Inside Caroni Swamp

Six weeks ago, I had the opportunity to fully immerse myself as a wildlife filmmaker in the wonderment that is the Winston Nanan Caroni Bird Sanctuary, formerly referred to as The Caroni Bird Sanctuary. With special permission granted as part of a collaboration with the Bird Genoscape Project, a team and I travelled deep into the underbelly of Caroni, with the chance to study and document this special place. Spending twelve hours in spots only accessible by the smallest and swiftest flat bottomed boats, you risk getting stuck out there for the night if you don’t time your departure perfectly with the tides.

©Jason-Marc Mohamed

In here, many secrets are still hidden away and this is where I discovered a new love for Caroni. Thousands of crabs dotted the mud floors and the barks of white mangrove trees, with their eyes popping out of holes or from behind branches periodically to scan their little niche domains.

Tracks from the elusive Crab-eating raccoon and even Capybaras littered the floor. And the birds! Everything you can imagine within an ears-reach, American pygmy Kingfishers, Masked Cardinals and the rare Mangrove Cuckoo all seemed to find comfort in this hidden corner of the swamp. - Jason Mohamed

©Jason-Marc Mohamed

But sadly and suddenly, the stark reality of what the current situation is in this swamp hits you. In an area only accessed by very few, signs of human activity are visible. Trash from where poachers spent the night and who had cut small channels into the roots for their small boats to manoeuvre. 

As we spent the next few weeks getting to understand the rhythms of this special place I could not help but think about the dangers that lurk right around the corner, threatening the very core and fabric of this ecosystem. 

Masked carnidal adorned the $50 bill ©Jason-Marc Mohamed

You cannot help but be enchanted by a mangrove forest. Its beautiful repetition and depth of trees, tangled roots and ever-changing tides with a menagerie of creatures. The Caroni Swamp lies on Trinidad's Western Coast and is roughly sixty square kilometres. Recognized as a Ramsar Site in 1946 ,the site is home to one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in the Caribbean. Over 10 000 Scarlet Ibises use this unique ecosystem as their roosting site, choosing only to the most remote, mangrove islands within the swamp.

Migratory species of shorebirds (Willets, Whimbrels, Ruddy turnstones and various sandpipers) amongst Scarlet Ibis ©Jason-Marc Mohamed

Flamingos find swamp refuge

Eighteen years ago when I first started venturing out to the swamp, American Flamingos were never recorded on my ‘bird-list’. As I glanced at their illustration in the bird guide over the years, I never truly believed that I would see them in the wild. Relentlessly hunted for their flesh for decades, these birds had learnt to fear humans and were considered extremely rare visitors to Trinidad. However, with years of hard work by conservationists and local law enforcement, these majestic birds have returned and hopefully they’re here to stay. Darren Madoo, a local guide and conservationist, has spent his life in the swamp. He told me, “ Approximately five years ago, the flamingos returned and they are now breeding in the most remote- saline lagoons of the swamp. These areas are not accessible by boat, thus they are safe from poachers.”  He added that ,

“They wouldn't have chosen to nest here if it wasn’t safe, so something must be working.”

Jason-Marc Mohamed

Birds of Caroni

Darshan Narang, a wildlife biologist and lead field researcher for Trinidad’s branch of Bird Genoscape Project, has been studying the birds of Caroni for over 18 years. In collaboration with the University of Colorado, he has recently shifted his focus to understanding the habits of migratory species of warblers from North America that spend their winter months in Caroni.

Prothonotary Warbler- a swamp specialist ©Jason-Marc Mohamed

“Mist-netting for these migratory warblers has been conducted sporadically over the last ten years by researchers in collaboration with the University of the West Indies and recently with the Bird Genoscape Project in order to conduct research on population dynamics and genetic diversity.”

The Bi-coloured conebill is listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN ©Jason-Marc Mohamed

‘Of the 277 bird species recorded on the citizen science database for Caroni Swamp, four species of warblers migrate annually to the Caroni Swamp. The Yellow Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, American Redstart and Prothonotary Warbler, upon breeding across the North American mainland during the northern spring and summer months, use the Caroni Swamp as their overwintering grounds every year from September to April.’

American Redstart ©Jason-Marc Mohamed

Changing threats

A former poacher once told me that they would tie red cloths to the mangroves and hide and wait with shotguns in the bushes, sometimes they would even set nets that the birds couldn't see. Ibises setting out for the day to feed would spot the red cloth and mistake it for other ibises. Upon arrival, they were then ambushed with a barrage of bullets with little to no hope of escape. Unfortunately, the illegal bushmeat trade in Trinidad and Tobago is still rampant, even with increased fines.

It was only in 2018 that the Scarlet Ibis, one of the country’s national birds, was granted with the highest form of protection on the land.

Fines were increased from $1000 TTD(approximately $150 USD ) to $100 000( approximately $15 000 USD). Even with these measures , poachers are undeterred.

Poachers wait right outside the boundaries of the swamp to pick off unlucky birds that stray beyond its protective boundaries © Jason-Marc Mohamed

Lester Nanaan knows all about the swamp, his father Winston was a self-taught ornithologist  who was pulled out of school at an early age by his own father to work in the swamp. Naturally, Lester also dedicated his life to the swamp. With an early indoctrination into ecological tourism and conservation, both he and his family have dedicated their life to the protection of this special area.

In fact, the swamp was recently renamed in 2015 to the ‘Winston Nanan Caroni Bird Sanctuary’ in honour and gratitude for the years of tireless work in raising awareness for the need to conserve the swamp.

Winston’s father once told him “Once you can save your own backyard, you can go out and save the entire world”. He was in fact alluding here to the protection of the wetlands of Caroni. His view is once you can save the wetlands, you can save the world by starving off climate change. He has noted that the difference from 25 years ago to now, is that the salt water encroachment is happening at such an rapid rate that the freshwater sources are now being severely limited. “Freshwater habitat is being lost at an alarming rate and thus the animals that come with it. This means that the scarlet ibises and flamingos themselves have to go further and further to feed during nesting season. The climate is changing at such a fast rate that if we don't act quickly, we could lose this treasure forever.”

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