"God made angels
for their beauty.
Saint Thomas More (1478-1535)
Chancellor of England
Patron saint of politicians and lawyers
"Those like myself whose imagination far exceeds their obedience
Clive Staples Lewis (1898 - 1963)
Anglican philosopher and novelist
"In this farewell
there's no blood.
There's no alibi,
'cause I've drawn regret
from the truth of a thousand lies.
So let Mercy come,
and wash away
what I've done!"
Park, What I've Done
"Freedom consists not in doing what we like,
but in having the right to do what we ought."
Karol Józef Wojtyla (Saint John Paul
The Hovensa oil refinery, located where the largest track of mangrove forest in the Virgin Islands used to be. Southern Saint Croix, United States Virgin Islands.
Trouble in Paradise
As the highest of God's creatures on Earth, man has the capacity to cooperate with his Creator in making the Universe an ever better expression of the beauty of God Himself. However, since the Original Sin man has expressed a tendency to destroy the very environment that sustains him. Man's capacity for greatness often translates into grandeur but, sometimes, it does not.
It is a commonly held misconception that free will is properly exercised in the choice between good and evil. It is not, really. Free will and the power to use it ought to be put at the service of goodness. Period. The fact that we can choose evil over good is nothing more than that: a fact, and not a right. Oftentimes a combination of free will and power, without a purposeful discipline oriented towards goodness, equal a disaster waiting to happen.
It should be understood that the West Indies have experienced thousands of years of irresponsible human influence and, especially since European colonization, this has often caused the serious degradation, and even the obliteration, of many natural habitats. This, together with the introduction of foreign organisms (like feral cats, goats, and mongooses) and with unfettered hunting and poaching, have in modern times pushed many native West Indian plants and animals to extinction.
A number of native or endemic organisms have disappeared from the Antilles without the intervention of man. The Greater Antilles, in particular, had a spectacular fauna that included large terrestrial sloths, monkeys, giant flightless owls, huge eagles, flightless rails and huge rodent and insectivores. Being smaller landmasses, the Bahamas and Lesser Antilles had lesser numbers of specialties, although gigantic fossil hexaptodontid rodents are known from some such islands. Since the end of the last glacial age, about 10000 years ago, many of these animals - many of them adapted to the pervasive xeric conditions of the era - died out due to a natural process of extinction and further speciation.
However, that was then.
Today, the activities of man are, directly or indirectly, the main cause of the threat of extinction in the West Indies as in many other areas, and at a much higher rate, too. Almost every large island in the Caribbean has lost one or more species of birds, as well as reptiles, amphibians, mammals (particularly from among the few remaining rodents and insectivores) and plants.
Some advances are being made. New national parks and nature reserves are being proclaimed and protected (more or less); a rather few educational campaigns attempt to raise the environmental consciousness of the peoples of the islands; grassroots organizations seek to protect the environment against the ravages of unfettered development; the spread of ecotourism gathers momentum in many places. More and more societies are discovering that a live shark, trogon, crocodile, or parrot represents more money to the local economy than a dead one. Such biological riches attract tourists, sometimes from thousands of kilometers away, who visit the islands in order to appreciate their beauty, and not just to lie on a beach.
Even so, often it is governments which are the first perpetrators against the few remaining pristine natural areas, bow down to the pressures of developers, or simply lack the funds and initiative to enforce environmental laws. Widespread ignorance among the people complicates matters even more, since it is that same ignorance what plays into the hands of the parties interested in doing away with natural areas in the name of "progress". As an example, mangrove forests have been obliterated from many regions, after being leveled out in order to make way for hotels and residential areas because, after all, "they are nothing but worthless swamps."
Widespread prejudice against some animal groups, particularly reptiles and frogs, makes it very difficult for environmentalists to advocate the importance of preserving some areas, since developers and the general populace do not care to forbid the building of a hotel complex for the sake of "saving a bunch of ugly toads."
An exercise in cynicism, Puerto Rican style.
The Puerto Rican Department of Natural Resources places
a sign encouraging people to protect the site of a seasonal pond
that is gravely needed for the reproduction of the Puerto Rican toad, an amphibian endemic to the island and which is critically endangered.
The second sign reads "Wildlife Area". Riiiiiiight.
Temporary pool where the Puerto Rican toad breeds. This dwindling habitat is ever more imperiled by concrete and ineptitude.
South-western Puerto Rico.
Several non-governmental entities have been trying to establish an ecological corridor with what little remains of the littoral forests in north-eastern Puerto Rico.
