An edited version was published in the Trinidad Express, Jul 18th 2014
As a medical professional, I always cringe when I hear about a creepy new disease emerging in some far off land. Gone are the days when we could say: “Nah, that is only in Asia or Africa, Trini people safe!”
In our increasingly connected world we get both the good and the bad. The good includes exotic fruit from Latin America, beef from Canada, milk from Germany, clothing from China, shoes from Italy and so on. Along for the ride are ‘the bad’; the world’s best travellers; the microbes and other organisms hitching rides through our global trade. They travel on our food, through our bodies and via our animals.
Global to local
In sweet T&T we are now faced with problems that we thought would never show up in our back yard. Lionfish, an invasive species found literally on the other side of the world, is now at home in our waters, putting pressure on our already declining fisheries. We panicked when we suspected bird-flu was here; a virus first seen in China. More recently, the Chikungunya virus, first described in Tanzania, has crossed many borders and has made its home throughout the Caribbean. It is now here.
These problems are complex. They can’t be solved with a cool new app. What can we do?
One Health is an approach that offers hope for dealing with global issues that affect us locally. According to Dr. Carla Phillips, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM), “One Health is about recognising that human, animal and environmental health are all intricately connected and that no one professional group possesses all the skills needed to effectively address the threats that face humans, animals and the environment. However, together we can make the difference.”
One Health emphasises a holistic approach that is collaborative and integrative. It provides a way to make sense of the many sides of health for humans, animals and the environment.
In T&T, One Health is being pioneered through the SVM. Dr. Phillips along with USA-based Drs. Cindy Driscoll and IIze Berzins facilitated the first One Health Caribbean workshop at the SVM on June 24 and 25th, 2014. The workshop focused on the conservation of aquatic ecosystems from a One Health perspective. It attracted participants from across the Caribbean and from various sectors locally, including energy, education, food and agriculture and the environment.
Why focus on aquatic ecosystems?
In a way, each of us is an aquatic ecosystem. We are made up mostly of water. Water flows in and out of us all the time. It flows in when we drink. It flows out through sweat, urine and tears. Water is essential to life. We can survive without food a lot longer than without water.
If we’re interested in being healthy, we need to look at the bigger picture; at what connects us. Water connects us to each other and to our environment in a very intimate and personal way. It’s a good place to start.
A One Health Workshop
Dr. Phillips was inspired to organise the workshop following her experience with the Petrotrin oil spill in December 2013. The oil spill made people sick. It killed wildlife, and it prevented many people from earning a living. Its effects are still being felt; economically, socially and environmentally.
In Dr. Phillips’ opinion, the oil spill highlighted the interconnections between marine and coastal environments and animal and human health. Dr. Phillips and her colleagues recognised an opportunity to use this environmental disaster to highlight how a One Health approach could be helpful in addressing this and other problems. She explains that if a One Health approach had been used for the oil spill, some of the gaps that were evident during the disaster response could have been avoided.
Throughout the workshop, the facilitators demonstrated the potential uses of a One Health approach in the Caribbean.
Drs. Driscoll and Berzins emphasised that the Caribbean basin is an aquatic-based system. Many Caribbean economies are dependent on healthy aquatic ecosystems particularly for public health, tourism and fisheries.
Dr. Phillips gives vivid examples that demonstrate our connections to our Caribbean neighbours. “Fish and other seafood originating in the waters of Trinidad and Tobago end up on the plates of our friends in Jamaica. Industrial and other pollutants that enter our oceans and waterways bioaccumulate in the aquatic organisms that we humans ultimately consume. Human activities that result in environmental degradation negatively impact aquatic habitats and the organisms that live therein and ultimately impact human health and well-being.”
The One Health workshop was a first; bringing professionals together to work for a healthy, watery Caribbean. It is hoped this is the first of many more. With new challenges and diseases regularly emerging, the work of Dr. Phillips and her colleagues is becoming increasingly important.
All photos courtesy - Mr. Dexter Superville, UWI Faculty of Medical Sciences, Centre for Medical Sciences Education
An edited version was published in the Trinidad Express, May 21 2014
“Today microbes travel almost as fast as e-mail and financial flows. Globalization has connected Bombay to Bangkok to Boston. There are no health sanctuaries. No impregnable walls between developing and developed nor between the sick and healthy. Problems halfway around the world become everyone’s problem.”- Gro Brundtland
Infectious diseases have always been a part of our lives. Some of the worst in human history, and in today’s headlines, are linked to animals. These include the plague, small pox, tuberculosis, and even measles. These diseases are zoonoses. PAHO’s definition of a zoonosis is “any disease or infection that is naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans and vice-versa.”
Like Justin Bieber’s inexplicable rise to stardom, we also face emerging diseases that seem to come out of nowhere. The WHO defines an emerging disease as “one that has appeared in a population for the first time, or that may have existed previously but is rapidly increasing in incidence or geographic range.” Approximately 60% of these emerging diseases are zoonotic; shared by animals and people. Many of them, such as Ebola, SARS, bird flu, Nipah virus, and swine influenza, could have disastrous global human, economic and ecological impacts.
