Animals

Trinidad's Dazzling National Bird Is Served Up as Bush Meat

The government has increased poaching fines a hundredfold to protect the scarlet ibis from its own citizens.Tuesday, August 7, 2018

By Rene Ebersole

“What would you like to know about the scarlet ibis?” Kenny Rattan asked as he stepped out of a black hatchback.

First of all, I was curious: What does the national bird of Trinidad taste like?

Rattan spent 31 days in prison for knowing the answer to that question. In 2013 the oysterman was caught with 18 scarlet ibis carcasses in a knapsack. “It taste good—real, real, real good,” he answered, speaking in the fast cadence of a thick Caribbean accent. “The meat’s sweet. If you taste it, you will like it.”

Rattan had agreed to meet me on a dirt road in the middle of an abandoned sugarcane plantation so we could talk privately about his days poaching ibises in nearby Caroni Swamp, where thousands of the birds feed, nest, and roost. Those days are in the past for him, Rattan said. “I learned my lesson. Now I tell people: Don’t do it. I want to protect them. I stopped hunting because I want my grandchildren to see them.”

It was legal to hunt the scarlet ibis until 1962, when the bird was chosen to be featured on Trinidad and Tobago’s coat of arms as the symbol for Trinidad. (Tobago’s bird is the rufous-vented chachalaca, known locally as the cocrico.) This special status, combined with the ibis’s role as one of the region’s biggest tourist attractions, marks it not only as a national treasure but also as an international phenomenon.

I was awestruck when I first saw scarlet ibises about a decade ago on a boat tour of the Caroni Swamp. For more than an hour I watched as hundreds of the fiery birds arrowed beneath a glowing full moon toward a cluster of mangroves where they routinely roost. Their bright red colour, derived from eating crabs that are rich in carotenoids, contrasted so starkly with the green of the mangroves that it was easy to see why some people say these birds look like ornaments hung on Christmas trees.

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Today the Caroni has 8,000 to 30,000 scarlet ibises, according to local estimates, out of a total population of 100,000 to 150,000 throughout their range in South America and the Caribbean. With such numbers, they aren’t considered endangered, but environmental authorities and wildlife advocates in Trinidad are concerned about various threats: habitat destruction, pollution, boat traffic (which disturbs the skittish birds while they’re feeding and nesting), as well as poaching.

Among the 1.37 million people of Trinidad and Tobago, some still consider the bird a delicacy and an aphrodisiac—something to eat in secret. The root of the taste for the scarlet ibis comes from a cultural heritage of eating wild meat—bush meat—typically simmered in curry spices. Many Trinidadians prefer wild game (not always obtained legally) to domestic chicken, pork, or beef—especially during Christmastime and carnivals, when dancers in sequins, spandex, and elaborate feathered headdresses revel in the streets.

The deep-rooted desire to eat bush meat is what makes controlling poaching so challenging, Minister of Agriculture Clarence Rambharat explained. “Hunting is so entrenched culturally that if you go to a function and they have wild meat, everyone gravitates to it. Even the churches serve wild meat in game season.”

Small-time ibis hunters kill a handful for supper. (Rattan said it takes at least three to five birds to make a decent curry.) Big leaguers slaughter the birds en masse and sell them in sets of three for about $15. “One guy come in here and shoot 300, 400,” Rattan said. Some poachers are everyday fishermen and crabbers, he continued, but others are influential people. “Big guys,” he said. “I know customs officials coming in here and doing it.”

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Rambharat often hears such stories. “People in the surrounding communities have always said that well-known people—including law enforcement officers—poach, buy, and consume meat,” he said. “I do not believe it’s just a rumour.”

To help stop the poaching, last month Trinidad declared the scarlet ibis to be an environmentally sensitive species, a decision that followed persistent petitioning by Rambharat. In a stroke, the fine for killing an ibis increased by 100 percent, to $100,000 (nearly £12,000), which is about the same as the average salary in Trinidad, plus two years in prison.

“The fines are meant to be a deterrent,” Rambharat said. “They don’t need the ibis for food, so there’s no reason to hunt it.”

The new designation also increases the likelihood that some portion of the roughly 14,000-acre Caroni Swamp, already recognised as an internationally important wetland, will be declared an environmentally sensitive area, making it off-limits to hunting and fishing without a permit. (At present, only 4,000 acres in the swamp are classified as prohibited.)

