Apr
01
2010

St. Lucia Ecotourism (w/ Video)

The tiny green paradise of St. Lucia holds a diverse bounty of bio zones. Learn about five uniquely beautiful St. Lucia sites that are making an eco-difference—and how you can experience them

Every spring on the spectacular remote stretch of St. Lucia’s northeast coast known as Louvet, leatherback turtles congregate to lay eggs, spawning the next generation for life at sea. A couple dozen volunteers have gathered to collect what’s washed ashore, clogging the beach with modern society’s detritus—a death sentence for these denizens of the deep.

For Donald Anthony, St. Lucia’s former chief wildlife officer and a participant in this outing, collecting trash is an innate, visceral reaction to protect the island nation’s epic flora and fauna.

“Whenever I come back to St. Lucia from a trip abroad and see the lushness and the sea, it almost makes me cry,” Anthony says before scanning the sand again.

At just 383 square kilometres, St. Lucia is barely a pinprick of volcanic geology in the Caribbean Sea. But the island is astonishingly diverse, spanning six complete bio zones.

These zones range from cloud forests clinging to the precipitous Gros and Petit pitons, to the steamy swamps and lowland jungles that border the satin beaches of Louvet. Constricting geography, coupled with a burgeoning tourism economy, which in 2008 grew by another estimated 2,000 hotel beds, means environmental conservation is also good business.

For a biologist like Anthony, Louvet is a wild Caribbean idyll. Beyond the fringe of coconut trees that lines the beach, waterways meander among bay leaf and mango trees where a careful eye might spot the large St. Lucia iguana.

In 2008, a property development firm purchased this paradise, which means a glossy resort with infinity pools and manicured golf greens is on its way. But if the following victories are any indication, St. Lucia’s stewards are not going away without a fight.

The Jacquot Parrot

Around 1975, the endemic crimson, yellow and green-hued Jacquot parrot was flying toward extinction. Deforestation and hunting decimated the population to just around 100.

Today, about 1,000 parrots live in the island’s rainforest canopies, and the national effort to restore them is a conservation effort that has spawned public education, captive breeding and habitat protection.

“The St. Lucia parrot is a real success story. The country definitely deserves the recognition it gets for parrot conservation,” says Matthew Morton, East Caribbean manager for the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

To eliminate hunting, the government named the parrot the national bird, effectively making harming one an act of treason, and commissioned the writing of a song to celebrate the Jacquot. These days, killing one can net the offender a $5,000 fine and a year in jail.

Experience It: Hike the Millet Bird Sanctuary Trail and other forest reserves by arranging a tour through the St. Lucia Forestry Department.

The Coral Reefs of Soufriere

St. Lucia’s tropical coral reefs are a bright, bold and little-understood ecosystem that would shame a Pixar animator. Yellow and black-striped sergeant majors swim alongside incandescent blue parrotfish, while below, a green moray eel slithers among the tangerine-coloured branches of gorgonian sea fans.

Not surprisingly, reefs are to the sea what rainforests are to the land—a repository of life that sustains everything from delicate algae growth to the predatory patrols of barracudas.

And 90 per cent of St. Lucia’s coral reefs are threatened by the juggernaut of human activity. Conservation recently won a key battle near the town of Soufriere, where fishing, diving, boating and pollution was killing habitat.

The St. Lucia National Trust, a non-governmental organization dedicated to preserving natural and cultural heritage, launched the Soufriere Marine Management Association to stop the degradation about 15 years ago.

The initiative is a clinic for managed marine co-existence. Anchorage is restricted, tourist companies pay to dive, the reefs are patrolled and human pollution is monitored.

Experience It: Take a snorkel tour of the Soufriere Marine Reserve coral reefs with
Scuba Steve, with four trips starting at US$50.

The High Rainforest

Walking through the flickering shadows of a St. Lucian rainforest is a stroll through an Emily Carr canvas. Here, green is not a single colour, but many, bleeding into one another in a spectrum of combinations.

Long ago, the leaders of St. Lucia realized rigorous protection of the mountainous uplands was key to safeguarding precious freshwater.

