Text and photos by Robin Moore, Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers
Guardian of the Reptiles
“You’ve got to respect another life, so that the other life can respect yours,” says Booms, whose real name is Mr. Kenroy Williams, a young Jamaican who has devoted the past seven years of his life to protecting some of the rarest reptiles in the world, and the largest living land animal in the country; the critically endangered Jamaican iguana. “Some of my friends think I am crazy, when they hear that I am touching the iguanas and the crocodiles. But if they were here like me, they would understand, and they would do everything that I am doing”.
Booms grew up in Rae Town in the south side of Kingston before moving seven years ago to the Hellshire Hills, a corrugated landscape blanketed in limestone forest to the south of Kingston, to work with the head of the Jamaican iguana recovery group, Dr. Byron Wilson. In the hills of Hellshire Booms found his calling. “It’s easier living to me. Entirely. I love being here,” he says, pausing thoughtfully before adding, “I hate not being here.” As we sit in the shade of small field station, a 30 minute boat ride and 45 minute hike from the small coastal town of Port Royal, a six-foot long, leather-brown iguana with slate-blue hind legs ambles towards us, its tail scattering dust as it swings from side to side, and flumps onto the floor near our feet. I study the dinosaur-like creature – watching it watch me with ruby-red eyes – and feel honored to be in the presence of such an iconic and rare creature.
Back from the Brink
The Jamaican iguana is the main character in a story of chance, collaboration, and resurgence. At the start of last century the iguana was believed to survive only on Goat Islands, two cays a long stone’s throw from the Hellshire Hills. After the last individuals were seen in 1948, the iguana was thought to have gone extinct – until, in 1990, a hog hunter chanced upon a live individual in the limestone forests of Hellshire Hills. Further exploration revealed around 50 survivors of the “rarest lizard in the world” in the most undisturbed portions of the remotest reaches of the country.Young Jamaican iguanas are raised in a facility in Kingston to see them through the most vulnerable months before being released back into the wild – a process known as “headstarting”.
Following its rediscovery the iguana became a flagship for conservation in the West Indies, and the focus of an international recovery program. A consortium of twelve zoos, spearheaded by the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas, built a headstart facility at Hope Zoo in Kingston to rear eggs and hatchlings brought from the wild. This process of “headstarting” involves rearing hatchling iguanas in captivity to release them back into the wild once they are big enough to ward off predators. Since the first release in 1997, 174 headstarted Jamaican iguanas have been set free into their native Hellshire Hills habitat, and researchers have confirmed that headstarted iguanas are breeding and nesting in the wild.
A Safe Haven?
The Jamaican iguana shares its home, a 187,515-hectare area containing one of the largest dry limestone forests in the Caribbean and the largest intact mangrove forest in the country, with some 20 globally threatened species. Recognizing the importance of the area as a national treasure, in 1999 the Jamaican government created the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA), the largest Protected Area in the country, encompassing the Hellshire Hills and Portland Ridge Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), defined by IUCN as “places of international importance for the conservation of biodiversity through protected areas and other governance mechanisms”. The area was deemed so special that it was under consideration as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, until last year when the government backtracked on the proposal, signifying an ominous change of plans for the area.
Despite being protected under four laws and containing two forest reserves, six game sanctuaries, and three fish sanctuaries, the government announced in August that it was engaged in negotiations to sell Goat Islands to the China Harbour Engineering Company (a subsidiary of the China Communications Construction Company, which is on the list of companies disbarred by the World Bank) to build a massive transshipment port and associated logistics hub – right in the heart of the Portland Bight Protected Area.
“Are you Chinese?” a young boy asks as I stroll among colorful boats on the shores of Old Harbour Bay, a community of some 8,500 fishers close to Goat Islands. He is not the first to ask. Ten minutes later, as I crouch to photograph a pelican resting on a boat, two policemen approach to ask what I am doing. Sensing suspicion in my presence, I decide to stick close to my hosts, local residents and fishers Paulette and Herman Coley and their six-year old son Jabari, who extend an invitation for me to join them on a fishing trip the following morning. I gladly accept.