“I think there are more people who want to see the scarlet ibis protected than there are people who see the scarlet ibis as a delicacy,” Nadra Nathai-Gyan, who chairs the board of the Environmental Management Authority, told me. “It took us a while to get here, but people want to champion this species.”

TROUBLED WATERS

Only 16 game wardens patrol all of Trinidad’s 1,800 square miles, and no more than three wardens are assigned to the Caroni Swamp at any time. In recent years more than a hundred honorary wardens—ordinary citizens who receive a small daily stipend and are authorised to make arrests—have also done independent patrols in wildlife areas. Some carry registered weapons. The program ended this year, but Rambharat said it’s being reinstated and that recruitment is under way.

Vast, sheltered, and bordered by the Gulf of Paria and Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago’s capital, the Caroni Swamp is both a nature lover’s paradise and an ideal place to commit a crime. Political unrest and food shortages in Venezuela only 10 watery miles away have created a lawless coastal area where desperate Venezuelans—struggling amid their country’s soaring inflation—come to Trinidad to find staples such as pasta, nappies, and toilet paper. Criminals dodge armed Trinidadian coast guard patrols to traffic guns and drugs, force girls into prostitution, and illegally sell animals into the lucrative pet trade.

Weighing no more than three pounds, a single scarlet ibis doesn’t put much meat in the cook pot. Poachers say it takes at least a handful of the birds to make a respectable curry. The birds’ crab-rich diet accounts for their color, as well as their sweet taste, hunters say.

With such high stakes, so many murders and kidnappings have stricken the semi-enclosed sea between the east coast of Venezuela and Trinidad that a local newspaper called it the “Gulf of No Return.”

Fishermen are especially vulnerable to pirates. According to news reports, in May 2015 a Caroni Swamp tour guide named Shawn Madoo and his friend Vishal Ramlochan were kidnapped while fishing. Follow-up coverage indicated that no one had heard from the men since their disappearance. Months later pirates intercepted another Trinidadian fishing vessel, shooting one man dead and critically wounding another. The report stated that three survivors escaped by diving into the sea. Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Jonathan Franklin, who went for a boat ride with some Trinidadian fishermen in August 2016, wrote about a leader of a local fishing cooperative who said he’d been kidnapped four times.

Meanwhile smugglers use the Caroni as a gateway between the gulf and the capital, and ibis poachers skulk in the shadows of the swamp’s arching mangroves. Near the small town of Felicity, at its southeastern end where hundreds of ibises feed, poaching them can be as easy as picking dandelions in a meadow.

A common method is to lure the birds in with a piece of red fabric, displayed to give the illusion of another ibis feeding. When they come down to investigate the red patch, they get snagged in a net. One poacher in Felicity, who asked not to be named, told me he kills the ibises “by clubbing them on the head.”

In May I had a chance to see the scarlet ibis spectacle again, this time from the seat of a flat-bottomed motorboat with game wardens Nicholas Leith, 58, and Richard Romlogan, 49, along with two coast guard sailors armed with assault rifles and other weapons. They were patrolling for traffickers, pirates, and poachers.

The wardens, outfitted with bulletproof vests and firearms, keep watch over the Caroni Swamp and large swaths of land in the central part of the country where forest animals are also poached. Leith said that two months earlier, a fellow warden named Rajiv Harrinarine asked to be transferred to another part of the country. “He said the Caroni Swamp is a dangerous place and he feared for his life. A lot of people won’t let their children take this job. They don’t want to lose them. Thankfully no one has been killed yet.”

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Leith, a big man wearing a fisherman’s hat, gestured at the 12-gauge shotgun cradled in his lap. “At close range it will blow your head off,” he said. Romlogan nodded, adding that the guns are vital for their security—even more so now with the scarlet ibis’s new status and the higher fines. The protections will likely deter some poachers, he said, but there will always be people who want to eat the bird—and that makes the job more dangerous. “If you got the ibis and you now know it’s a $100,000 fine, what you gonna do?” he said. “Shoot.”

Waves lapped the boat as we tied up to a post at the edge of the mangroves to watch ibises arriving at their roost. A flock of migratory flamingos, recent seasonal visitors to the swamp, flew in a circle overhead and settled in the mudflats just below the ibises. “Look at all of them,” Leith said. “They’re like sitting ducks. Someone could just come in here and shoot them. That’s what we don’t want.”

Romlogan and Leith have been working in the Caroni Swamp off and on for most of their 18 years as wardens. They say they know of ibis poaching cases that were dropped because expert testimony was blocked or evidence was tampered with.

