In a country that is slowly awakening to its need for a sustainable future, Asa Wright has championed conservation and biodiversity for over 50 years. The National Protected Area Systems Plan accepted in 2019 has still not been implemented. Asa Wright held her acreage in custody as private property transferred to a trust. With the changes brought on by the pandemic, how will conservation ethics weather the storm? Faraaz Abdool wonders what might become of the Asa Wright Nature Center in ten years. Ultimately, his saving grace are the creatures that don’t care what we think as long as they have a home.
The Asa Wright Nature Center (AWNC) has been a beacon for nature lovers around the world for several decades. Visitors from all corners of the globe have flocked to the world-famous veranda that overlooks the Arima Valley. It offered easy access to nature, with banana trees and purple lianas, hummingbirds, agouti and golden tegu floating or sloping. It was the Asa Wright Nature Center we all knew and loved, a place where wildlife encounters were easy, a place for couples to spend their honeymoon and memories were made.
Then came the pandemic. Shockingly enough, the Asa Wright Nature Center announced its closure in January 2021, not even a year since the borders closed. Caligo Ventures Inc, a US-based travel agency that has been booking visitors since 1984, has never stopped booking birding trips to Trinidad and Tobago, proving the famous wildlife artist’s predictions. and one of the foundation’s members, Don Eckelberry, who didn’t expect the center to last. a full ten years. The center was established in 1967. Since TT’s borders reopened in July, Caligo has located other accommodation in Trinidad and Tobago for its tours.
Today, the Asa Wright Nature Center seeks to enter a new chapter. The center has launched a call for tenders (RFP) for a concession to operate the eco-lodge for the next ten years. From the details of the RFP, it is evident that the board is looking for a partner to operate the lodge while retaining management of the visitor center and tours. The selected operator will have to carry out the necessary renovations, maintenance and all the operations of an eco-lodge, a hotel in the rainforest. The lodge operator is expected to work alongside the Asa Wright Trust to fulfill the mandate to protect and conserve this part of the Arima Valley for the benefit of future generations. The two entities would, however, assume responsibility for hospitality, as the center plans to continue welcoming day visitors in addition to overnight guests.
Let’s take a decade into the future and imagine the Asa Wright Nature Center. Let’s close our eyes for a moment and think about the journey along the winding and picturesque Arima-Blanchisseuse road. The scent of the forest, the fresh spring water flowing along the streams that disappear regularly under the road to spring from the side of the mountain further. Hummingbirds light up red lilies in the undergrowth. How far would the mining operations have encroached at that time? One has to wonder how many twists and turns would be required to escape the seemingly endless march of machines, digging and digging gaping wounds in the North Range; and the loss of native forest to Christophene and other cash crops.
In his research portfolio, perhaps sensitive acoustic monitoring can be installed in the compound of the center to record and quantify the endless rumble coming from the other side of the hill. A curious student could measure the effect of constant mechanical vibrations on the lives of hearing-sensitive species like bats and oilseed birds.
Few things can thrive in a vacuum, and forest creatures like us are constantly adapting. Do human adaptations always require concrete and steel? What about adaptations and mitigations based on information and understanding conservation and change, protection and activism? and children from Trinidad and Tobago coming by bus to hike the trails of Asa Wright.
The Asa Wright Nature Center of the future must pay attention to this, because it is the cornerstone of decisive action. In addition to being a force of conservation, the center must continue to raise awareness and educate – by leading by example. There is not much that can be done for the greater good of all without the support of the community and even the country. The center can serve as a meeting place for local conservation organizations, a melting pot of ideas to steer TT towards a green future.
Building the leaders of tomorrow is no easy task, it requires full commitment to the cause. Education officers are to visit Cedros schools in Charlotteville, offering engaging content to inspire the next generation. Not only must the center function as a hub for academic research, it must be able to bridge the gap between academia and the public. Engaging media will prove essential in the digital age. WiFi is an essential service in the Northern Range Forest backcountry.
Renewable energy sources are great, but having a conservation mindset is priceless. Guides need to be knowledgeable and genuinely enthusiastic to show guests the many wonders of the rainforest. Numerous trails crisscross the property, each presenting different levels of difficulty and accessibility. Limiting guided walks to one or two overused trails is a wasted opportunity. Imagine having a list of the different trails on the property, the prospect of a different walk each day with a local eagle-eyed guide will keep the interest going for a longer period of time.
Certainly, there are many exhilarating wildlife experiences waiting to happen. With impressive species lists of over 100 mammals, 400 birds and 600 butterflies (not counting plants and other insects), the center is a hotbed of biodiversity. The encroachment of human activity both in and beyond the valley is poised to undermine this reputation. Hunting should be actively discouraged in the surrounding forest. Every effort must be made to ensure the preservation of the integrity of the mature forest. Climate change is pushing altitude dependent species higher and higher in search of suitable habitat. While not much can be done about this on a small scale, it underscores the urgent need to conserve as many forests as possible.
Indigenous knowledge and heritage are also expected to play a central role in the Asa Wright Nature Center of the future. A nod to the invaluable protection of biodiversity provided by indigenous peoples across continents, it would be easy to make some of this pre-colonial knowledge available to citizens and guests.
The kitchen – a vegetable garden and imaginative cuisine – are essential offerings. A bird watcher at the end of a long and tiring day can be relieved with a creative cocktail and a delicious, hearty meal. Meals should be about culture; even if they meet different dietary needs. Rooms should be even more welcoming than the kitchen, providing a respite from the tropical heat while retaining connectivity to nature. Local artists can be commissioned to decorate the rooms according to nature-based themes.
Just as valiant efforts were made over 50 years ago to secure the funds necessary to secure the premises, so more efforts are needed today to move the reserve forward. What will it mean for the Asa Wright Nature Center to once again establish itself as the gold standard of the ecotourism experience? Will visitors necessarily have to be accommodated on site? Is there an opportunity for BnB in neighboring communities? Are bird watchers and nature lovers mostly foreigners? How will the citizens of TT be encouraged to see Asa Wright as their own?