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Bahamas Saving Ecology 15 Dec 1994

THE EARTH TIMES

DECEMBER 15, 1994

Life in the Bahamas: What strict legislation can do to protect a fragile ecosystem

By Ashali Varma

NASSAU, BAHAMAS—Columbus made his first New World landfall in the southern Bahamas. Describing the island of San Salvador in his journal of 1492, Columbus wrote, “We were met by the soft balmy smell of the trees and flowers ashore, the sweetest fragrance in the world. There are flocks of parrots so big that they darken the sun and birds of an amazing variety…”

The Bahamas has changed since Columbus wrote those lines.  Many of the species Columbus admired have become extinct.  Some forests have been clear-cut. Yet this system of 700 islands scattered over 100,000 square miles of Atlantic Ocean is still known for its vegetation and marine life.  Much has been saved: more still needs to be restored.

“The history of the Bahamas is linked to the exploitation of its  linked to the exploitation of its natural resources that took place over the last few centuries,” said Pericles A. Maillis, an attorney and deputy president for the Bahamas National Trust.  Maillis volunteers for the trust.

Those attending The First Conference of Parties on the Convention on Biological Diversity focused on saving what remains of the globe’s wealth of species.  Maillis said, however, “The reality of life especially in the Caribbean is that majorities live in already degraded areas.  I hope that governments, environmentalists and NGOs will pay as much attention to restoration as to conservation.”

Founded in 1959, the Bahamas National Trust commits much of its time to restoring degraded ecosystems.  Trust projects include the restoring of species that were near extinction and the setting up of national reserves where flora and fauna flourish.

Much of the ecological destruction in the Bahamas took place after 1780, when many Royalists emigrated to the Bahamas from the US after the American Revolution.  They brought hundreds of slaves with them and cut most of the original hardwood forests to sell and build homes.  They also cleared vast tracts of land for farming, and introduced cattle to the islands.

About this time, the Bahamas Hutia (a rodent) went extinct; so did the Cuban crocodile.

The Bahamas got something of a second chance recently when a small population of Bahamas Hutia was rediscovered on a small island in the southeastern part of the Bahamas.

The Bahamas National Trust reseeded  stocks of Bahamas Hutia in the Exuma National Park in the central Bahamas.  The park consists of 22 miles of  a 10-mile chain of keys, much like the Florida Keys.  At one time Howard Hughes wanted to buy the Exuma Keys to develop it and it was his lawyer who refused to cooperate to let this beautiful chain

of islands be turned into a rich man’s paradise.

The near extinction of another species, the West Indian Flamingo, was what first prodded the Trust into action. Columbus described these graceful birds as “angels from heaven.” In 1959, only 2,000 remained, scattered among three islands.

To prevent the bird’s slide into extinction, the government began handing over vast areas of land for preservation and set up the Inagua National Park which straddles 100 square miles on the southern end of the archipelago. Today, over 60,000 flamingoes thrive on five islands.

Inagua Park is also home to Terrapin Turtles and has the largest breeding colony for Reddish Egrets. There are also vast areas of bonsai forests.

North, on the other side of the Bahamas, the thick pine forests of Abaco island were virtually clear-cut 50 years ago, Due to a process of natural regeneration, the forests have grown back. People of the island say that the climate has changed and it rains now as it used to before the forests were cut. Abaca is also the northern habitat for the Bahamas parrot.

The Bahamas National Trust established the Abaco National Park in May this year with 20,500 acres. Nassau Beach Hotel, grew up in the Berry islands of the Bahamas. Hutia said that the reason the islands still have so much vegetation and marine life is because of the strict legislation passed by the government years ago.

There are laws that restrict fishing to certain times of the year. “When I was growing up in the Berry islands there was so much abundance of marine life that you could literally pick up the conch fish in the puddles left after a high tide,” Francis said. “The amazing thing is that now when I go back I find it  hasn’t changed. I realize now that our children  will be able to see the beauty and not have to read about it in books,” he added.

Due to construction, causeways, trash and garbage, the natural flow of the creek became obstructed over the years. The waters became muddy polluted and the fish died.

Maillis sent out letters to the villagers. With the help of volunteers, some of whom were children, the clean up process started.  In just over a month the creek was restored, Today, the flora and fauna are slowly coming back.

“Since tourism is vital to the Bahamian economy, we have been practicing a kind of eco-

Tourism and have strict legislation to protect our forests and wildlife,” said Keva Hanna Lawrence, of Eco and Heritage Tourism.  Lawrence feels that more can be done to prevent very large hotels from being built near the beaches and there should be more media coverage of environmental issues to make children aware.

The national  pride is perhaps best reflected in the words of a schoolgirl. Glennette Farquharson said, “I think a lot of the young people are realizing how beautiful our country is and adults can’t keep it that way alone, so bit by bit everyone is chipping in to make our country a little better than before.”