(Some of the land proposed for the reserve is seen in the distance in the last photograph).
However, the local government constantly bows to the private interests like Costa Real and others, who just want to cover the area in concrete.
In the first photograph, the (quite symbolically) smallest sign reads "Espiritu Santo Nature Reserve". You just have to wonder where is the nature reserve.
Rio Grande, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
Although already seriously degraded by entities like Costa Real S. E., the remaining habitat of the lesser Puerto Rican boa might soon be obliterated by the same and similar developers.
Rio Grande, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
Controversial State Route 66, in northeastern Puerto Rico, has opened the gates for "developers" intent on earning quick money by destroying the remaining forest cover,
itself bordering the increasingly under siege El Yunque National Forest. No sooner the (totally unnecessary) highway was opened to the public, that more (equally unnecessary) housing projects began sprouting alongside it.
Superstitions regarding some animals are widespread among some Caribbean peoples, many of whom consider some species of totally harmless reptiles to be venomous. For that reason, many snakes, geckoes, giant anoles, galliwasps, and others are feared and killed unnecessarily. The absurd idea that snake fat is a cure for certain illnesses fosters the killing of boas in many islands.
One of the sad consequences of people's superstition and fear: a Hispaniolan brown racer, Haitiophis anomalus, possibly killed on sight.
This species has dwindled almost to extinction, due to habitat loss and human persecution.
Fondo Paradi, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.
(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Pedro Genaro Rodriguez).
Hispaniolan amazon (Amazona ventralis) and Hispaniolan parakeet (Aratinga chloroptera), held captive as pets.
The unregulated pet trade in many of the Antilles have brought several species to the point of endangerment.
Urban sprawl is increasingly claiming natural areas in places like Puerto Rico.
In this place near Caguas, east-central Puerto Rico, several square kilometers of forest disappeared almost overnight to make way to a new residential area.
For the most part, developers are utterly unconcerned with the destruction they cause in their quest to make money.
Scarcely a couple of years after the photographs above were taken, and after finishing his first phase
(first photograph in this series), the "developer" has already targeted the next valley for destruction (last two photographs).
"Developed" by a company named Clema Development. S.E., this valley's beauty has been marred by
an entity that just could not care less about the few remaining green areas in Puerto Rico's lowlands.
The urban sprawl around and near the city of San Juan, north-eastern Puerto Rico
causes much habitat loss and environmental degradation. Little interest and ignorance on the part of the people and
their government is the main reason for the lack of planning regarding the conservation of natural resources.
Right next to an International Biosphere Reserve (the Guanica State Forest): a garbage-disposal landfill.
How can they get away with this is really beyond me.
On the Neiba Mountains, south-central Hispaniola, farmland extends almost to the highest peaks, in some regions.
The resulting deforestation impoverishes the region, as many species cannot live in such degraded areas.
Coffee plantation. Neiba Mountains, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.
Agricultural practices sometimes require vast tracts of land to be converted from natural forest to pasture and crops.
Salinas, south-eastern Puerto Rico.
Dry streambed. Virgin Islands National Park, Saint John, United States Virgin Islands.
Where deforestation is widespread, the water table lowers, and streams that used to be permanent run only temporarily during the rainy seasons.
Perhaps as this secondary forest matures, the small water course will again flow permanently.
Cloud forests are fragile, slow-growing ecosystems. Communications antennae built on mountain peaks,
like these in the El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico, seriously damage the integrity of these habitats.
Across the Antilles, rivers are being channeled through concrete waterways to make space for urban development.
This practice makes life difficult, if not impossible, for many organisms which then cannot migrate to and from the sea
in order to reach their spawning areas. Caguas, east-central Puerto Rico.
Also in Puerto Rico, powerful lobbies of urban developers twist the arm of the government and daily have their way in deforesting huge areas to build ever larger shopping centers, hotel complexes, and residential areas, which could otherwise be easily built in already urbanized regions. Puerto Rico's Highway Authority builds more and more unnecessary roads, to the glee of developers who then worsen the urban sprawl by building even more along the new routes.
Developers are much to be blamed for the destruction of land and marine habitats in the West Indies.
Runoff from building sites and other urban development reaches the sea and kills large tracts of sea grass and coral reefs.
Near Aguirre, Guayama, south-eastern Puerto Rico.
Silt from agricultural lands is carried to the sea by
rivers. Santa Cruz de Barahona, south-western Dominican
Shortly after midnight on October 23rd, 2009, several fuel-holding tanks belonging to the Gulf Oil Company in Puerto Rico exploded.