In T&T we face zoonoses every day. We are not immune. God may be ah Trini, but He won’t keep us healthy. Dengue is always buzzing around; even the Prime Minister got it. Chikungunya is right on our doorstep and recent cases of swine flu caused squealing by pigs and the public.
Emerging zoonoses cannot be managed with pills and vaccines alone. Doctors don’t have all the answers. Emerging diseases come from our rapidly changing and increasingly connected world. They are emerging and changing faster than our science and institutions can respond. We need a new approach.
One proposed approach is called One Health. Its foundation is that human, animal and ecosystem health are inextricably linked. According to the One Health Initiative it is “a worldwide strategy for expanding interdisciplinary collaborations and communications in all aspects of health care for humans, animals, and the environment.” Health has many dimensions and is shaped by a broad swathe of social, economic and ecological factors. Put simply this means doubles vendors, doctors, farmers, veterinarians, ecologists, social scientists, economists and rum shop limers must all work together for a healthier T&T.
In T&T, the UWI’s School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) is pioneering a One Health approach. The SVM has embarked on a collaborative, applied research project funded by the UWI Research, Development and Impact Fund. Chris Oura, a Professor in Veterinary Virology and his postgraduate students Arianne Brown-Jordan and Jamie Sookhoo are working to set up a broad-based surveillance system of avian (poultry and wild birds) and swine populations to identify the presence of various potentially high-impact viruses. Brown-Jordan explains that many of the viruses are zoonotic and can affect human health. Others could decrease productivity in our livestock industry.
Professor Oura explains that we know very little about the viruses circulating in avian and swine population in T&T. “We are trying to identify what’s there; the baseline pathogens; which viruses are circulating and causing disease. From there we can then try to characterise what we have and whether we are doing the right thing when it comes to control measures.” He explains that birds can act as carriers of various viruses that cause disease in wild birds, poultry, livestock and human populations. Since we also eat these animals, it’s critical to pay attention to their health status. An important first step to being prepared for the risk of disease is to know what we have. Forewarned is forearmed. Thus, pigs and birds are a first line of defense; standing guard at the gate as sentinel species for infectious diseases; providing an advance warning to humans.
Because the project takes a One Health approach, it is highly dependent on many partners for success. Professor Oura and his team are working closely with poultry and swine farmers, the Ministries of Food Production and Health, the Livestock and Livestock Product Board, Poultry Associations, Poultry Surveillance Unit, Wildlife Division and Pointe-a-Pierre Wildlife Trust amongst others.
To sum it all up; microbes matter. Mrs. Brown-Jordan is passionate about microbes. As she explains, she worked previously with humans and microbes. But some microbes don’t see much difference between animals and people. So for Brown-Jordan it is natural to follow her microbes and work at the human-animal interface.
Professor Oura and his team see our world from a microbe’s point of view. Their work shows us how closely we are connected to animals and ecosystems. Projects like theirs demonstrate the importance of a One Health approach and why we need to work together for a healthier, happier T&T.
An edited version of this article was published in the Trinidad Express, April 27th 2014
Diseases Without Borders
Trinidad and Tobago has territorial borders that are open to legal trade and travel. Activity is regulated and guarded but, like a sieve, many things slip through. Apart from guns, ammunition, and drugs we are indulging in a vibrant trade of the most dominant life forms on earth – microbes. Whether they travel in your nose when you come back from Miami, in cheese shipped from New Zealand, or in the flea on your friend’s new imported dog, bacteria, viruses and fungi are world travelers in our global society and, for the most part, they don’t have passports.
It’s not just T&T that has borders. From a health perspective, our bodies are full of borders. Membranes like the skin let things in and out. Our bodies’ borders are set up for regulated trade; we eat, breathe and defecate. But, like a country’s borders, sometimes something undesirable slips across.
Here’s the thing; activity across our national borders is connected to activity across our bodies’ borders.
Borders and the Illegal Animal Trade
Wildlife trafficking is a global problem; third behind drug and arms trafficking. Dealers in T&T boast on being able to get any animal your heart desires: turtles, macaws, toucans, amazon parrots, snakes, bull finches, picoplats, monkeys and pounds of wild meat. It’s not just wildlife. Also popular is the illegal trade in pedigree dogs and livestock. Some folks proudly announce that their dog was a special order from ‘down the main’. One can custom order Bulldogs, Bichons, Pugs and even Huskies for sled rides on T&T’s snowy days.
What smugglers and potential owners don’t fully appreciate is that, apart from committing a crime, they could be contributing to a major health crisis. Alive or dead these illegal animals are host to pathogens that have the potential to wreak havoc on us and our local ecosystems. Our porous national borders are connected to our bodies’ biological borders.
Dengue, avian influenza, chikungunya, lyme disease, rabies, yellow fever, leptospirosis and leishmania have something in common. They are pathogens originating from other animal species. Globally, approximately 60% of emerging diseases are zoonotic. The WHO defines zoonoses as diseases or infections that are naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans and vice-versa. Dealing with pandemics is not a cheap undertaking. Remember the SARS outbreak in 2003? The estimated cost to the global economy was between 40-50 billion US dollars.