As the first light of day spills over the sea like liquid lava, we set off in a small boat to fish in the waters around Goat Islands. Paulette, who completed high school, is a well-educated resident of Old Harbour Bay and the only registered fisherwoman in the community. She talks to me about her perspective on the proposed development; “a lot of people don’t know what to think,” she says, “because we have not been provided with any information. The government claims it will bring jobs and opportunity to the area, but we are not qualified, and we are not being trained, for the jobs that will need to be done. They tell us what they want us to hear, but the reality is that we will be worse off. Many people will be displaced”.
Paulette’s suspicions are based on previous projects that were sold to locals on unfulfilled promises. In order to gain local support for a cruise ship port on the north coast of Jamaica, residents of Falmouth were brought on board with the promise of employment opportunities associated with a deluge of tourists to the area. Some opened restaurants in anticipation. But as cruise ships docked, towering over the town like totems of ostentation, locals could only look on as tourists shopped and dined in fancy stores and restaurants purpose-built on the pier, and embarked on excursions designed and led by the cruise company, bypassing the town entirely.
As we skirt Goat Islands, Herman and Paulette are keen to show me two signs, side-by-side on larger Goat Island. One sign informs that destroying the mangroves, burning coal and cutting trees are all prohibited, the other sign informs that the China Harbour Engineering Company has applied for a permit to do all of the above. They can’t help but laugh at the irony. Herman points to small markers indicating the boundaries of a fish sanctuary, and asks, “how can they say this won’t have an impact on our livelihoods?” He then turns to me and says, “do you want to go onto the island?” Because I know we shouldn’t, I say yes, I do. We moor in a small cove lined by the long roots of mangroves arcing into the water and walk to a clearing around the crumbled remains of a hospital that had been built by the USA during their occupation of the island. Paulettte collects a large Aloe Vera plant and some rosemary to take back with her to Old Harbour Bay “they are more abundant here” she explains. Back at their home, Herman proudly prepares and fries the catch of the day, serving me two fish garnished with salad. It is quite delicious, and I leave feeling touched by their warm hospitality.
Only the brave in Jamaica dare speak out against the proposed sale of Goat Islands, risking accusations of xenophobia and of being anti-development. Dr. Byron Wilson, who has devoted over a decade of his life to protecting the Jamaican iguana and in recent years has jeopardized his academic career at the University of the West Indies by expressing opposition to something that will see more than twenty years of hard work “go up in smoke”. As we sit on the remote Manatee Bay under a full moon, staring into a star-filled sky over the Caribbean he says, “the plan since the 1970s has been to clear Goat Islands of introduced predators and create a safe haven for threatened native species such as the iguana. That has been the dream. I probably won’t want to come back here soon. I just can’t stand the thought of sitting here, and hearing dynamite exploding over there,” he points in the direction of Goat Islands as he talks, “and seeing plumes of smoke over the horizon. I just can’t do it”.
Wilson is joined in the fight against the development of Goat Islands by Dianna McCaulay, founder and CEO of the Jamaica Environmental Trust. McCaulay takes me to a wetland area beside the Hellshire Hills that will be build upon as part of the logistics hub, “this is unique in Jamaica” she tells me “I haven’t seen anywhere else like this. But, according to the maps I have seen, this will be part of the logistics hub. But nobody really knows.” One of McCaulay’s biggest points of contention with the proposed development is the lack of information that has been provided. “All our Access to Information requests for the technical proposal or the Framework Agreement between the Government of Jamaica and Chinese investors for this project have been denied. We have therefore filed legal action requesting leave to apply for judicial review of these decisions and are awaiting a court date.”
One of the largest questions surrounding the proposed project is, why, when alternative sites such as the existing Kingston Harbour exist, has Portland Bight Protected Area been chosen? Given that local opposition, and letters of concern from authorities including the Director General of the IUCN, have fallen on deaf ears, I ask McCaulay what, if anything, could change the course of the proposed development. “International media attention” she replies. The tourism industry in Jamaica accounts for over 50 percent of the country’s total foreign exchange earnings, and provides about one-fourth of all jobs in Jamaica. If negative press around the sale of Portland Bight Protected Area could influence whether tourists choose to visit Jamaica or take their vacations elsewhere, this just could tip the scales in averting an ecological catastrophe.
To voice your opposition, please share this with the hashtag #savegoatislands and join the movement to save the Portland Bight Protected Area. Click here to sign the petition to save Goat Islands.