By Annette Blackburn
A 1,000-pound amphibian slips from the ocean waves and pauses on the edge of the surf. All is quiet. In the dark of the light of the moon, rain or not, she hauls her heavy body further up the beach. A cluster of people stand motionless and nearly breathless, fearful that the giant sea turtle will sense them and return to the ocean without laying her eggs.
The leatherback turtle (Demochelys coricea) roams the open oceans, feeding on a diet of giant jellyfish. Only a mature female comes ashore and then only to make a nest and lay 60 to 120 eggs, perhaps several times in one season but only every two or three years. All sea turtles are endangered.
Sand mining, construction close to the water, human and other animal and bird predators, destroy habitats, The eggs are a popular aphrodisiac, considered particularly effective if taken from the female before they are laid, obviously killing the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg. Grand Anse beach in St Lucia is one of the most important beaches in the Caribbean for the nesting leatherbacks. From honeymooners to retirees, tourists and St Lucians, all hope for a memorable experience when the sea turtle comes ashore, counting the leathery eggs as they drop, perhaps being able to touch her as she lays, oblivious to all. This wild and beautiful beach is disappearing as more and more sand is removed by truck after truck, busily making a buck selling sand for concrete blocks. If she lays, a turtle will be laying eggs in the water she’ll find just below the shallow sand. The eggs won’t hatch, of course.
The fauna and flora of St Lucia is very similar to that on Dominica, the Windwards chain of islands having been colonized by plants and animals originally from South and Central America, with endemic species such as sisserou and jacquot. Rainforest would have covered most of the island prior to European colonization but the most dramatic loss has been in the last 20 years. Much of the remaining forest is protected, mainly for water supply, but also specifically for wildlife in places. There are many orchids and anthurium growing wild in the rain forests, while tropical flowers and flowering trees are found everywhere. To date, 1,179 different species of flowering plants have been documented. There are several endemic reptile species including St Lucia tree lizard, pygmy gecko, Maria Island ground lizard and Maria Island grass snake. The only snake which is dangerous is the Fer de Lance which is restricted to dry scrub woodland on the east coast near Grande Anse and Louvet and also near Anse La Raye and Canaries in the west. The agouti and the manicou are present throughout the island, but rarely seen.
The national bird is the colourful St Lucian parrot (Amazona versicolor), which can be seen in the dense rain forest around Quillesse and Barre de l’Isle. A successful conservation programme established in 1978 probably saved the species from extinction and allowed numbers to rise from 150 birds in 1978 to over 400 by 1994. However, Tropical Storm Debbie blew over the hollow trees they nest in and most St Lucian parrots moved north, although they are increasing again in the Des Cartier Quillesse/Edmond region. Other endemic birds are the St Lucia oriole (endangered), Semper’s warbler (believed extinct) and the St Lucia black finch (endangered). Several other species such as the white breasted thrasher are also rare and endangered. Measures are being taken to protect these birds and their habitats. In the north of the island birdwatching is good at Bois d’Orange swamp, Piton Flor Reserve and Grand Anse; in the west at Edmond Forest Reserve and in the south Eau Piquant Pond, also called Boriel’s.
The transinsular rainforest walk from Mahaut to Soufrière via Fond St Jacques (about two to two and a half hours Mahaut-Fond St Jacques) is good for birdwatching. You need a permit from the Forestry Department. Tours are franchised to tour operators and a guide is certainly useful but organized tours are often noisy and scare the parrots higher into the mountains. Get your own permit from Forestry at Union if you feel confident about finding your own way. There is a good chance of seeing the St Lucian parrot on the Barre de l’Isle rainforest walk, for which a permit is also needed. Only the lower half of the trail is visited by groups, because the upper part has not yet been protected against human erosion. However, it is possible to climb all the way up to Mount La Combe (about two hours from the road) on a path which is not too difficult for hikers. The bird enthusiast is advised to get a permit (EC$25) and organize a private trip in a small party.
