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Wednesday 22 May 2019
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Scarlet ibis shame

THERE ARE few birds more emblematic of the fragile balance of our eco-system than the scarlet ibis. Its iconic, brilliant red is the product of its environment. It feeds on fish and red crustaceans and in turn they give the bird its colour. This is an animal that proves you are what you eat.

But the scarlet ibis, while it is one of our two national birds and is designated as a protected species, is under threat. According to State officials and environmental groups, there is an increasing incidence of scarlet ibis poaching.

The recent arrest of three men who are accused of being found in possession of bird parts at the very sanctuary where it is supposed to be safest – the Caroni Bird Sanctuary – is just the tip of the iceberg.

People high and low are accused of this outrageous practice.

In one instance in 2003, even the chairman of a statutory authority was implicated.

A recent Sunday Newsday review has found several challenges facing the management of the habitat of the bird and the enforcement of laws designed to protect it.

These include: not enough game wardens to police the 5,611 hectares of the swampland; lack of resources including equipment, training and bulletproof vests; inadequate coverage of current rules; low fines for ibis poaching; and a dangerous environment for wardens who patrol the area.

Minister of Agriculture Clarence Rambharat’s plans to address these issues are most welcomed.

However, he will face challenges moving forward.

The issue of manpower is one that is not unique to his ministry, but rather the Public Service as a whole. It will be some time before Rambharat is able to raise the current number of wardens from four to 12. It is also unclear how soon Parliament will be able to pass new legislation to refresh the paltry $1,000 fee for ibis poaching. However, yesterday’s announcement of a new designation of the bird as an environmentally sensitive species by the Environmental Management Authority does give us hope that a more substantial penalty of $100,000 will be imposed.

Still, the ministry would do well to also focus on matters it may have better luck with – the provision of support to the existing systems.

That support must involve the necessary tools and facilities.

In the end, though, no matter how much money, time and effort the ministry throws at this problem the root cause will be the same.

The wanton obsession with hunting this bird is a mark of our overall inability to instili proper values in our society. Though not yet endangered, the scarlet ibis is protected for a reason. In spite of the figures being hard to track, there have been suggestions that at this rate of poaching there could one day be a serious problem in terms of the long-term sustainability of the species.

What sort of person relishes in the flesh of this slender animal? And why are we in Trinidad and Tobago so obsessed with this idea of “wild meat?” It is an obsession that leads to cruelty and doing tremendous damage to the environment around us.

The minister is correct in his assessment that this is not just a matter of hunters seeking to survive.

These criminal acts are acts of pure advantage.

Perhaps what is needed is a public education campaign to raise awareness of the sensitive nature of these birds and our dependence on them. We need the scarlet ibis due to its vital place within the ecology of our region.

Additionally, the scarlet ibis is a tourist attraction. It therefore helps bolster our economy. The Ministry of Tourism should have a stake in this matter, as the Caroni Bird Sanctuary is one of our most vital tourist draws.

We need to do a better job when it comes to protecting our national bird. It should always be able to take flight over these islands.

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