Trinidad and Tobago, the two southernmost islands of the Caribbean Archipelago are unique. If you take a walk in the “bush” as many call it, there is a vast array of plants from towering trees to spiny palms and strangling vines. A large number of insects to amphibians to mammals call the canopy, limbs, root systems and even fallen leaves–home. But what is the significance of this? Trinidad and Tobago’s close proximity to South America means that many of the species found here can be found on the South American mainland, however following island ecogeographical evolution, there are isolated pockets of animals that are only found on these islands. Endemic creatures are automatically classified as critically endangered due to their small geographical range, and Trinidad and Tobago boasts many endemic forest species: two endemic species of birds; one endemic species of mammal; four endemic species of reptiles; six endemic species of amphibians; six endemic species of insects; two endemic species of scorpions; and three endemic species of spiders.
Sadly, many species are lost from our ecosystems due to some of the damaging cultural uses of our forests. We believe in clearing large pieces of forested areas for crop production, while hunting takes place all throughout the year, with no care for species that play an important role in maintaining forest health.
We boast of having the oldest forest reserve in the Western Hemisphere (the Main Ridge Rainforest in Tobago) while Trinidad is home to many spectacular forest and game sanctuaries. Our issue here is not the lack of protected forested areas, but that of understanding the importance of why they are protected in the first place.
We are dependent on forests for our basic needs, but for it to maintain us, we must first maintain it. Forest conservation is not only protecting the plant species that makes up its canopy, but the many creatures that call it home. The theme of World Wildlife Day 2021 is Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet. An apt theme, it focuses on the uses of forests and how we can benefit from them sustainably. For this to be accomplished, we must examine how we interact with forest habitats.
To this end, I pose the following question about Trinidad and Tobago culture: Do we think forests are important to our health and well-being? I would answer in the affirmative: forests take carbon dioxide and convert it to oxygen; they maintain ground water and minimise flooding; and their under-studied plants and animals are a great source of medicines.
How do we use forests culturally? We depend on forests for lumber and even recreation. A hike through the forests of the Northern Range reveals lovely pools of filtered water. While trekking through southern forests we can find exquisite mud volcanoes in which to relax.
What are we doing that can destroy forests?
What are we doing that can destroy forests? I found myself baffled by this question. We sometimes think that because no one is living there, we can throw our trash there. So, we dump our old tires, refrigerators and other refuse there. We set indiscriminate fires in a bid to destroy this waste, which spread uncontrollably throughout the forest, killing everything in its path that is not fast enough to get away. We also chose to indiscriminately hunt whether it is legal or not to to do so.
Then what can we do to protect the forest?
On a brighter note, we must learn to appreciate forests for their natural beauty and the services they can provide. We can see the joy in an Emperor Butterfly fluttering through the understory while Bearded BellBirds scream and Orange Wing Amazonian Parrots feed in the canopy. We can embrace the precious sight of seeing a Red-rumped Agouti or Red Brocket Deer scampering through the paths as the Red Howler Monkeys feed on flowers and leaves, bellowing loudly to warn of predators like the Red Tail Boa, poised quietly by the root of the Brazilian Nut tree, blending in perfectly with the fallen leaves. We can appreciate that forests can be a self-sustaining form of income for many, providing an opportunity for rural forest users to be tour guides showing off the endemic Trinidad Piping Guan or Trinidad Mot-Mot, or leading expeditions to see the El Tucuche Golden Tree Frog that lives in bromeliads high in the canopy of the tallest peak in Trinidad.
For World Wildlife Day 2021, let us be mindful of all that we do. We can protect our forest, while sustaining our livelihoods. It is crucial that we do so for generations to come.