The first time in the country’s history someone was convicted for hunting scarlet ibises was 2010, following the arrest, in December 2007, of five Trinidadians and one American tourist caught with a handful of skinned ibis carcasses.

“We took them to court, and we won the case!” Romlogan said. “The Trinidadians were fined $750. The American was reprimanded and discharged.”

After the verdict, the senior warden in the case, Samsundar Ramdeen, now retired, told the local paper that the penalties for killing ibises—then ranging from a hundred dollars to a thousand dollars—should be stiffer. “The hunters know full well it’s illegal to hunt the scarlet ibis,” he said. “We need to be more serious about protecting our wildlife and its habitat.”

“STEALING FROM THE COUNTRY’S TREASURE”

Former poacher Kenny Rattan’s solid month in prison was the harshest penalty yet for ibis poaching. A 15-year-old cousin who was arrested with him was released without charges. Another cousin, Russel Joe Pancham, fled before he could be arrested.

Rattan testified that the ibises were Pancham’s, not his. But the judge, Bramanand Dubay, was unsympathetic. “This is an offense against Trinidad and Tobago,” Dubay said at the sentencing hearing, according to news reports. “The scarlet ibis is our national bird. If everybody go to hunt down scarlet ibis, what our children and grandchildren going to see? What you are doing is stealing from the country’s treasure.”

Eventually the wardens caught up with Pancham. Romlogan said they apprehended him on 18 charges of ibis hunting and one charge of escaping arrest and that he was fined $2,500. When I asked why there was such a discrepancy between Rattan’s and Pancham’s punishments, Romlogan replied that Pancham had a good lawyer.

Romlogan is still chasing Pancham for allegedly poaching ibises. “Last year I got 40 police from another area and 10 search warrants,” he said. “But we think someone sold us out. They told Russel we were coming.”

Another scarlet ibis case is currently winding its way through the courts. One night in August 2017, Romlogan, Leith, and Harrinarine were on patrol when they saw a boat with three men coming toward them. “They were within the prohibited area, so we decided to pursue them,” Leith recounted. “We told them to stop. They refused and accelerated. We turned and started following them. Our boat was much faster than theirs, and we caught up with them on the Blue River. While we were in pursuit, we saw them throw something—we think it was a gun.”

When the wardens searched the boat, they found a bag of scarlet ibis parts. The men were arrested for possession of the birds and for being in a prohibited area without a permit. “We don’t give second chances for scarlet ibis,” Leith said. “These people, we know they’ll use any trick to evade capture and prosecution.”

The arrested men, ranging in age from 18 to 35, pleaded not guilty. The hearings, previously scheduled in May, are now set for September. Related court documents are sealed, and the alleged poachers have not made statements about the charges they face.

The wardens say that if they’re called as witnesses in the court proceedings, they’ll likely testify that the men tried to bribe them. “They offered us $50,000 each if we let them go—$50,000 for me, $50,000 for him,” Romlogan said, pointing to Leith. He continued, “Fifty thousand dollars for the next officer and $50,000 for the boat driver. One of the guys’ dads is a big boy,” by which he meant a suspected drug dealer.

When Clarence Rambharat heard about this incident, he raced to the dock to meet the wardens escorting the alleged criminals out of the swamp. He wanted photographs of the evidence: a fishing boat scattered with red feathers and dismembered scarlet ibis parts, including a head with the bird’s characteristic long, curved beak. That night he posted the photos on Facebook with the announcement that the poachers had been arrested after a short chase in the Caroni Swamp’s prohibited area.

Rambharat’s objective was to use the evidence to gain support for his campaign to list the scarlet ibis as an environmentally sensitive species. “I could overlook a lot of things,” he told me. “But not the national bird.”

His move had the desired effect: The public was outraged. “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 is just the tip of the iceberg,” read an August editorial in the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday. “People high and low are accused of this outrageous practice.”

And yet the courts rarely deliver a maximum penalty for wildlife crimes like scarlet ibis poaching. Rambharat believes that’s partly because such offenses seem trivial in the mix of cases before the judiciary. “In Trinidad there’s a murder every six hours. Ninety percent are drugs related.”

Beyond that, he suspects that law enforcement is complicit in some of the poaching. “This is not an office environment,” he said. “The wardens have endless opportunity to turn a blind eye or accept a bribe.” And if he can’t trust the wardens, Rambharat said, he definitely can’t trust the forestry division—the agency under his direction that’s charged with sustainably conserving the country’s forests and natural resources. According to Rambharat, one reason live animals seized in wildlife crime cases are now held at the zoo is because informants inside the forestry division said that officers were hawking animals to pet traders. “There were times when we were told the animals died,” he said. “But we believe those animals were sold.”

