Caribbean Beat Magazine

It started with a snake

The sighting of a rare snake led to an ambitious initiative to protect Antigua’s tiny offshore islands. Joanne C. Hillhouse investigates the Antigua and Barbuda Environmental Awareness Group’s flagship project

  • Schoolchildren on an educational tour of Antigua’s offshore islands. Photograph courtesy the Antigua and Barbuda Environmental Awareness Group
  • Volunteer Andrea Otto examines a rare Antiguan racer snake. Photograph courtesy the Antigua and Barbuda Environmental Awareness Group

The story of the Antigua and Barbuda Environmental Awareness Group’s Offshore Islands Conservation Project (OICP) begins with the sighting of a snake.

Kevel Lindsey — former EAG council member, now with project partner Island Resources Foundation — remembers seeing his first Antiguan racer, a snake so rare it lived at the time only on tiny Great Bird Island, in the early 1990s. He was part of an expedition looking for iguanas, and Foster Derrick was his guide.

The north-east coast of Antigua, scattered with uninhabited islets, is where Derrick grew up. “Having visited Great Bird Island since I was a child with my family,” he says, “I knew there was a snake there. I don’t think they believed me,” he continues, “but as they looked for the iguana, I looked for the snake. Just as we were about to board the boat for our trip back, I happened to look up into the tree under which we were walking, and there was a snake on a branch that we could reach. Kevel took it down, and basically that was the beginning of the entire project” — today, a model project for re-establishing an almost extinct animal on a small vulnerable island.

Originally known as the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project, the OICP is the Environmental Awareness Group’s flagship initiative — one of several that deserve celebration in 2014, the group’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The OICP has far-flung partners, and some closer to home — like the local government and community — but the EAG is the main coordinating body. It’s a remarkable project which has pulled one creature back from the brink of extinction and helped others — hawksbill turtles, rare bird species, and red-listed plant life — to thrive. It’s responsible for research and documentation of vital ecological information, and environmental education initiatives such as a floating classroom, benefiting thousands. As current EAG president Dr Karron James-Scholl says, “Other EAG activities will have had major impacts locally, but the OICP has played a major role in fostering the excellent reputation held by the EAG on a regional and international level.”

Since the 1990s, the Antiguan racer population has increased from fifty to about one thousand. “OICP can also celebrate ten islands maintained rat free,” adds James-Scholl, “including three cleared of alien invasive mammals in 2014. This has had a measurable beneficial effect on other animals and flora on these islands, which are now good examples of healthy ecosystems.”

It all started on Great Bird Island, but early on — also in the 1990s — the EAG made headlines for its opposition to development on nearby Guiana Island. Kevel Lindsey remembers going up to Coconut Hall “to block the bulldozers and stand up for something we believed in.”

Foster Derrick was also a party to that blockade. When he speaks of his childhood encounters with the natural world, you can understand the emotional attachment. “I grew up seeing [fallow] deer and being able to explore the offshore reefs,” he says. “Corals and fish and turtles, sharks, stingrays, seahorses, lobsters, crabs, conch, whelks and much, much more sea life — just going about their business and allowing me and others the opportunity to observe them or live from them.” But Derrick also makes a very practical case for preservation. “Offshore islands act as ‘resource banks’ for life that may be affected on the mainland,” he explains. “This is important, because there will come a time in the future when we as humans will have a need for some resource that is banked on these islands.”

So there is plenty, both practical and poetic, to recommend the work being done to preserve Great Bird Island, Guiana Island, and more than a dozen other islets near Antigua’s international airport. As Kevel Lindsey says, “The islands preserve and protect unique landscapes that have been lost on most of the mainland: natural aesthetic, wilderness, natural poetry, and a sense of place.” But there’s a financial argument too.

Dr Jenny Daltry is a senior conservation biologist with project partner Flora and Fauna International. By her own count, she has spent more than six hundred nights on Great Bird Island alone, and she even has an island just south of GBI named for her. These islands, she says, “are among the top tourist attractions in Antigua. Most visitors pay over US$150 per head to spend a few hours on the offshore islands, which suggests they generate at least US$7 million per year in tour fees alone.”

“People are more understanding of the significance these islands play,” says Adriel Thibou of Antigua and Barbuda’s Forestry Division. “Not only for the animals, but also for our everyday lives.” There’s no doubt that, a quarter-century on from the first meeting of environmental enthusiasts that led to the founding of EAG, public consciousness has been raised. “People phone the EAG to report back-filling of ponds, destruction of mangroves, oil spills, littering, and more,” says Karron James-Scholl. But, as her colleagues agree, the work is never done, the future never certain. Hovering over this anniversary discussion is a renewed debate about allowing development of the offshore islands. No one is sure what will happen, but there is a public awareness of the fragility of the islands and their position. Asked if she’s concerned, James-Scholl answers with a concise “yes.” Asked if she is satisfied the islands have sufficient legal cover against future development, she replies “no.”

One safeguard is the personal and emotional ties that many Antiguans have formed as a result of the EAG’s efforts. Andrea Otto is an EAG volunteer who leads annual censuses of the racer snake and of waterbirds. “I am especially thrilled that hundreds of local children have had an opportunity to run around on the beach on Great Bird and other islands through the efforts of the project,” she says, “and learn that Antigua has a place and species of great international significance. My best memory is putting my one-year-old daughter’s feet in the sand of GBI, a place I did not know existed until I was twenty-eight years old.”

Otto shares another anecdote that captures the charm of these islands. “Great Bird Island has two beaches, a forest, and a ridge with a chasm, all in a space you can traverse in less than ten minutes,” she explains. “My friend, a forestry officer from St Lucia who I met through the project, said the island is too perfect to be real. My best memory is of stealthily following a West Indian whistling duck up the path to the ridge and peeping around a bush to see where it was — only to find the bird also peeping around a bush, looking at me.”