Lyme and rabies are diseases that affect dogs and both are zoonotic; they can spread to humans. For the moment, T&T is currently dog rabies free. Official reports also state that our local dogs are free from Lyme disease. But a few ticks on a cute Pug fresh off the boat from Uncle Pedro in Cedros could change that. Given our massive illegal animal trade, there is a high risk that diseases like Lyme will soon be a part of our lives.
When importing or exporting domestic and wild animals, permits and permission from relevant authorities are critical. For example, a dog from the USA needs ‘papers’ to travel to T&T including a health certificate from a US Veterinarian. This is an attempt to reduce the risk of foreign diseases being introduced to our local dog population. These regulations are there to help us guard against potential parasites and diseases. Avoiding health and safety checks is tantamount to begging someone with a cold to sneeze right up in your face. It’s foolish and reckless.
Actions have consequences
We are completely dependent on healthy animals and healthy ecosystems, yet every day many of us risk one thing money can’t buy. Our health is a collective responsibility and not just the burden of the State. We must get involved. For domestic animals, ask for importation permits and a document trail when purchasing pedigree breeds. Check registered kennel clubs. Better yet, adopt a pothound.
Stop buying baby parrots you know have been smuggled from the Amazon or songbirds from the main because they could win a competition. Report suspicious pet stores trading in illegal wildlife to Game Wardens and the Wildlife Division. Wildlife officials in particular are working diligently. Get to know them. T&T is a small place. Ask questions and demand answers. Good health is everyone’s business.
Useful numbers for reporting illegal wildlife activity
Wildlife Hotline 800-HALT (4258)
Forestry Division - 622-3217/5214/7476
Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources - 623-3158
An edited version of this article was published in the Trinidad Express, 4th April, 2014
"Food, far more than sex, is the great leveler. Just as every king, prophet, warrior, and saint has a mother, so every Napoleon, every Einstein, every Jesus has to eat." —Betty Fussell
In T&T we pride ourselves on our exquisite cuisine. Nothing brings people together like a food lime. If we need to raise some funds, see how fast we hold a bar-b-que or curry-que. We love our bellies. As the saying goes; “Is better belly buss than good food waste.”
There is something sensual about good food. It’s more than just a lime with friends. The way a cool drink slips down your throat on a warm day; the way a hot curry makes you sweat. It’s not a big jump to start comparing great food with sex. In Trinidad, we can turn to the wisdom of The Mighty Sparrow: “We cyar make love on hungry belly.” Or, take a glance at those Haagen Daas billboards on the highway. Even KFC advertises a sensual experience.
In his book ‘Food Sex and Salmonella’, Dr. David Waltner-Toews, a veterinarian, scientist, epidemiologist and popular author, takes the comparison between food and sex a step further. He describes eating as “Quite literally, turning the world outside in.” He points out that food is nothing more than pieces of the environment. We take bits of plants such as leaves (lettuce), roots (garlic), or sap (sugar), bits of all kinds of animals, from fish to fowl, and even bacteria (yogurt), and bring them inside us. Food is our very intimate connection to the living world.
As Waltner-Toews explains it, choosing bits of the environment to bring into our bodies is more like sex than we might think. “What sex is to interpersonal relationships, eating is to the human environment relationship, a daily consummation of our marriage to the living biosphere… and like sexual promiscuity and ignorance of our sexual partners, promiscuity in eating habits and ignorance of eating partners can carry great risks.”
In T&T, we’re enthusiastic about food and sex. Carnival, for instance, is dominated by all-inclusive fetes boasting the best food and drink. Where does all this food come from and what’s the real price associated with such sensual scrumptiousness? Have we been ‘eating around’?
Where are you sticking that tongue?
In T&T, thanks to globalisation, we have a lot of exotic food: Prime Canadian Angus beef, New Zealand lamb chops, St. Louis pork ribs, Italian sausages, Guatemalan strawberries, Chilean kiwis and made in the USA broccoli. The variety is astounding and so is our import bill, but there’s more to imports than just dollars and cents.
Looking at imported food through a lens of ecology and public health we realise there’s a lot more going on. We are engaging in long distance relationships with all of these countries; bringing bits of their environments inside ourselves.
There is also an invisible trade occurring; the microbes (e.g. viruses, bacteria and parasites) that are tagging along for the ride. We import a lot of food from Latin and South America. What agricultural system are they using? Are pesticides being sprayed in order to get strawberries to PriceSmart?
Here’s another kicker. Many of us have no real idea where our food comes from. Labelled foods do not necessarily give an origin but rather where they are reformulated or packaged. You might think you are eating food made in the USA when the actual ingredients are from China. Waltner-Toews likens this to having sex with a blindfold on. “Reducing foods from biological entities with specific ecological histories to tradable commodities defined by price, fibre, fat or protein content has resulted in an abusive relationship with our natural environment.”
We don’t have to look as far as other countries to talk about eating promiscuously. Dead fish have been washing up on our shores from the Gulf of Paria following the recent Petrotrin oil spill. What does this mean for our health, or the fishing industry in T&T?
