By RUPERT MISSICK Jr
THE Bahamas National Trust hopes to retrieve 13 critically endangered iguanas smuggled out of the country and into England by two Romanian tourists yesterday.
Eric Carey, Executive Director of Bahamas National Trust, told The Tribune he hopes the incident, which has attracted international attention, will be the push the government needs to establish the San Salvador National Park, which he hopes will be the first step in preserving such critically vulnerable species as the San Salvador Rock Iguana.
The two women, who had the animals stuffed into socks and concealed in a suitcase, were stopped at London Heathrow’s Terminal 5 by UK customs officers.
Officials believe the Romanians were attempting to smuggle the iguanas into Dusseldorf, Germany.
Tragically, only 12 of the iguanas are still alive as one died during the journey. The two women, ages 24 and 26, were arrested on suspicion of importation offences.
With only a few hundred of these creatures native to The Bahamas in existence, the San Salvador Rock Iguana is considered extremely rare and is near extinction. All Rock iguanas in The Bahamas are protected by the Wild Animals Protection Act.
After being informed of the incident by The Tribune yesterday, Mr Carey said that the BNT would contact the Ministry of Environment who is responsible for the enforcement of the Wild Animals (Protection Act) and alert Dr Maurice Isaacs from the Department of Agriculture who manages the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
“The questions is: What was their route of departure out of the Bahamas? (If they) went through Nassau to Heathrow via British Airways direct from Nassau, then there is no interaction with Bahamas Customs. As far as I am aware, in this scenario, they would be processed by airline personnel, and airport Security,” Mr Carey said.
The Tribune tried to contact Milo Butler III, director of the Airport Authority. However, he was unavailable up to press time.
This incident highlights one of the biggest issues facing the BNT. With a lack of resources and a shortage of personnel the organization finds it extremely challenging to effectively police the wide areas of protected land in The Bahamas.
“The enforcement of any wildlife laws are difficult – whether inside or outside of national parks,” Mr Carey said. “As an example, our recently completed management plan for the Andros West Side National Park prescribes that we need 17–20 persons to effectively manage this park alone. We currently have one full time park warden dedicated to this important system. And yes, there are iguanas there.”
Subspecies of Rock iguanas are found on Andros, San Salvador, Acklins, Mayaguana and in the Exuma Cays. Mr Carey said that the removal of even one of these animals from this dwindling population is of grave concern.
Generally, however, Bahamian officials don’t usually see this kind of brazen disregard for its wildlife laws by visitors. The damage caused by tourists wandering off trails in national parks, stepping on or breaking coral are caused by careless practices, which could be curbed by educating tour guides and tour operators.
However, Mr Carey said that the BNT is aware that there is also broad scale abuse of fishing regulations by visiting sports fishermen from the US, but those who advance to the stage of smuggling these endangered species are believed to be very few.
“Smugglers are a different category of visitor altogether. They are expert at what they do and are very well prepared. They research the locations of the animals or plants they are targeting, get to understand the enforcement capacity or deficiency and are well prepared to carry out their actions,” Mr Carey said.
With respect to the San Salvador Rock Iguana, the BNT is hoping that this incident will serve as an impetus for the government to create the long awaited San Salvador National Park that will place most of the habitat for these endangered animals under the management of the BNT.
If the country is able to secure the return of the iguanas, BNT officials hope they will be excellent specimens for the captive breeding programme at the Gerace Research Centre on San Salvador.
However, Mr Carey doubts that the animals will ever be returned to the wild.
“Biologists are often loathe to return them to the wild as there is the risk of disease introduction. But maybe with proper quarantine they may be able to be returned to the population under the strict supervision of such iguana scientists as Sandra Buckner or Dr William Hayes,” he said.