Narine Gupte Lutchmedial is the president of the zoological society. He said the issue is widely known, and that part of the problem is “when forestry officers give a warning to people caught poaching, they can seize the animals and dispose of them however they want. This is something that needs to change,” he continued. “Everyone caught with animals should have to face the court, and seized animals should always come to the zoo where we can make sure they are accounted for, properly cared for, and if possible release them back into the wild.”

BELLWETHER BIRD

In addition to the scarlet ibis, 10 other animals in the country are listed as environmentally sensitive species. They include five species of sea turtles, the ocelot (Trinidad’s only big cat), the golden treefrog, the manatee, the white-tailed sabrewing hummingbird, and the Trinidad piping guan, a black-and-white turkey-like endemic bird known locally as the pawi.

The Environmental Management Authority’s Nadra Nathai-Gyan cites the leatherback sea turtle, added in 2014, as a prime example of how the designation can help. “Prior to the listing, you had great community involvement with tourist groups taking people to see the turtles, but you still had—I don’t want to use the word ‘idiots’—persons who despite all of those tremendous efforts would still engage in undesirable behaviours. For example, being on the back of turtles, taking eggs, wanting to touch the hatchlings, hacking off a fin.”

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The more stringent penalties made people stop and think, she continued. “Where before they could have done that and gotten away with a small fine, they now realise that the likelihood of being found out is greater, especially with social media. And if they are, the penalties are serious business.”

Clarence Rambharat said he might petition the government to designate other animals as environmentally sensitive species. The red howler monkey is one candidate. Named for its roar, which can be heard for miles, the monkey is one of the country’s most charismatic species. Like the scarlet ibis, the red howler isn’t endangered, and hunting the monkeys is illegal. But they’re being poached for food and for the pet trade, particularly in the Cats Hill area near Rio Claro, in the southeastern part of the country where Rambharat grew up. “In these communities they don’t have KFC,” Rambharat said. “They go hunting, and they eat whatever they get.”

In March 2018 Kriyaan Singh, a veterinarian and former Trinidad and Tobago senator, tagged Rambharat on a Facebook post to draw his attention to someone slaughtering monkeys. He didn’t divulge publicly how he got the evidence, but Singh said he’d received several photos of poachers killing red howler monkeys and capuchins—“skinning them, killing babies, beheading them, and cooking them”—and that the photographs were so gruesome he wouldn’t post them.

Like scarlet ibises, red howler monkeys aren’t endangered, but they are frequently poached from Trinidad’s forests. In the future, wildlife authorities may consider adding howler monkeys and other animals to the environmentally sensitive species list.

Rambharat couldn’t say more about the incident because it’s under investigation, but he thinks bigger fines and the threat of serious prison time would discourage illegal killings.

What more stringent legal protections and penalties can’t do, however, is provide resources for better law enforcement, according to Molly Gaskin, president of the Pointe-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust, a local nonprofit that runs a scarlet ibis captive-breeding program and offers educational tours on a lake property owned by an oil refinery.

In a letter to the Environmental Management Authority during the open comment period preceding the scarlet ibis’s listing, Gaskin wrote, “The lack of adequate, carefully selected and appointed game wardens and environmental officers, the protection of their natural habitats, including their principal habitat, the Caroni Wetlands, together with a lack of equipment, adequate human and financial resources, must be addressed.” She continued, “These are minimal requirements for the success of this proposed designation.”

Something as simple as finding a place to safely store a patrol boat can derail wardens’ efforts to monitor an area. “Everything we leave in the Caroni gets stolen,” Richard Romlogan told me. Sure enough, two days after I left Trinidad, he texted: “Bandits stole our boat motor.”

Tonight, as they’ve always done, thousands of crimson-coloured birds will glide to their roosts in the Caroni Swamp. Now anyone who goes into the swamp to shoot those birds risks prison time and a fine worth more than an average salary in Trinidad. But with pirates and drug runners preoccupying the coast guard, wardens in short supply, and patrol boat motors that may go missing, will anyone be there to arrest them?

Rene Ebersole writes about science and the environment for many publications, including Audubon, Popular Science, Outside, and The Nation. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org . Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.
This story was originally published on NationalGeographic.com in English