Every time you put a piece of New Zealand cheese in your macaroni pie you’re about to get personal with some strange environment. Have you asked the right questions before you begin to get intimate? How safe are your partners?
This is not an excuse for an extreme weight-loss diet of lemongrass and mango that you grow in your own yard. We can all keep eating every day and enjoying great Trini cuisine. Waltner-Toews is simply reminding us that we are a part of nature. We have to be responsible in our eating habits. What happens to our food and the environment in which it is produced is intimately connected to us. As Waltner-Toews explains: “We need to find better ways to take better care of our food partners … We need our food more than our food needs us; our relationship is not a one night stand.”
To find out more on Food, Sex and Salmonella, human-animal diseases, and mind bending awesomeness, check out Dr. David Waltner-Toews at www.davidwaltnertoews.com
Dr. David Waltner-Toews is one of my personal heroes. An extraordinary Veterinarian and a genius of our time. His ideas around systems thinking and ecohealth have inspired and provided guidance to us at Asclepius Green. I highly recommend his books - a fun and enlightening read. As we say in T&T, "Try it yuh go like it!"
Dr. A Mahase-Gibson - Executive Director, Asclepius Green.
An edited version of this article was published in the Trinidad Express on Feb 19th 2014
Trinbagonians love to maco. For non-Trinbagonians, to maco means to mind people’s business. We pride ourselves on our highly developed macoing skills. Most people don’t appreciate being macoed, but there is a way to put our macoing to good use.
Right in our backyards, some serious bacchanal is happening and we’re not talking about the neighbour’s new boyfriend. This bacchanal buzzes, crawls, blooms and flutters. We share our islands with some pretty amazing creatures and if we pay attention, their business is worth macoing too.
Do you have a fruit tree in your yard? What kind of tree? How many types of birds use it? If so, when do the bird wars begin for the mango or sapodilla? Do the mango trees flower throughout the year? How about butterflies; when do they show up or have they disappeared? Perhaps you are paying attention. If so, what can you do with the information or when you see something at your school, on a hike or at your workplace?
What is Bush Maco?
This is where Bush Maco comes in. Bush Maco is a user-friendly website for anyone in T&T to document nature sightings. It’s like local celebrity spotting but instead of Kes or Machel, the celebrities are our local wildlife from the common kiskadee to the rare ocelot. The website is an example of citizen science which is a kind of crowdsourcing for scientific data collection. Citizen science involves everyday citizens collecting information and reporting on it. It has a long tradition in the birding world, where initiatives like the international Audubon Christmas Bird Count provide valuable information on bird populations. There’s also a long tradition in the world of astronomy, where enthusiastic amateurs watch the night sky and report on exciting celestial phenomena.
Bush Maco is the brainchild of Drs. Howard and Ellie Devenish-Nelson. Dr. Howard Nelson is a Wildlife Ecologist and University Lecturer and Dr. Ellie Devenish-Nelson is an Ecologist. This nature loving husband and wife team have worked for many years on T&T’s biodiversity.
According to Dr. H. Nelson, “Bush Maco offers a place for citizen scientists to document, track and share their nature sightings, so that we can use these to better understand and protect our wildlife. We all observe nature every day in our gardens, schools, workplaces and these observations can be really helpful for learning more about our natural world.”
Why Maco the Bush?
For starters, T&T’s biodiversity rocks! For two tiny specks on the globe we have nearly 2500 plant species, over 1700 animal species, and over 150 migratory species, among others. Unfortunately, many of these may be under threat. The challenge is that it’s too much work for scientists to track. As Dr. E. Nelson points out, “We still know surprisingly little about how many of our species live, how many there are and how they use habitats.”
It’s also a way to track the health of T&T’s ecosystems. Medical practitioners use signs to diagnose problems and prescribe treatments. You may notice that your dog has not been eating for several days. Not eating is a sign that indicates there is a problem. For ecologists, if fruit trees do not flower for several years this may be a sign of an ecological problem, perhaps with pollinating species. But if no one is watching and recording then how can we know if there’s a problem? As Dr. H. Nelson explains: “By having lots of data we can work out if species life cycles (such as flowering times, breeding seasons and migration patterns) are changing with time – something that scientists call phenology. For example, if we have lots of long-term data on the same animals or plants, we can see if they are affected by disturbance or environmental change.”
Join the Bush Maco Movement
Bush Maco empowers us by giving us a voice to contribute to T&T’s ecology through citizen science. Nature talks to us. Sometimes she whispers, sometimes she scolds, and other times she screams. Bush Maco is a way for us to hear her. There is a scientist in every one of us. Dr. E Nelson emphasises that we should not be put off by the word ‘science’. “The contributions of citizen scientists are becoming increasingly important in mainstream science. By participating in Bush Maco you will build up your own personal record of your local biodiversity, as well as learn about the diversity of the whole country. We’re interested in all your observations – every nature sighting is important - whether it’s a kiskadee nesting in your garden or a poui flowering at your school.”
Why not make a bush maco lime? This way we get to engage in two of our favourite things, liming and macoing, all for a good cause.
