to the offshore islands on boat excursions, and residents using the islands for picnics and camping. The residents of the nearby villages of Seatons, Pares, Glanvilles, and Willikies were especially targeted. As Prosper explained, "we thought if we could get the community, particularly fishermen, on board, they're the ones who could sell the idea of conservation [to the rest of the island]." The upshot of this was that in the course of their normal business activities, these fisher folk, villagers, and tour operators would keep an eye out in a way that a nonprofit like the EAG with its slim numbers of volunteers and pivotal Peace Corps workers like former OICP manager Carole McCauley, could not do alone.
The increased use of the offshore islands has been a clear sign of their progress, but it has also been a new challenge to deal with. One EAG survey conducted between 1999 and 2000 tracked some 20,000 visitors to GBI during a regular tourist season. A physical count in 2005 revealed that approximately 3,000 people visited the same locale in a single weekend; the overall numbers are at about 50,000 visitors per year. Good for tourism, but not so good for the environment. This increased traffic, in addition to the need to spread out the racer population, informed the decision to relocate parts of that population to other offshore islands.
It was inevitable, perhaps, that the EAG's efforts would have to expand to a broader conservation focus. On the positive side, there was the 2005 success of having the North East Management Area--including the islands and quite a bit besides--declared a marine management area. This provided protected status and aided the ongoing efforts to put a draft management plan in place. On the other side, however, increased traffic on the islands compromises the natural habitat. Zoning, with certain areas marked for stringent protection, is still needed, as are the political will and the action to enforce it. And while the snake has thrived, it is still not legally protected, and it can't count on its benign nature to shield it from those conditioned to believe that snakes are evil. Anthonyson said, "The priority right now is to get legal protection for the snake."
The sizable OAS donation to the project--nearly US$200,000--has been largely responsible for the successes they've been able to achieve to date. "The bulk of the work got done when the OAS decided to finance," Prosper noted, though this in no way minimizes the input of the British High Commission, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the National Fish and Wildlife Trust, Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, and other partners previously mentioned. But the level of the OAS commitment definitely allowed the project to grow in unforeseen ways.
So much has happened since that 1995 discovery. The EAG has been able to increase environmental awareness generally via the use of various media, including numerous publications, an interactive website, and documentaries. One highlight of the educational campaign has been the floating classroom project that brings thousands of Antiguan and Barbudan children (900 per year at the project's peak) into direct contact with nature. Hands-on EAG involvement in environmental science teacher training has ensured continuity, as had technical support in the area of curriculum development. Numerous stakeholder workshops have also been held, aimed at building key non-governmental and governmental partnerships.
The ripples have also included interesting adjunct projects. Dr. Brian Smith of Black Hills State University has traveled from the United States every year with a handful of students to conduct a study of the racer's main prey, a lizard (Anolis wattsi) indigenous to Antigua. Soon, students from the University of the West Indies, University of Guyana, and Antigua State College were able to gain field experience as well.
As Dr. Cooper put it: "To me, this is an example of how things can grow from one thing to another." Sometimes they grow in delightfully surprising ways. For instance, with their eggs no longer being taken for food by that sinister foe Rattus rattus, the bird population grew, exponentially increasing biodiversity and providing another attraction to the islands as well as another area of environmental scholarship.
One big pay-off has been Antigua and Barbuda's growing presence in international environmental circles. The learning has flowed both ways with international scientists like Dr. Jenny Daltry, a herpetologist, among the students/teachers of Alsophis antiguae, learning about the snake while increasing knowledge of the snake: win, win. "When you go to conferences," Prosper noted, 'you realize that in academia, the work that has gone on with the OICP is the model that's being tried all over."
For the eco-warriors though, it is in many ways a much more personal passion. "We have the rarest snake in the world," Anthonyson remarked, his tone conveying_ the wonder at having "an opportunity to work with what may be the last of this species." If they continue to be successful, of course, it certainly won't be the last.
The ongoing challenge is to continue to convert awareness--of the islands, the snake, and the need for biodiversity--into sustained action everywhere, from the village to the cabinet meeting room. Dr. Cooper noted that "our efforts to assist in getting an effective management system for the offshore islands will continue. We recognize that that is the next round of the battle. All of this stuff (vending, etc.) is happening because there is no management." Frustrated with some of the careless and destructive behavior that is compromising the progress made, Anthonyson said, however, "I don't think it's a battle we can't win, but I think it's a battle that has to be fought as a battle.., it's something that is winnable."
Joanne C. Hillhouse, author of The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, is a freelance writer from Antigua.