The transformation of our remote bush station in the Hellshire Hills (“South Camp”) into a truly amazing field station has continued at an accelerated pace. In February 2008 the Jamaica Defense Force Air Wing provided two helicopter trips that resulted in airlifting significant equipment right into South Camp: an 800-gallon water tank, a propane-driven freezer, and 1600 lbs of construction materials. Gone are the days of water and food shortages, and sleeping on stick beds! Here are the days of bountiful water provisions, fresh food, and electricity provided by a fully functional windmill generator. These improvements have translated into greater efficiency (not to mention morale) for the field team, and have made it possible to accommodate comfortably, the now annual influxes of collaborators to assist with critical activities – especially the monitoring of the iguana nesting and hatching seasons.
Progress has also been made on major up-grades to the two main nesting site hides. Concrete platforms are now under construction, and will support collapsible hides made of permanent materials. Although this is a major undertaking, it promises to pay huge dividends in terms of the efficient and comfortable observation of nesting activities.
2008 has also seen the incorporation of a new iguana project worker, Mr. Kenroy Williams. Known as “Boomseye,” or “Booms” for short, Mr. Williams began working with the field team in December of 2007, and his utility and dedication to the project have made him an indispensable addition. Booms is now trained in the operation of the predator trapping grid and is being trained to assist with other conservation activities. Most remarkably, Booms loves to carry heavy loads of supplies and equipment up to South Camp – a constant chore that is arguably the most difficult task attending our conservation effort. Booms simply likes the exercise, and as the youngest member of our team, at 25, he is up to the task. Of course, a major impetus for hiring an additional field worker relates to security and safety concerns. There is safety in numbers! Moreover, increasing the size of our field team is consistent with our objective of increasing local capacity to conduct conservation work in the Hellshire Hills.
Perhaps most importantly, the expansion of the core field team has resulted in a parallel expansion in the scope of our conservation effort. More work is being conducted on the iguana, and additional targets in the Hellshire Hills are now the subjects of our conservation efforts. On a recent day, for example, our full complement of five workers was in Hellshire together – but conducting separate activities. Rick van Veen was radio tracking ‘Judas iguanas’ in eastern Hellshire, “Leego” was checking the pitfall traps, Booms was walking the predator trapping loop, Mark Gold was checking pig traps along the coast, and Byron Wilson was conducting index beach surveys of sea turtle nesting and invasive species activity. With the recent receipt of a Wildlife Research Permit from NEPA, the team has also initiated an ecological study of the crocodile population along the Hellshire coast. Aside from being a legitimate conservation activity, the crocodile work also fills a major gap in Hellshire life: an exciting nightlife!
The project also continues to bring awareness of the iguana’s plight to the island’s next generation of conservationists. Most notably, Byron Wilson’s University of the West Indies “Conservation Biology” course was able to get up close and personal with free ranging iguanas in Hellshire. Two field trips consisting of 15 students each made the trek up to South Camp and were rewarded by seeing at least two iguanas! In the past, students were marched into Hellshire from the north side – a long and unpleasant walk through disturbed forest. And they never saw iguanas. Now students access Hellshire by boat, camp on an idyllic beach for two nights, and routinely see iguanas and other threatened species. Indeed, their association with and concern for Hellshire’s wildlife can only be heightened by such an experience. One of those trips included a final year student who will enter a masters program with B. S. Wilson in September. Her project will focus on assessing other components of biodiversity in Hellshire, and will draw on the long-term data set generated from our pitfall trapping surveys – which have now been conducted for 12 consecutive years.