For more details visit Bush Maco online (www.bushmaco.org) or on Facebook.
An edited version of this article was published in the Trinidad Express, February 13th 2014
Praying for environmental action
During the recently concluded National Week of Prayer, one day was assigned to pray for the environment. With the Beetham landfill fires belching inescapable toxic fumes, oil spills polluting our coasts and smothering our wildlife, and devastating floods and landslides at the slightest rain, it is obvious that our islands are increasingly unable to sustain us. It is good that religious bodies and the government recognise that T&T’s environment needs a miracle; but now that the prayers have been said, what’s next?
Going beyond prayer
T&T’s major religious denominations (Christianity, Hinduism and Islam) all call on believers to take responsibility for the earth and its creatures. The Bible is full of teachings that call upon Christians to fulfil their role and responsibility as caretakers or stewards to God, the rightful owner of the earth. Stewardship is a moral obligation and environmental destruction is the destruction of God’s creation. Hindus believe that the Divine is everywhere and we are not separate from Nature. The Muslim holy book, The Qur’an contains many verses that speak to environmental protection. The Islamic approach to the environment involves Tawhid, the unity principle, Fitra, the principle of the natural state, Mizan, the balance principle and Khalifa, the responsibility principle. Internationally, many religious groups have issued a call to act on such environmental principles.
The Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) is an international organisation bridging religion and the environment. Based in the UK, it was founded by His Royal Highness Prince Philip in 1995. ARC’s aim, according to their website, is “to assist the major religions of the world to develop environmental programmes based on their own core teachings, beliefs and practices”. ARC works to help faiths turn their ecological teachings into action. Working with representatives of the world’s major faiths, they focus on developing “Long Term Commitments for a Living Planet”. These are faith-based commitments to environmental action to address pressing global environmental issues such as climate change. ARC has worked on projects that include transformation of a municipal rubbish dump to an urban green space, a green guide to Hajj, sacred sanctuaries for wildlife, reduction of soil erosion in the Sahara and organic agriculture initiatives.
Another inspirational organisation is GreenFaith, one of the most widely recognised religious environmental organisations in the US. They have been hard at work since the 1990s implementing programmes to address environmental issues. According to GreenFaith, for the religious community to make a difference for the environment, religious institutions and individuals must live out stewardship in everyday action. They provide congregations from multiple faiths with approaches to religious-environmental engagement. GreenFaith’s programmes include energy conservation and the use of renewable energy in religious institutions, environmental health and justice programmes and religious-environmental training programmes for clergy and lay leaders.
These international organisations demonstrate that faith-based action can help us achieve a cleaner, healthier environment. Many Trinbagonians are moved by a profound faith. In T&T we have had a week of prayer; but given the path we are on, prayer can only take us part of the way. The question remains, how do we turn our faith into a cleaner, greener, safer T&T? It requires more than just a sermon here and there, a yearly tree planting exercise, or changing a few light bulbs. Our environmental problems are not easy fixes. They are ongoing, so the solutions have to be ongoing as well.
If prayer alone can solve our problems, then prayers should include an urgent request for an improved human respiratory system that can breathe toxic fumes, a tough integumentary (skin) system to safely swim in waters that are about as clean as a toilet bowl and an improved digestive that can digest toxins and plastics.
If you have a local faith-based environmental action project you would like to share, feel free to let us know.
For information and inspiration:
The Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences - www.ifees.org.uk
The Bhumi Project - www.bhumiproject.org
Eco-Congregation - www.ecocongregation.org
An edited version of this article was published in the Trinidad Express, Jan 6th 2014
Reports indicate that the oil spill is contained. However, the south-western peninsula will continue to feel the effects as cleanup efforts, though scaled down, are ongoing. It is a disaster that continues to impact the health of people, animals (domestic and wild) and the environment. This spill activated the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP) to Tier 3. A Tier 3 spill is defined as one “requiring substantial resources and support from regional or international oil spill co-operatives to mitigate effects perceived to be wide-reaching, i.e. of national or international significance”.
NOSCP Section 5 deals with a programme to address wildlife impacted by oil. Unfortunately, recent events have demonstrated that in practice, the response is inadequate. It highlights the urgent need for a comprehensive national approach to oiled wildlife that meets international standards and applies irrespective of the company that spills.
In a recent workshop on oiled wildlife hosted by bpTT participants learnt from international experts, Sea Alarm Foundation and Tri State Bird Rescue and Research, that oiled wildlife is an extremely complex challenge. It involves more than searching the area, picking animals up from the oil, washing them with a cleaning agent and releasing them or sending them off to a rehab centre.
Why oil and wildlife don’t mix
According to Tri State Bird Rescue and Research any animal that spends all or part of its life in water can be affected. Depending on where the spill occurs this may include: marine turtles, small and marine mammals, birds, amphibians, domestic and livestock animals, fish and aquatic invertebrates. Exposure to oil can cause damage externally and internally. Briefly, animals are exposed to oil through inhalation, ingestion and transcutaneous absorption. Internal effects include organ failure (kidney, liver, pancreas), dehydration, blood disorders, membrane, skin and eye irritation, immunosuppression, ulcers and damage to nervous, reproductive and endocrine systems. Externally, particularly for birds, it inhibits thermoregulation, buoyancy, flight and disrupts waterproofing of the feathers. Affected animals require medical intervention. Birds are usually the most visible and frequently encountered wildlife victims of oil spills. Consequently, most responses focus on them.