In the north of the island, Pigeon Island, Pointe du Cap and Cap Hardy are worth visiting for their landscapes, seabird colonies and interesting xerophytic vegetation, including cactus, thorn scrub et cetera. Union is the site of the Forestry Department headquarters, where there is a nature trail, open to the public, a medicinal garden and a small, well-organized zoo. The Forestry Department also organizes hiking across the island (franchized to several local tour operators, twice a week, with pickup from your hotel) through rainforest and mature mahogany, Caribbean pine and blue mahoe plantations which will give you the best chance of seeing the St Lucia parrot, as well as other rainforest birds: thrashers, vireos, hummingbirds, flycatchers et cetera. Contact Adams Toussaint, T4502231 ext 306 or 4502078, who is in charge of all Forestry Department tours. Wear good shoes and expect to get wet and muddy. Camping in the rainforest is now possible. Hike the nearly 10-mile forest trail from Barre de l’Isle to Quillesse; overnight in a forest house or camp in a tent. Recommended for the physically fit and experienced hikers. A new trail has been opened up in the Edmond Forest Reserve: the Enbas Saut Falls trail (below the Falls), moderate to strenuous, at the foot of Mount Gimie, with a combination of rainforest, cloud forest and elfin woodlands.
The isolated east coast beaches are rarely visited and have exceptional wildlife. Leatherbacks and other turtles nest at Grand Anse and Anse Louvet and the Fisheries Department/Naturalists Society organize nocturnal vigils to count nesting females and discourage poachers (see box). This area is also the main stronghold of the white-breasted thrasher and St Lucia wren; there are also iguanas (although you will be lucky to see one) and unfortunately the fer de lance snake, although attacks are extremely rare. The bite is not always fatal but requires hospitalization (it is extremely painful). Avoid walking through the bush, especially at night, and wear shoes or boots and long trousers.
La Sorcière and Piton Flor are densely forested mountains in the north with excellent rainforest vegetation. Piton Flor can be walked up in 40 minutes although it is a strenuous climb and you will need to ask how to get to the top, from where there are spectacular views. It is the last recorded location of Semper’s warbler, an endemic bird now probably extinct.
In the south, Cap Moule à Chique has spectacular views and good bird populations. The Maria Islands, just offshore, are home to two endemic reptiles, a colourful lizard and small, rare, harmless snake, the Kouwes snake (see page 40). The National Trust (T4525005/4532479) and Eastern Caribbean Natural Areas Management Programme (ECNAMP) run day trips with a licensed guide. All participants must be capable swimmers. Interpretive facilities are on the mainland at Anse de Sables, where you can arrange boat transport. Unauthorized access is not allowed. Good beach, excellent snorkelling. From 15 May to 31 July public access is not permitted while the birds are nesting. However, you can visit the Fregate Islands Nature Reserve, handed over to the National Trust by the Government in 1989. Frigate birds nest here and the dry forest also harbours the trembler, the St Lucian oriole and the ramier. The reserve includes a section of mangrove and is the natural habitat of the boa constrictor (tête chien). Praslin Island is one of the two islands where the St Lucian whiptail lives. The males, about 18 centimetres long, sport the colours of the national flag. They used to live only on Maria Major Island until being successfully introduced here to prevent annihilation by hurricanes or any other natural disaster. A National Trust day trip with guide, lunch and boat will cost about EC$90.
Some of these areas are very isolated and you are recommended to get in touch with the relevant organizations before attempting to visit them. In 1997 the Tourist Board announced the development of a series of nature trails as part of a nature/heritage tourism programme, after a survey showed nature and the environment was a major reason for holiday makers to visit St Lucia. There will be gentle hikes and strenuous climbs, including a two and a half mile Morne Tabac climb, a ridge hike beginning at Malmaison; the Anse Galet Nature Walk and the eight mile Morne Gimie Climb over four mountain peaks. New nature interpretation centres and national parks are being developed.
The St Lucia Naturalists’ Society meets every month at the Castries Library, Derek Walcott Square and often has interesting talks and slide shows on St Lucia. Visitors welcomed. Details in local press or from Library. The St Lucia National Trust has field trips, usually the last Sunday of the month, popular with locals and tourists of all ages. The National Trust (T4525005) and the Naturalists’ Society (T4522611) offer excursions involving participation in conservation. The (irregular) trips start on weekends around 0700 in front of the Library and cost EC$10. They include visits to waterfalls, beaches, rain and mangrove forests, where you are not allowed entry without a guide or permission from the National Trust or relevant Ministry. Bird watching trips start at 0500. Turtle watching is organized during March-September when Green, Hawksbill and Leatherback turtles come ashore to lay eggs (Saturday, 1700, EC$10, return around 0600, take food, torch, warm clothing, tents supplied, children welcome, contact Jim Sparks, T4528100).