Consequently, today some 9,300 hectares of forest have been saved from logging or land-clearing for agriculture, not only protecting watersheds, but also endemic wildlife like the St. Lucia muskrat.

The Edmund Forest Reserve, which saddles the highlands above the village of Fond St. Jacque, is home to the Jacquot parrot, Lesser Antillean crested hummingbird and the mangrove cuckoo bird. Here they flit among the shadows and branches of mountain cabbage palm, giant tree ferns, mahogany and Caribbean pine.

Morton, of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, lauds St. Lucia’s track record on protecting upland forests and now hopes to see similar defence for lowland areas, the lowest-hanging fruit for real estate development.

Experience It: Jungle Tours offers rainforest hikes starting at US$95, including a buffet lunch.

Accessible Local Culture

Travellers who tire of hanging out with the cruise-ship herd at the waterfront market in Castries can get a unique and authentic perspective on St. Lucia if they know where to look. Lushan Country Life is a homegrown operation that invites visitors onto the Anthony family’s property in the undulating hills above Castries.

“This is the land that I grew up on,” says biologist Donald Anthony, as he cracks open a coconut and sips the nectar in the shade of the garden.

His family has transformed their estate into a living and breathing exhibit of flora and fauna, home to 30 species of birds and trees, like white cedar and mahogany, long used by locals for boat-building and furniture-making. It was Anthony and his brother’s love of St. Lucia’s natural bounty and history, coupled with a strategic location close to the cruise ship terminal in Castries, that propelled the estate’s opening three years ago.

Interpretive trails meander through the forest, with medicinal and herbal gardens redolent of turmeric, cinnamon and ginger.

Along the way, you can slake your thirst with succulent guava, golden apple or starfruit. The property also provides a glimpse of life prior to European contact: the “Kai Pye” is a traditional Amerindian hut furnished with similar tools and utensils used by the indigenous Carib people.

Experience It: Get back to the land with Lushan Country Life.

The Leatherback Turtles of Grande Anse Beach

The life of the leatherback turtles that nest on St. Lucia’s beaches is a cat-and-mouse game of survival. Guess who the cat is?

Every two to three years, female turtles would head towards the soft sands of Grande Anse Beach on St. Lucia’s northeast coast to lay eggs. And here’s where their trouble began.

The oblivious onlookers who can frighten new mothers away from their offspring paled in comparison to the poachers looking for turtle meat and eggs, or to cash in on the moronic tale that turtle penis harbours aphrodisiacal powers. And those were just the non-motorized threats. Habitat sand has also been mined from nursery beaches for the construction industry and to create artificial resort beaches.

About 20 years ago, residents of nearby Des Barras, as well as proactive environmentalists, fought back with the
Des Barras Sea Turtle Watch Project, a joint venture between the St. Lucia National Trust and the government. It's a testament to the belief that conservation works best when local livelihood is tied to it.

Today, visitors can experience nesting sea turtles from March to August, helped by local guides.

Experience It: Witness nesting sea turtles on Grande Anse Beach with Des Barras Grande Anse Turtle Watch.

VIDEO

Explore the bio diversity of St. Lucia with Admas Toussaint, Assistant Chief Forest Officer, as he explains about the biology of St. Lucia and how the people of St. Lucia worked tirelessly to save the Jacquot parrot.

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Contributors

Andrew Findlay

Andrew Findlay is a freelance writer based in Vancouver Island, BC. His restless spirit has found room to roam in Canada and abroad pursuing stories of adventure, business, ecology, travel and whatever else piques his curiosity.

Chris Bolin

Chris Bolin is a Calgary-based photographer. He has spent more than a decade shooting assignments for a variety of national and international clients in more than 35 countries. Check out chrisbolin.ca.

Comments

Deborah Markle

While flying to Las Vegas I had the chance to review this article and I took away a multitude of notes and contacts. This is an ecological wonder that has my rehabber instincts in full gear. Kudos to the wonderful people living there and cherishing the beauty that surrounds them.

allison_upmagazine

Thanks for your comments, Deborah!

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