The fired raged for 3 continuous days as millions of gallons of gasoline burned out of control. The government did an outsanding job in containing the fire as quickly as possible.
Although most of the smoke floated out to sea, some of it affected nearby people and natural areas, especially wetlands,
and several species that are already endangered especially among waterfowl and amphibians.
In Puerto Rico as elsewhere
in the Caribbean, governments allow a small lobby of
recreational hunters to dictate their own regulations, even when
it is public knowledge that a good number of such hunters will
shoot at anything that moves (including other people, which is
no less a tragedy for being done accidentally) whether in
season, or not.
"Hunting" practices give an excuse to wantonly destroy living things elswhere in the Caribbean. A particularly disgusting variation of it takes place in the Lesser Antillean island of Barbados. There, during certain seasons of the year, wealthy landowners of British descent try to kill on sight every single water bird in their estates, and then compare results with their neighbors. Understand: these prima donnas try to kill every single one of the water birds within their reach, and then let them rot in the water. They call that a "sport".
Finally, the dismal economic conditions that prevail in some Caribbean countries do not favor the preservation of natural areas. A textbook case is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere: Haiti. Occupying the western third of the island of Hispaniola, Haiti has for decades suffered from widespread misery (most of its families survive on the equivalent of a few United States dollars per month), disease, and malnutrition, all compounded by a sad and chronic tradition of political unrest and corruption. The beautiful country of extensive plains, high mountains, deep valleys, wide rivers, and rich biota now has 98 percent of its surface deforested, with but specks of anything resembling primeval forest remaining. Much of the population depends directly on the little remaining firewood to cook their meals - meals that many with enough money to buy a computer with which to see this website would not feed to their pet dogs or cats. And, of course, the firewood they need to cook their meager meals comes from forests, including those in national parks.
While it is easy for us who are more fortunate to criticize a people's inability to preserve and manage its own natural resources wisely, many do not realize that hopeless, dehumanizing misery and hunger leaves little space in one's mind to worry about the fate of trees and birds. Countries like Haiti need political stability - which certainly can only be achieved through their own will - but also need outside help to break the vicious circle of deterioration of natural resources, leading to poverty, leading to even more deterioration of natural resources, leading to more poverty.
And then we have the other source of trouble, after humans themselves: the thousands of exotic plants and animals running rampant in ecosystems where they don't belong.
Many exotic - and now feral - species do not disrupt West Indian habitats in a serious way. Instead, they may accommodate themselves among the native organisms by finding vacant niches to occupy. Some even possess great value, whether it is aesthetic, ecologic, or economic, and that without damaging inherently fragile natural communities. However, many other feral exotics do cause serious harm, especially given that insular ecosystems are limited in both their extensions and available resources. Alien dogs, cats, mongooses, monkeys, goats, deer, pigs, and even frogs, to name but a few of the animals that have been introduced to the Antilles, have disrupted and sometimes almost totally destroyed several habitats in this region beyond any human hope to repair them.
The illegal pet-trade
provides, intentionally or not, for a continuous inflow of
escapees that threaten the native flora and fauna with their
predation upon native organisms and their exotic diseases for
which local populations have no immunity . My own home-island of
Puerto Rico is an egregious and sad example of this trend, with
its lobbies of capricious groups of people bent on obtaining all
sorts of exotic pets, no matter what negative consequences that
may have for the native plants, birds, and reptiles. They really
think that they "got it made" by providing what is frequently a
merely marginal protection to a few state forests and wildlife
preserves, or when they "reforest" by planting some trees -
oftentimes exotics - for every area of native forest that they
level out and cover with concrete, frequently in brazen
violation of their own laws.
Below are some of the exotic organisms that have been introduced into the wild, in the West Indies.
African tulip tree, Spathodea campanulata. Florida, central Puerto Rico.
Hundreds of species of plants have been introduced to the Antilles, some for human use and, others, accidentally.
Like exotic animals, sometimes these plants seriously damage the ecological webs of the regions where they are introduced.
Impatiens walleriana. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
Originally introduced from tropical Africa, these plant is now common in many humid and rain forests in the Greater and Lesser Antilles.
Odontonema cuspidatum. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
A Central American weed now running rampant in several of the Greater Antilles.
Orchid, Spathoglottis plicata, an Indian species now naturalized in many of the Antilles.
First photograph: Cubuy, eastern Puerto Rico.
Second photograph: El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
Some exotic plants really become pests when they spread and take over space that is essential for the survival of native species.
