Working to Save and Protect what’s Ours— That’s our CAWS

Scott Johnson, Science Officer with the Bahamas National Trust, shares the work that he and his fellow conservationists are doing to help raise awareness about the issue of wildlife smuggling.

CAWS (Caribbean Against Wildlife Smuggling) logo created by Team Traffic to help raise the profile of the threats to our native wildlife from wildlife smuggling and what everyone can do to help.
CAWS (Caribbean Against Wildlife Smuggling) logo created by Team Traffic to help raise the profile of the threats to our native wildlife from wildlife smuggling and what everyone can do to help.

As a Caribbean native, I can wholeheartedly understand people’s obsession with our region. The lush green vegetation, white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, delicious food, and warm tropical climate are all hallmarks of the Caribbean experience. Every year many people, aka “snowbirds” flock to this region by the millions for a welcome respite from the frozen north.

In addition to “sun, sea and sand,” visitors also enjoy the Caribbean’s abundant wildlife, including the chance to spot spectacular native birds like parrots, trogons and todies, swim with sharks and rays, snorkel on a tropical reef, interact with rock iguanas, and even watch sea turtles laying their eggs in a nest they dig right on the beach. Unfortunately, some people want to do more than just observe the wildlife—they want to take a souvenir home, purchasing wildlife products for fashion, pets, and novel foods. This is causing a serious threat to the long-term survival of many native species.

Hispaniolan Parrot in the Dominican Republic, a species targeted by smugglers. Parrots are captured in the wild as adults and chicks and illegally kept as pets or sold for the pet trade. Nesting trees are usually damaged by poachers so that they cannot be used by parrots in the future—a hole is slashed or the tree is chopped down, and the eggs or chicks are stolen. This is tragic because good nesting trees are in short supply. (Photo by Dax Roman)
Hispaniolan Parrot in the Dominican Republic, a species targeted by smugglers. Parrots are captured in the wild as adults and chicks and illegally kept as pets or sold for the pet trade. Nesting trees are usually damaged by poachers so that they cannot be used by parrots in the future—a hole is slashed or the tree is chopped down, and the eggs or chicks are stolen. This is tragic because good nesting trees are in short supply. (Photo by Dax Roman)

The Caribbean is a virtual treasure trove of biological diversity. In fact, it is one of the most important biological hotspots in the world, home to thousands of endemic plants and animals. For example, 172 species of birds are Caribbean endemics, found no place else on earth. Many of these species are found on only one or two islands in the entire region. The novelty of these species unfortunately makes them key targets for smugglers.

Wildlife smuggling is one of the largest illegal activities in the world, a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. Every year, tens of thousands of animals and animal products are smuggled to places like Asia, the US and other countries to satisfy people’s insatiable appetites for the new and exotic. In Trinidad and Tobago, birds like the Chestnut-bellied Seed Finch and Blue-and-Yellow Macaw are key species targeted by smugglers. In 2011, 74 eggs from both Black-billed Parrots and Yellow-billed Parrots were smuggled out of Jamaica into Austria in rum cake boxes by tourists visiting Jamaica. On the island of Hispaniola, Hispaniolan Parrots have been captured and sold in the wildlife trade and are illegally kept as pets, while a single St. Vincent Parrot is said to be worth $100,000 on the black market.

St. Vincent Parrots, endemic to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in flight. (Photo courtesy of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority)
St. Vincent Parrots, endemic to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in flight. (Photo courtesy of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority)

What’s being done to help curb this threat in the Caribbean?

Kareena Anderson and Laura Baboolal CLiC “Team Traffic” members giving a presentation to enforcement personnel of the Wildlife Section, Trinidad and Tobago. (Photo by Praimchand Anderson)
Kareena Anderson and Laura Baboolal CLiC “Team Traffic” members giving a presentation to enforcement personnel of the Wildlife Section, Trinidad and Tobago. (Photo by Praimchand Anderson)

Law enforcement is an extremely important tool in the battle against wildlife smuggling. Sadly, protection of native wildlife from illegal capture and smuggling has not been a major priority for many Caribbean countries. In addition, many enforcers do not have a well-rounded knowledge about their native species. This is where wildlife sensitization comes in.

