The Endangered Ones

Island Notes 61

Below is the second feature article that I have written for Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire this year.  These are distributed to our local papers, Extra (Papiamentu) and The Bonaire Reporter (English).  And now it is here for my loyal blog readers.

The Endangered Ones

Residents of Bonaire’s unique natural world face challenges.

What does it actually mean to be an endangered species? There are many definitions but basically it is a population of organisms that is at risk of becoming extinct due to diminishing numbers, environmental changes or increased predation.  Unfortunately, Bonaire has a number plants and animals that fall into this category in the sea, in the air and on the land.  Here are three examples.

In the sea…

Bonaire is known for its sea turtles—the hawksbill, the green and the loggerhead.  These aquatic animals come to here to feed and lay eggs.  Regrettably, they face dangers while living along our coastal waters.  Take, for instance, what happened in April this year when Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire’s (STCB) Mabel Nava and Robert Van Dam were diving near Lac Cai.

“We saw a green turtle with fishing line coming out of its mouth.  We also saw that it was missing its right front flipper. Robert and I captured the turtle and when we surfaced, a fisherman helped us get it to shore.”

another turtle killed by a fishing hook

Upon further inspection, it was obvious the fishing line had cut off the animal’s flipper and a hook was deeply embedded in its intestines. Nava called veterinarian Fulco de Vries for help. After a thorough examination it was determined that the turtle was severely emaciated and would not recover. A sedative was administered and the turtle was euthanized to put it out of its misery.  STCB has noticed an increase of turtles in distress in past years.

“We need to educate people that fishing line and hooks left behind are real threats to sea turtles,” explains Nava.  “They are killers.  So are plastic bags and cups tossed carelessly in the sea.  Turtles see these objects as jellyfish, which they love to eat.  Once ingested, the plastic can kill the animal.  It is everyone’s responsibility to keep these harmful items out of the water, and help these endangered animals.”

In the air…

Recently, parrot scientist Rhian Evans spotted an unusual aerial battle in progress near Playa Frans.  “I was doing nesting observations along100 meters of cliffs.  Five pairs of loras were fighting over two nest sights.  They were showing a lot of aggression.”

Evans and her colleague Sam Williams believe that this behavior is indicative of a serious problem for Bonaire’s endangered parrot, nest site limitation.  Loras do not make their own nest cavities.  Rather, they are dependent on the local environment to provide sites.  But Bonaire has been heavily deforested during the centuries.

“You just don’t see those big old trees like wayaká any more,” explains Williams.   “These parrots nest in wayaká, watapana and palu de seu.  There are fewer of these trees around.  It’s probably why the loras now nest in cliffs as well.  That’s not normal for this genus of parrot.”

But even the cliff nest sites are vulnerable due to increased housing development on the island.  “Loras don’t put up with much disturbance near their nests,” explains Evans.  “Even after construction, the parrots won’t return to the cliff sites if people living in the homes create too much noise.”

A Lora cliff nest

For Bonaire, this has become a numbers problem. Fewer nests mean fewer parrots, a smaller genetic pool.  That, in turn, can make the lora population extremely vulnerable to disease or natural disasters like a severe tropical storm.  A sizable population is key to avoiding catastrophe.

The Parrotwatch Project, headed by Williams and Evans, is tackling the problem of decreasing nest sites. The team is constructing nest boxes out of natural materials to give the parrots alternative nesting sites.  But according to Williams, until development is better regulated and the goat overgrazing problem is solved, limited nesting for the parrots will continue. “You can’t increase population growth without dealing with social issues as well. You need to ensure that people are sympathetic to the loras increasing their numbers.”

On the land…

Some call it “the wood of life”.  It is three times as hard as oak and is often referred to as ironwood.  The wood is so dense that when thrown in water, it sinks.  Here on Bonaire, we call this splendid tree wayaká, pokhout or Lignum vitae.

But since 2007, wayaká is listed as an endangered species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).  Historically, the tree was harvested here to make durable pulleys for sailing ships, ideal since the wood lubricates itself with resin from within.  But overgrazing, excessive harvesting and indiscriminate land clearing has allowed secondary plant cover to take over much of Bonaire’s landscape, a significant challenge to this slow growing tree.

“Uncontrolled land clearing and goats are the major threats,” states STINAPA’s Elsmarie Beukenboom, director of Bonaire’s national parks foundation. “A nature ordinance, a framework of laws, has passed, but the island resolutions that include beschermingsmaatregels (protection measures) have not.”

One of the few large wayaká trees left on the island.

Until this legislation is enacted, trees like the wayaká will have no protection.  They offer shade and shelter for a variety of plants and animals. Plus, the wayaká provides critical nesting sites for many birds including loras.  As a stopgap measure, STINAPA and Salba Nos Lora have done some reforestation work planting wayaká and other tree species on Klein Bonaire and at Pos Nobo in protected plots. Unfortunately wayaká is a poor candidate for reforestation due to its slow growth.   It takes 20 years for it to mature.  Therefore, the fate of this tree and others is in the hands of the Bonaire government.  “The government just needs to put its signature on the island resolutions,” continues Beukenboom. “But for that hand to grab the pen, it’s a very long process.”

*   *   *

These are but three examples of plants and animals that are facing challenges as Bonaire’s development moves forward.  What can you do to help preserve these living wonders?  Volunteer at Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire.  Join Salba Nos Loras.  Volunteer for a STINAPA tree-planting event.  Most importantly, contact the Bonaire government and inform them of the importance of protecting these endangered species in the sea, in the air and on the land.

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