Above, Mexican creeper, Antigonon leptopus, introduced from Central America. Barrenspot, central Saint Croix, United States Virgin Islands.
Giant milk-bush, Calotropis procera, native to Africa. Guanica State Forest, south-western Puerto Rico.
Rose apple, Syzygium jambos. El Rosario, south-western Puerto Rico.
This aggressive tree, naturalized in the Antilles from the Old World, out-competes some
native species for land and sunlight. It may form almost pure secondary forests,
in some places where native vegetation has been cleared for crops.
A relative of anthuriums and philodendrons, Syngonium podophyllum was introduced
from Mexico to some of the West Indies, long time ago. It displaces some native
epiphytes, robbing them of space to live. Trujillo Alto, east-central Puerto Rico.
Water hyacinths, Eichornia crassipes. Beef Island, Tortola, British Virgin Islands.
This tropical South American plant clogs up waterways in places where it has been introduced
and where it has no natural predators.
New Guinean flatworm, Platydemus manokwari. Cambalache State Forest, northern Puerto Rico.
This species has been introduced to much of the world, where it presents a threat to many native land snails and other small invertebrates.
African giant tree snail, Lissachatina fulica. Gros Islet, north-western Saint Lucia, Lesser Antilles.
Introduced into many parts of the World, this nuisance can seriously damage ecosystems where it does not belong.
Vietnamese giant centipedes, Scolopendra subspinipes, exhibiting mating behavior. Windsor, north-central Jamaica.
This species is today found throughout tropical countries of the World.
Checkered swallowtail, Papilio demoleus.
First photograph: La Pitahaya, south-western Puerto Rico.
Second photograph: Cartagena Lagoon Nature Reserve, south-western Puerto Rico.
This citrus pest has been exported all over the tropics from its original southern Asia.
Honeybees, Apis mellifera. Camp Santiago, south-eastern Puerto Rico.
This species is exotic in the Americas, and wild populations often interfere with the lives of the local fauna.
Giant toad, Rhinella marina, female, tadpoles and juveniles. Guanica State Forest, south-western Puerto Rico.
The name is appropriate: this is the largest living toad, and one of the few amphibians believed to have caused damage
to other amphibians and reptiles after its introduction outside its native range in South and Central America.
Its tadpoles and toadlets compete by the thousands for temporary pools used by the native and highly endangered Puerto Rican toad, Peltorphryne lemur.
Common scinax, Scinax rubra, male. Toa Alta, north-eastern Puerto Rico. This is another frog introduced to Puerto Rico.
house geckoes, Hemidactylus
First photograph, male. Trujillo Alto, east-central Puerto Rico.
Second photograph, female. Santo Domingo, southern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.
Long established in some of the Lesser Antilles through the slave trade of centuries past,
this formerly common species has been displaced by its also exotic congener, (below).
Tropical house geckoes, Hemidactylus mabouia.
First photograph, male. San Juan, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
Second photograph, female. Guanica State Forest, south-western Puerto Rico.
This is another species introduced from Africa through the slave trade.
Flowerpot blindsnakes, Indotyphlops braminus. Barrenspot, central Saint Croix, United States Virgin Islands.
This species has been widely introduced around the world through agricultural products.
Its success as a colonizer is due in part to its parthenogenic reproduction:
entire species is composed of females that reproduce
Central American boa constrictor, Boa constrictor imperator.
From a feral population stemming from the illegal pet trade, western Puerto Rico.
Red-eared slider, Trachemys scripta elegans, male. San Juan Botanical Garden, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
Exotic turtles like this one, set loose on local ponds, regularly spread to other areas and threaten native turtles by competition and hybridization.
Even among the Antilles themselves, organisms are sometimes moved from one island to another with the unwitting help of man.
This mating pair of common Puerto Rican anoles, Anolis cristatellus cristatellus, was photographed near Roseau, south-western Dominica, Lesser Antilles.
Saffron finch, Sicalis flaveola., male Fort Buchanan, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
A South American species introduced into the West Indies through un-checked pet trade.
Blue macaws, Ara ararauna. From feral population in San Juan, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Alfredo Colon Archilla).
Monk parakeets, Myiopsitta monachus. San Juan, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
Widely introduced around the World, this neotropical parrot is the only member of its order to build a nest of sticks.
House sparrow, Passer domesticus. Coral Bay, south-eastern Saint John, United States Virgin Islands.
Introduced widely across the Americas.