Petrotrin’s response to oiled wildlife
During the first week of the spill, beaches and mangrove areas on the south-western peninsula were affected. To date, Petrotrin has provided no information on the impact on wildlife. We know that one bird, nicknamed Oily, made it to a rehab centre due in part to the actions of an independent party. The emergence on social media of pictures and reports of dead birds and animals flopping around in oil indicated that other animals were affected. Another oiled bird arrived on Christmas Day. Sadly, this animal died. Remains of an IUCN Red-listed green sea turtle were found on one of the oil-covered beaches. The cause of death is unknown. The carcass never made it to the School of Veterinary Medicine for a necropsy (animal autopsy). One gentleman even claimed he saw a new species of black iguana.
These events are not the fault of in-house workers nor of Petrotrin’s contractor who were operating within parameters given to them. With the oil spill at Tier 3, assistance was mobilised and offered by organisations and individuals who have had training for oiled wildlife. This assistance was acknowledged but not acted upon. Basic questions were asked of Petrotrin on their wildlife response regarding capture, treatment techniques and release protocols. Is there anyone who has the technical or medical training to evaluate oiled animals? What protocols are being used on-site to medically stabilise animals before transport? Is there a temporary holding centre to treat oiled wildlife onsite? Do you have reporting forms? Is there a protocol that rehab centres should follow? Were stabilisation and rehab procedures approved by a licensed Veterinarian? What about the disposal of hazardous dead oiled animals? To date, these questions have not been answered.
What’s involved in a basic response to oiled wildlife?
Dealing with oiled wildlife requires a feasible plan and the capacity to implement it. A basic plan takes into consideration the prevention of wildlife being oiled; search, capture and medical stabilisation of oiled wildlife; transportation logistics; medical care before and after animals are cleaned; cleaning of animals; husbandry; data collection and documentation; release; if possible, post-release monitoring; and communication with the team and the public. The plan functions through an Incident Command System and has three levels of activation depending on the characteristics of the spill; each with associated activities.
In summary, an oiled wildlife response requires a different type of expertise. Having experience with handling or identifying wildlife does not necessarily mean you can treat or medically manage oiled animals. It requires meaningful collaboration across agencies and sectors involving a variety of organisations and individuals. We are fortunate that some of this expertise is available in T&T.
Extracting oil and gas is a risky business. As the last weeks have demonstrated, oiled wildlife is an inevitable risk and one that should not be dismissed or neglected.
An edited version of this article was published in the Trinidad Express, 4th Dec 2013
Some people spill coffee; some people spill the beans. But in 1979 off the coast of Tobago, two oil tankers, the Atlantic Empress and Aegean Captain ran into each other and spilled an estimated 88 million gallons of oil. That’s a different kind of spill. T&T is famous internationally for Brian Lara, nesting leatherbacks and steel pan. Thanks to that 1979 spill, we’re also on the list of the world’s largest oil disasters; right up there with the 2010 Deep Water Horizon spill and the 1991 Gulf War. To date it’s still the largest ship-sourced oil spill on record. Ouch.
Love them or hate them, oil and gas companies fuel T&T. There’s no denying that we are heavily dependent on the sector for its contribution to our prosperity. To access our non-renewable resources, multinational energy companies undertake aggressive industrial activity. In T&T there is both land and off shore activity with increasing exploration and production in deep water areas. We also have large quantities of hydrocarbon-based products in tankers and carriers in transit through our waters.
With increased activity comes increased risk. Oil is not something that can be mopped with paper napkins. An oil spill is an environmental catastrophe affecting human health and livelihoods. Is T&T prepared?
As of 2013, we have an updated National Oil Spill Contingency Plan. According to the website of the Ministry of Energy and Energy Affairs this plan is designed to mitigate the impact of all oil spills on the environment by setting standards, establishing time frames for oil spill response and increasing collaboration among partner agencies. The website states that increased exploration and production activity warrants an increase in precautionary measures especially in light of the major oil spill incident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
An iconic image from oil spills is floundering birds slowly dying, coated in oil. Oiled wildlife is an inevitable victim of such disasters and the national plan briefly addresses the establishment of an oiled wildlife response programme. To their credit, BP Trinidad and Tobago (BPTT) took the initiative in November to host an intensive oiled wildlife response workshop and Train the Trainer exercise under the guidance of Tyrone Kalpee, Vice President, Safety and Operational Risk. The sessions were run by international non-profit organisations Sea Alarm Foundation and Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, who have worked globally with numerous spills. Objectives included preliminary steps towards an oiled wildlife response plan and training to manage, treat, rehabilitate and release oiled animals. Key stakeholders at the workshop included NGOs such as Wildlife Orphanage and Rehab Centre (WORC), El Socorro Centre for Wildlife Conservation, Council for the Presidents of the Environment (COPE), Environment Tobago, Asclepius Green, Zoological Society of Trinidad and Tobago, Trinidad and Tobago Veterinary Association; governmental agencies such as THA, Wildlife, Ministry of Energy; and others.
