Students participating in a floating classroom session on Bird Island.
Antigua and Barbuda boasts a rich natural heritage not known by many. Dotting the coasts of the mainland are our offshore islands, 51 in total, with secluded, inviting beaches, interesting hiking trails, and excellent coral reefs for the scuba-diving/snorkelling enthusiast.
Needless to say, the offshore Islands have become an increasingly popular attraction for visitors and local populations alike who seek a more natural experience, away from the bustling mainland. Interestingly, most people are not aware that the offshore islands are refuge to some of the world’s rarest species of fauna and flora. The Antigua Racer Snake (Alsophis Antiguae), for example, is a quintessential example of the term “critically endangered”. The snake, previously presumed extinct, was re-discovered in 1993 when Kevel Lindsay, a member of the Environmental Awareness Group (EAG) made a trip to Great Bird Island. With only fifty of the serpents remaining, conservation efforts were quickly undertaken and two years later, The Antigua Racer Conservation Project (ARCP) was born.
Antigua racer snake.
In addition to the Antigua Racer, the offshore islands are host to thousands of migratory birds, and home to some vulnerable and endangered ones, such as the Red-Billed Tropic Bird and the West Indian Whistling Duck. A birder’s paradise!
When conservation efforts began on the offshore islands, one of the primary focuses was on the eradication of the black rat, an alien invasive species, initially brought to the mainland in the 17th century by English settlers. Rats are able to invade the islands when visitors unknowingly stow them on their boats. The rat eradication is very important because they are the snake’s main predator, and they also feed on the eggs of the nesting seabirds. With no rats, the snakes have a much greater chance of survival, and the birds’ eggs are left to develop.
Since conservation work began, there has been a marked increase in both the snake and seabird population. As a matter of fact, during the last bird monitoring research conducted in 2010, Toby Ross and Susan Tallarico who spearheaded the effort reported seeing more nesting birds, and some species that had not been recorded in the previous years. Our Field Biologist Andrea Otto has also reported healthy Racer populations.
Over the years, the focus of the conservation efforts has shifted from the Racer snakes to include all the flora and fauna of the Offshore Islands. Thus, the Antigua Racer Conservation Project has evolved into the Offshore Island Conservation Project (OICP). Under the project, Great Bird and several other islands have been cleared of rats, and are used for the propagation and reintroduction of the Racer Snake. Permanent bait stations (bait is donated by Syngenta) have been set up on these islands and are constantly monitored by our able field officers, Tahambay Smith and Sean Peters who are always ferried by our faithful boatmen, Aldrick Nicholas and Kelvin Drew.
Bait station checks and trail maintenance by field officers.
The goal of the OICP is to conserve indigenous and globally significant populations of flora and fauna of the offshore islands of Antigua and Barbuda and to promote the sustainable use of the resources found there. Much emphasis is placed on educating the public, and one of the primary educational tools is the Floating Classroom. This programme begins with a PowerPoint presentation and is followed with an interactive tour to the offshore islands, allowing students in the primary and secondary schools to become aware of the biodiversity there, including the mangroves, and the negative impact that our actions can have on the fragile ecosystems. The excursion highlights the importance of caring for these habitats.
Another component to OICP is public outreach, such as radio interviews and press releases, that inform the public about recent events and developments in the OICP, thereby encouraging community involvement. Great emphasis has been placed on training the public, such as through successful internship programmes, petitions for volunteer work, and, in collaboration with the Environmental Awareness Group (EAG), there have been many outings to the project site.
Very recently the project was awarded a two year grant of US$100, 000 from the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Neo-Tropical Migratory Bird Act. Although this is a significant contribution, the project is an ongoing one and further funding is continuously being sought. The work of the OICP would not be possible were it not for grants such as the above mentioned, donations from the general public, and our partners and dedicated volunteers, who offer their time and expertise to safeguard the biodiversity of Antigua and Barbuda’s offshore islands.