Nutmeg mannikins, Lonchura punctulata. Carolina, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
This estrildid finch was introduced to the West Indies
through the pet trade, originally from India.
Bronze mannikins, Lonchura cucullata. Florida, central Puerto Rico.
Introduced into some Caribbean island from Africa.
Pin-tailed widah, Vidua macroura, male in breeding plumage and female. Carolina, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
Another estrildid finch introduced to some of the Antilles through the pet trade, this is a nest-parasite of other birds.
Orange bishop, Euplectes franciscanus, male and female in breeding plumages
Cartagena Lagoon National Wildlife Refuge, south-western Puerto Rico.
An African emberizid finch introduced to the West Indies.
Muscovy duck, Cairina moschata. Fort Buchanan, Guaynabo, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
A continental neotropical species now living feral in many of the West Indies.
Streptopelia decaocto, an Asiatic dove
introduced into some of the West Indies.
Camp Santiago, south-eastern Puerto Rico.
Feral Guinea hen, Numida meleagris. Virgin Islands National Park, Saint John, United States Virgin Islands.
Canary-winged parakeets, Brotogeris versicolurus. Fort Buchanan, Guaynabo, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
The most successful psittacine to be introduced in Puerto Rico, it and other exotic parrots
now breeding there in the wild pose a potential threat of disease and competition for habitat
on regards to the highly endangered Puerto Rican parrot.
A flock of monk parakeet, Myopsitta monachus, in Fort Buchanan, Guaynabo, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
Another psittacine introduced into the island from South America.
Known by many only as the cute little hero in Rudyard Kipling's Rikki Tikki Tavi, the Indian mongoose, Herpestes javanicus, was introduced into the West Indies by the British, Spaniards, and Danes, in order to control rats and mice that prey on man's agricultural crops. Not only was that a complete failure, but also this early, well-meaning attempt at biological pest control turned out to be a mistake of the first magnitude. There is nothing cute about the way this obnoxious vermin has driven several species of native West Indian
birds, reptiles, and mammals into extinction. The mongoose may have caused more direct damage to its victims in this region than all other exotic predators combined.
This is a male, photographed at Cinnamon Bay Campground, Virgin Islands National Park, Saint John, United States Virgin Islands.
What is perhaps the first foreign mammal that arrived in the West Indies from Europe: Rattus rattus. Cueva de la 22, Cabo Rojo, south-western Puerto Rico.
The Yellowstone United States National Park has its marauding bears. The Virgin Islands United States National Park has its marauding burros (Equus asinus). Feral donkeys like these ones photographed at Coral Harbor Pond, south-eastern Saint John, United States Virgin Islands, get so used to humans as to actually become dangerous. Besides eating native vegetation, they raid camping areas and may bite and kick people who get too close to them. At least the bears are native to Yellowstone, but donkeys are nothing but artificially introduced pests that do not belong in a Caribbean national park.
Herds of feral goats (Capra aegagrus) like these ones in Nevis, Lesser Antilles, roam freely in many of the Antilles. In some coastal areas, windswept and naturally
dry, they eat everything but the most toxic plants, which then become unnaturally dominant in their environment. The resulting vegetative association is
known as "goat scrub", another instance of desertification caused, if only indirectly, by man. Beside goats, there are feral sheep, pigs,
deer, horses, dogs, cats, and monkeys running wild in many areas of the West Indies, spelling woes to the native fauna and flora.
feral cat, Felis sylvestris. Near Marigot,
north-western Saint Martin, Lesser Antilles
Feral pig, Sus scrofa. Virgin Islands National Park, Saint John, United States Virgin Islands.
The vervet monkey, Chlorocebus pygerythrus, was introduced to some of the Lesser Antilles a few centuries ago.
It is one
of the worst pests in the Caribbean.
Sad reminder of bygone era: a lone tree fern, Cyathea arborea, growing on the slopes of Mount Sage.
Sage Mountain National Park, west-central Tortola, British Virgin Islands.
Only a few dozen of such formerly abundant plants remain in the island, mostly (and fortunately) within the confines this protected area.
The ongoing deforestation and habitat degradation of the West Indies still represents the greatest threat to the survival of many of their native organisms.
A lone Caribbean flamingo, Phoenicopterus ruber (juvenile and same individual two years later) wades through a swamp in Puerto Rico.
Formerly, thousands of these birds formed great flocks in the island. Hunters and habitat destruction
wiped them out until now only occasional stragglers from Hispaniola, like this one, visit every few years.
Even these are often harassed by modern hunters in search of a special "trophy".