Dealing with animals covered in oil does not mean washing them off with dishwashing liquid. Oil is a toxic, hazardous substance that affects the environment, animals and us. Wildlife teams use specialised gear and personal protective equipment. An effective response requires search and rescue, stabilisation and husbandry, veterinary care, cleaning to remove hazardous substances, appropriate housing, facilities and equipment, and personnel who are trained and ready to act.
Although training and equipment are necessary, they are not sufficient. As a World War I General famously said; no plan survives contact with the enemy. In T&T we are prone to headless chicken behaviour during a disaster, running around getting angry, trying to figure out who’s in charge, who’s paying and who’s to blame. No one wants a spill, but if it should happen, our success will depend on how well we work together. We look forward to continued support from BPTT and the energy sector to empower all stakeholders to collaborate and respond to oiled wildlife in the event of a disaster.
In T&T, we have a lot at stake; people, wildlife and ecosystems all connected and dependent on each other for continued well-being. As useful and interesting as this training was, I sincerely hope we never have to put into practice.
An edited version of this article was published in the Trinidad Express, Thurs 31 Oct 2013
Turty on her way to the ocean. Photo: UWI SVM
It’s not always easy sharing an island with Trinbagonians. Our wildlife, for example, is always in danger of being thrown into a pot for someone’s lime, or of having their habitat fragmented, encroached on or polluted. Trinbagonians are not big on the concept of sharing, especially sharing our environment with creatures that flutter, crawl, scamper, swim, fly or hop. Most of the wildlife encounters we hear about these days are quite sad; the otter whose home is being refurbished under the banner of progress, the baby manatee that died and the bags full of dead scarlet ibis.
One human-wildlife encounter that resulted in good news was the case of a dying Hawksbill seaturtle that was nursed back to health and released into our waters. This was thanks to efforts and coordination between the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), Glasgow University Expedition Group, North East Sea Turtles/Speyside Eco Marine Park Rangers (NEST/SEMPR), the University of the West Indies School of Veterinary Medicine (UWI SVM) and the Forestry Division.
The Hawksbill sea turtle is at imminent risk of global extinction but is still eaten in T&T although consumption is now illegal. Beaches in North East Tobago such as Hermitage and Campbleton are prime hawksbill nesting and poaching sites. According to community groups working in these areas, eating turtle is considered a cultural norm and poaching continues despite increased beach patrols, awareness and education initiatives.
The turtle was found by ecologists Grant Walker, Mairi Hilton and Joe Clerke, affiliated with the Glasgow University Expedition on 3rd July on a night patrol of Campbleton beach in North East Tobago. Walker explains when they first found the turtle it was lifeless. “The only signs of life were the occasional blink and involuntary muscle twitch.” The group felt that they had to attend to the animal because its chances of survival were dramatically decreasing. “She was extremely dehydrated and we had to do something before the rising sun or a poacher came. We thought she would have been dead in less than 12 hours.”
The Glasgow team and NEST members moved quickly to provide care and support for the turtle, who they affectionately named “Turty”. THA’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment wildlife biologist, Angela Ramsey mobilised help and assistance with Game Wardens coming to Charlotteville.
Turty remained in Charlotteville under the care of Mairi Hilton, Marek Wolf and others following initial treatment from THA’s Veterinary Officer, Dr. Downes and advice from turtle experts at the Florida Keys Turtle Hospital. Though she improved, she was in no way ready for release. She needed more care, and the technical expertise and equipment required to diagnose and treat a sick sea turtle was not available in Tobago.
Turty was brought to the UWI SVM Aquatic Animal Health Unit in Trinidad. She was placed under care of the talented Dr. Carla Phillips, whose skills and expertise include medical and surgical knowledge of wild and captive whales, dolphins, manatees and sea turtles. The turtle was housed in a special marine tank and x-rays, blood tests and other diagnostics were performed. Turty required vigilance and constant care and Dr. Phillips ensured she got both around the clock. Turty’s treatment included drip fluid therapy, deworming, stimulation of gut movement, daily feeding of a special diet using a stomach tube. She even received vitamins and antibiotics.
Dr. Phillips diagnosed Turty with Floating Syndrome due to excessive gas accumulation throughout the digestive tract, coupled with severe hypoglycemia, dehydration, anaemia and a disorder that caused her blood to fail to clot.
How did she get so sick? Dr. Phillips explains the most likely scenario. “When sea turtles return to coastal waters to feed they may encounter near-shore pollution that makes them more susceptible to illness. Animals that feel unwell often go off-feed. If a sea turtle goes off-feed and gas begins to accumulate in the digestive tract, the animal will become increasingly positively buoyant. That is, the air in the gut of the animal is akin to air filling a balloon; the animal will start to float. If the animal is excessively buoyant, it then cannot dive and stay submerged in order to feed. If the animal is unable to feed it will in turn become energy deficient. We have a situation where we have an animal that is unable to dive both because of a lack of energy and because of excessive buoyancy. Ill, energy deficient, excessively buoyant sea turtles quickly exhaust themselves as they struggle to make repeated futile attempts to dive. Such an animal will soon become incapable of swimming against ocean currents and will ultimately wash ashore in a state of debilitation. This is what we believe may have been the case with Turty.”
