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Better protection needed for Caroni

From bats to blue crabs, UWI projects study biodiversity and ecosystem services at Caroni Swamp
Celebrating World Wetlands Day
Published: 
Tuesday, February 2, 2016
The Scarlet Ibis is just one of many fascinating animals living in the Caroni Swamp, which provides important ecological services for T&T. This beautiful print is by writer and travel photographer David Rich, who was once a law professor and trial lawyer with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. The photo can be ordered at fineartamerica.com.

“Hey Luke, we have raccoons in Trinidad?” This is just one of many questions curious folk ask Dr Luke Rostant and colleagues at the University of the West Indies’ (UWI’s) Department of Life Sciences. 

And the answer is yes: we do indeed have raccoons here. They are Crab-eating Raccoons (Procyon cancrivorous), and they hang out in the Caroni Swamp, among other places, where they can find their favourite foods: crabs and other crustaceans, small frogs, eggs and various plant life. 

They weigh anything between four to 26 lbs, and are solitary, nocturnal, elusive creatures—which is why we rarely see them. 

Dr Luke Rostant is the Programme Coordinator for the MSc in Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Caribbean. Late last year Rostant, along with Lee Ann Beddoe (the Programme Manager) and lecturers of the Department of Life Sciences, finished overseeing a series of important research projects in the Caroni Swamp, including one on the Crab-eating Raccoon. The Guardian interviewed Dr Rostant recently for an update on these swamp studies, to mark World Wetlands Day today. 

The 24 UWI studies spanned the swamp’s rich biodiversity, from bats to blue crabs, and looked at some essential environmental services as well as livelihoods the swamp provides. The studies all fell under the umbrella project of the Caroni Swamp Research & Development Impact (RDI) Fund. UWI’s RDI Fund supports multidisciplinary projects that address pressing development challenges, in an effort to link academic scholarship with real world socioeconomic needs.

Much of this recent Caroni Swamp research work, it is important to note, has not been done before, although it builds on previous research efforts at UWI and institutions like the IMA. 

It remains true that our scientists often don’t have even basic baseline data on many kinds of swamp life—data which is essential for developing efficient, effective conservation and management programmes. 

The result? We don’t effectively or intelligently manage many of our natural resources—such as the Caroni Swamp—as well as we should, because we don’t have policies informed by accurate biological or environmental data. UWI’s recent Caroni Swamp research projects aim to address some of these major knowledge gaps about Caroni Swamp life and the ecological services the swamp provides.

Swamp threats: a review

• Humans have transformed or destroyed half of all mangrove ecosystems in the entire world. The Caroni Swamp is no exception: in the 1920s up to 1954, rice farmers changed the Caroni Swamp’s drainage/hydrology under the Cipriani Reclamation Scheme. They built embankments, cut channels, and two tide exclusion sluices were built. This increased the areas of freshwater marsh and agricultural lands in the swamp.
• The Reclamation Scheme ended in 1954; canals fell into disrepair and less fresh water entered. Building of the Caroni Arena Dam further reduced freshwater inflow into swamp.
• Since 1957, salt water has intruded further inland, and mangrove trees now outcompete marsh vegetation.
• From 1922-1986, various T&T governments have built roads, sewage ponds, and a large, unlined garbage dump (Beetham dump) on swamp land. They also dredged the Caroni River to widen it. All this activity killed more than 500 ha of mangrove forest—and the life within it—on the swamp’s northern edge.
• The Beetham dump is located too near the northern boundary of the Caroni Swamp, with the possibility of diverse toxins leaching into the groundwater and affecting life in the swamp over many generations.
• Since the 1960s, residents of central Trinidad have been dumping their trash into rivers which all eventually empty into the swamp via the Caroni River and related river systems. The Caroni River is among the most heavily polluted in all of Trinidad, receiving wastes from sewage, industrial wastewater and agricultural runoff (Phelps, 1997) that has killed off much river life.
• Illegal hunting/poaching threatens swamp animal life; wardens are insufficient to monitor the area.
• More recently (within the last few years), private landowners have cleared more wetland areas in the swamp. Illegal housing is also encroaching on the swamp’s eastern boundary. Urban and agricultural development now surround the swamp on three sides, heavily impacting the coastal ecosystem.
• Despite the threats, the swamp still sustains biodiverse life—so far. However, insufficient toxicity studies have been done on plants or wildlife to assess possible bioaccumulation of toxins, or other ill effects, as a result of human-caused pollution draining into the swamp. 

(Source: Rahanna Juman and Deanesh Ramsewak, 2012: Land cover changes in the Caroni Swamp Ramsar site, Trinidad [1947 and 2007]: implications for management)

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