For the past two years, the Conservation Leadership in the Caribbean (CLiC) Program of the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been training emerging young conservation professionals from around the Caribbean to tackle wildlife conservation problems in the region. Several of the participants formed a group called Team Traffic, and took on the challenging issue of wildlife smuggling in their home countries, the Bahamas and Trinidad and Tobago. Over the past year they have been assisting in the training of enforcers in each country, giving them the knowledge they need to properly identify animals in their country and put more emphasis on the protection of native wildlife.

Sharleen Khan holding a Blue-and-Yellow Macaw at the Emperor Valley Zoo in Trinidad. This macaw is the zoo’s Animal Ambassador and is part of the zoo’s education program where the macaw is used to  raise awareness of wildlife conservation, specifically conservation of this species in the wild. (Photo courtesy of Emperor Valley Zoo)
Sharleen Khan holding a Blue-and-Yellow Macaw at the Emperor Valley Zoo in Trinidad. This macaw is the zoo’s Animal Ambassador and is part of the zoo’s education program where the macaw is used to raise awareness of wildlife conservation, specifically conservation of this species in the wild. (Photo courtesy of Emperor Valley Zoo)

Team Traffic has also created a Facebook page called CAWS-Caribbean Against Wildlife Smuggling, to help with outreach and education. International transportation companies such as JetBlue are helping to raise awareness through a public education campaign that advises travellers not to carry any wildlife products from countries visited.

In July 2016, The Bahamas hosted the Regional Wildlife Enforcement Workshop which brought together heads of enforcement agencies from across the Caribbean and International organizations such as CITES and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The successful meeting led to the recommendation of the establishment of a Caribbean Wildlife Enforcement Network aimed at improving wildlife enforcement cooperation in the region.

Scott Johnson, CLiC “Team Traffic” member and BNT Science Officer speaks to Bahamian and Turks  and Caicos Islands enforcers on wildlife smuggling during a workshop. (Photo courtesy of Scott Johnson)
Scott Johnson, CLiC “Team Traffic” member and BNT Science Officer speaks to Bahamian and Turks and Caicos Islands enforcers on wildlife smuggling during a workshop. (Photo courtesy of Scott Johnson)

CLiC’s Team Traffic group will continue to work with partners both locally and internationally to educate enforcers on the threats of wildlife smuggling in the region. With all of us working together, we will be a strong force against the ever-present threat of smuggling. Please support our CAWS!

What you can do to help

  • Don’t purchase items such as coral, products made from turtle shells, feathers, or any exotic animal product, as you may be helping to fuel the illegal wildlife trade market.
  • Never buy wild-caught birds.
  • Report the capture and sale of wild birds to the authorities.
  • Plant native trees and shrubs in your yard and support forest reforestation efforts.
  • Enjoy the beauty of the animals in their natural habitat to ensure them for future generations. If everyone puts in a concerted effort to learn about wildlife and wildlife smuggling, our region will be one step closer towards eradicating this illegal activity once and for all.
Trafficked Species Identification Guide developed by Team Traffic in the CLiC program (Conservation Leadership in the Caribbean).
Trafficked Species Identification Guide developed by Team Traffic in the CLiC program (Conservation Leadership in the Caribbean).

Many thanks to Scott Johnson, Kareena Anderson, Laura Baboolal and Sharleen Khan, participants in the Conservation Leadership in the Caribbean (CLiC) Program, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported program. Please follow CAWS on their Facebook page! The issue of wildlife smuggling and how are laws and protected areas help conserve our birds was the theme of our 2016 celebrations of the Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival (CEBF) and International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD). Click here for more information.