Turty responded to treatment, put on weight and eventually got a clean bill of health. On September 15th, Dr. Phillips brought her back to Tobago to be released in the vicinity where she was found. With cheering and support from Game Wardens, community members and the veterinary fraternity, Turty was placed on the shoreline, made her way towards the ocean, turned around as if to say goodbye to her well-wishers, then disappeared below the waves. The future for endangered Hawksbill sea turtles got a little bit brighter.
An edited version of this article was published in the Trinidad Express newspaper, Wed 9th Oct 2013
The Trinidad and Tobago Government has taken the bold step of beginning to address wildlife hunting. The Honourable Minister Ganga Singh has instituted a 2 year hunting ban that has inspired heated reactions. There are strong opinions on both sides. Whether you are for or against the ban, there is no question that our small twin island is changing rapidly and it’s not all for the best. Many Hunters especially in southern areas and Tobago have complained even prior to the ban that their catch is diminishing both in size (smaller animals) and number (fewer animals). We have heard various hunters over the years complain that ‘outside’ hunters are moving into their areas. Hunting spots are becoming increasingly crowded. Longer hours, more dogs and increased effort are required to catch a dwindling supply of game. Change is hard for all. It’s hard to admit that though our families, including mine, have been hunting for what seems like forever, it may not be sustainable. It’s hard to see the forest when you are in the trees.
As it stands, terrestrial hunting is now banned. However, in a twist of conservation fate, there is a call for responsible hunters in a different environment, under the sea. Here, hunters can play a critical role in helping to control a disaster occurring just under our waves. There is a need for people who are passionate about our coral reefs and fisheries to assist in the control of a non-native species, the Lionfish. The call has been issued for a new breed of hunter, lionfish hunters.
Lionfish - Photo: J. Alemu
Why is the Lionfish a problem?
Our reefs and coastal fisheries are under threat on many fronts. They face increasing pollution, overfishing, trawling, coral bleaching and disease and now the arrival of this new predator, the lionfish. While diving in Tobago with Derek Chung of Undersea Divers in February 2012, my husband and I had the dubious honour of making the first confirmed sighting of the lionfish in Tobago. It was a beautiful yet chilling sight. It represented the completion of an invasion loop of the Caribbean of a fish that does not belong in our waters.
Lionfish are a carnivorous reef-associated fish native to the waters of the Indo-Pacific. In our waters, they are an extremely effective invasive species. Why? So far, very few of our native fish species have shown any interest in eating them. The few that have are species, like the Nassau Grouper, that we have effectively fished out. Also, they multiply faster than many other species and can live in a wide range of conditions (deep or shallow water, varying water quality, and different environments) making them highly adaptable. Finally, they can eat anything that will fit in their mouth; a bit like a Trini.
This adds up to a massive train wreck happening under our waters right now. The lionfish is a voracious predator that feeds on juveniles of commercially important fish species as well as fish species, such as grazers and cleaners that maintain the health of our reef ecosystems. To top it off, their spines are venomous, not just to other fish, but to people as well. Imagine coming to Tobago and being faced with a shortage of fish.
In response, an inter-agency committee (including the Tobago House of Assembly, the EMA, Fisheries and others) coordinated by efforts of the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) are collaborating to develop a Lionfish National Management Response Plan, which includes public awareness programmes. Additionally, the IMA has embarked on a series of lionfish awareness and capture workshops. This is one method that has met with some success on other Caribbean islands. Under the guidance of IMA’s Research Officer, Jahson Alemu and his team, participants learn why the lionfish is a threat, how to identify the lionfish, proper tools to use, capture techniques and first aid techniques in treating envenomation and other useful information. And here’s the good news, when properly prepared, they apparently taste quite good. Lionfish and bake anyone?
Hunting a real predator
Hunting a lionfish is not for the faint of heart. This is not hunting by letting a dozen or so hounds chase an agouti ‘till it is exhausted or cornered, then following the ruckus and either buss some shots to put the scared, tired animal out of its misery or smoking it out from a hole and then buss some shots or retrieving the carcass from the dogs who have mauled it to death. The lionfish is an actual predator. It can mess you up. It has venomous spines and to catch or kill it you have to get up close and personal. However, with the right training and experience from the IMA, hunting can be done in a responsible manner. One prerequisite though, you need to be able to swim.
So hunters, don’t get too bummed with the terrestrial ban and cheer up. If you are really concerned with conservation in Trinidad and Tobago, come join the hunt where responsible hunting is encouraged and can make a positive difference.
To find out more about the Lionfish contact:
Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) – (868) 634-4291/4 Ext 2406
Department of Marine Resources and Fisheries (Tobago) – (868) 639-4446/4354
Fisheries Division – (868) 623-6028
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