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Our Wild Places
It happens every day but somehow it affects each person differently. The sight of the sun dipping slowly behind the tree line, casting its diminishing glow on the waters of the Caroni swamp. The chorus of birds seems to peak in the dying light; the last frenzied feeding, catching insects on the wing before retiring for the day.
There is another sound not nearly as pleasant, but certainly dominant at the entrance to our most famous wildlife sanctuary. Birdsong has heavy competition from speakers mounted on top of cars; a seemingly endless parade of chutney and soca hits foment a general atmosphere of spiritual discord. The senses are assailed with the piercing sounds of imbalanced treble and bass accompanied by an undercurrent of drunken cackling and volleys of hissed obscenities.
That is the welcome wagon for foreign guests visiting the famous Caroni Swamp and, I dare say, it is indicative of our general attitude towards not only the environment of our country but the inestimable value locked within. As the television series Bush Diary with Robert Clarke returns to the air this Sunday, what the programme envisions most is that viewers will absorb the message of conservation and also appreciate how the environment, if given the protection it deserves, can provide sustainable income for a nation with a crippling fossil fuel dependency.
This dependency, of course, refers to the continued, myopic, oil-centric economic philosophy that has brought us to where we are: celebrating our 50th anniversary of dependence. For all of us who have worked tirelessly on Bush Diary, there has always been an underlying fear.
This nature series can present a deceptive image of a country replete with wildlife. What you are seeing on television may look like a couple visits but it actually represents many months of repeated trips just to get the hard-to-come-by shots of wildlife needed for a half-hour show.
While there is diversity in the Caroni Swamp, populations of bird species are not nearly, in my estimation, what they should be. This carries serious implications for ecotourism. Imagine a flotilla of tour boats slowly coursing its way into the swamp, all of them burdened with amateur photographers and birders eager to capture in digital immortality, the spectacle of this wildlife sanctuary in its varied forms.
Fast forward to a group of mosquito-bitten, disappointed tourists opposite a sparsely populated scarlet ibis roost. This happens during the nesting season when the ibis are deep within the mangrove. Tour boat operators cannot be faulted for that but there are certainly ways to give the visitor to the swamp a well-rounded experience, one which does not hinge on animals being where we expect.
Much of what you will read here will feel like common sense and that’s because it is. The visitors centre at the Caroni Swamp is completely underutilised. Apart from the occasional school visit, which from my observations is not particularly useful, there is very little activity there.
The typical tour at Caroni begins at 4.30 in the afternoon and ends at about 6 pm. This should really be the culmination of a day in the swamp. I just don’t get it, the visitors centre was built in the swamp and this value is simply not recognised. There are no looking glasses for patrons to scan the surroundings for the wildlife that can be spotted right there.
Behind this well-built structure you can see owls, snakes and even the ibis in close proximity. Apart from the regulars at the centre, strategically placed bird feeders can lure beautiful small birds like the Red-capped Cardinal; a guaranteed show for the visitors.
OK, so there is an audio-visual room but how often is that used? Yes, there is a photographic display but somehow a picture of a crab with the caption “crab” below just doesn’t cut it. It is unfortunate because the infrastructure is there and it is certainly not understaffed. So why not create a multi-layered experience for guests?
I visited a crocodile farm in Cuba many years ago. At this facility you are taken on a guided tour with informative and grammatically correct signs posted near displays at various intervals. I saw the alligator garfish, which I thought was fascinating, massive turtles and, of course, the crocodiles in what appeared to be eternal languid pose.
At the end of the tour, visitors are corralled into a large open-air cafeteria where you can purchase crocodile to eat. This is where the tour lost me, but you get my point. Now that tour overall was absolute rubbish but the facility appears to do a reasonable amount of daily traffic and there was quite a line to purchase tickets.
I have no doubt we have the potential to do far better not just at Caroni but at many other locations across the country. Right now, visitors to the swamp are forced to squeeze through a phalanx of drunken revellers leaving heaps of garbage in their rum-scented wake. When will we get it right if our own people are so determined to get it wrong?
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