Jamaica, despite its small size, is an ecological gem. Jamaica’s distance from the mainland has helped its native wildlife to evolve independently of species found elsewhere for millions of years. There were, in colonial days, 30 species of birds on the small island of Jamaica that were found nowhere else in the world. Two of them have gone extinct, leaving Jamaica with 28 endemic bird species. Two more, however — the yellow-billed parrot and especially the black-billed parrot — are in danger of following the Jamaican petrel and the Jamaican poorwill into extinction. The demise of all four species can be largely attributed to short-sightedness.
Invasive Mongoose Runs Rampant in Jamaica
The ground-nesting Jamaican petrel and Jamaican poorwill went into sharp decline and disappeared soon after the deliberate introduction of the mongoose to Jamaica by plantation owners seeking to control rat populations in their fields, says Ricardo Miller of Jamaica’s National Environmental and Planning Agency (NEPA).
The mongoose did in fact help with the rats, but did not see the need to limit its diet to just one type of prey. From its introduction and still today, the mongoose poses a serious threat to other Jamaican wildlife as well. Today, the mongoose thrives in Jamaica, and I saw many darting across the roads as I traveled throughout the country in April.
Pet Market Fuels Jamaican Parrot Poaching
Parrots, on the other hand, are quite popular in the pet trade and a ready market exists for any parrots caught by poachers. Roger Thompson, Park Ranger for Jamaica Conservation Development Trust, described to me the process by which poachers catch parrots as we walked along Ecclesdown Road while watching a small flock of yellow-billed parrots descend upon a fruit tree in the valley below us.
Poachers will place piece of fruit at the end of a long pole. A cross-piece is added to the pole so the parrot can land easily to eat the fruit. The cross-piece, however, is covered in thick, sticky glue that holds the parrot fast while the pole is lowered and the parrot removed into a sack or cage.
Habitat Destruction Adds to Jamaican Parrot Population Decline
Another and more destructive method is to cut down the trees in which a parrot nest is discovered to capture the unfledged young. This method, says NEPA, eliminates nesting sites for future generations of parrots as well since they nest only in existing nest holes found in older trees and are unable to dig out holes by themselves. When combined with habitat loss from deforestation, the impact to the survival of both species of Jamaica’s endemic parrots is severe.
Park Rangers Seek to Educate Offenders
Thompson said that while the island’s police will arrest any poachers they find, those who are arrested typically come back after the arrest — angry and with redoubled efforts in an attempt to make enough money to pay any fines that were levied. Fines may run up to $100,000 Jamaican (about $1,200 U.S.) for possession of Jamaican parrots, but are typically much less.
One recent offender was charged a fine of only $5,000 Jamaican (about $55 U.S.). Thompson says he prefers to educate poachers and convert them to the cause of preserving Jamaica’s natural resources. He will, he said, tell them about the black-billed parrot’s endangered status and that, as one of Jamaica’s endemic species, its loss would lessen Jamaica’s unique natural heritage. He then charges them with educating others and releases them with a verbal warning. A second offense results in a written warning that is filed with the authorities. A third strike ends in the arrest of the recalcitrant perpetrator. Those who heed Thompson’s teachings mirror, on an individual level, the progress that Jamaica as a nation must also make, eschewing short-term gain at the expense of the future.
Jamaica’s Natural Treasures Being Smuggled Off Island
While many of those who capture parrots are small-time operators, Thompson explained that there are larger scale poaching operations as well. He told me of one smuggling ring that had been illegally removing rare aromatic hardwood trees from the public Cinchona Botanical Gardens and shipping it to Bermuda where it was prized for the high-end furniture trade. The wood, Thompson said, retains its aroma even after processing, not unlike the cedar with which we are familiar here in the United States.
Planting the Seeds of Jamaica’s Future
As Jamaica seeks to expand its appeal to eco-tourists seeking more than a tropical beach party, the long-term value of leaving Jamaica’s natural treasures in place to attract eco-tourists and the revenue they’ll bring to the local economy on a continuing basis must become a part of Jamaica’s culture. Instilling a deep appreciation for the value of Jamaica’s wildlife and undisturbed forests to children in the schools is the biggest key to changing attitudes and behaviors for the long term.
Interviews conducted while on assignment in Jamaica.
Jamaican parrots sold illegally. NEPA. March 23, 2010. Retrieved from http://www.nepa.gov.jm/newscenter/Press_releases/current/PR20102303-jamaican-parrots-sold-illegally.asp on May 20, 2010.
Man Convicted of breaching Wild Life Protection Act. NEPA. April 21, 2009. Retrieved from www.nepa.gov.jm/newscenter/Press_releases/Archive/2009/PR20092004-man-convicted-for-breaching-WLPA.asp on May 20, 2010.