THE forests must have wept the day the news broke that the Asa Wright Nature Centre was closing the doors of its nature lodge. I, too, felt a deep sadness upon learning that the national icon had become yet another casualty of the pandemic.
Since 2009 I have written occasionally about the goings-on at AWNC not necessarily because someone told me to do so but because like the thousands of people who have visited the nature centre over the decades, I too had come to regard AWNC and its iconic verandah with its incomparable view as a torch-bearer in the world of eco-tourism and sustainability. That admiration led me to write about the impacts of the quarrying work in the Arima valley, and about the explorers and naturalists the likes of William Beebe and David Snow whose tireless work raised Trinidad’s profile and inspired young scientists to come to the AWNC to do their own research. I covered the oil bird cave, the coffee harvest on Asa Wright’s grounds and reported on the comeback of the elusive ocelot, the underground tunnels constructed by leaf cutter ants and the comical antics of the White Bearded Manakin.
Despite the prevailing attitude of indifference towards the environment, I believed then as I do now that all citizens deserve to know about the threats facing the environment and the amazing forests that sustain thousands of plant, insect and animal species—some of which are endemic to Trinidad.
The AWNC supports an amazing diversity of wildlife species, including 108 mammals; 460 birds; 55 reptiles; 25 amphibians; and 617 butterflies.
Finding peace and calm
My outings to AWNC were mostly spent looking for story ideas of which there was never any shortage. Other times when my soul needed to recharge, I would wander the forests in the company of friend and former newspaper columnist Peter O’Connor who knew the trails like the back of his hand after having spent years commuting back and forth between the nature centre and Port of Spain.
Perhaps the formidable Asa Wright herself was in pursuit of tranquillity when she and her husband Newcome Wright left Europe and sailed to Trinidad after World War II in 1946. She certainly found peace and calm in the Arima valley where they purchased Springhill estate. The Wrights became friends with William Beebe and began accommodating some of the guests who were in Trinidad to visit the Tropical Station of the New York Zoological Society which Beebe named ‘Simla’. With some prodding from Don Eckleberry, Russ Mason, Joseph Copeland and Erma “Jonny” Fisk, Asa sold Springhill to a group of concerned naturalists to establish a nature centre.
In October 1967 the Asa Wright Nature Centre Trust was established. In the decades that followed the nature centre has hosted royalty—Prince Phillip visited the centre in the mid-80s and in 2017 Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall made a stop there while they were on their first leg of a tour of the Caribbean. Other notable names who have walked along the high-ceilinged corridors at AWNC include Nobel laureate economist Prof Joseph Stiglitz, award-winning author Margaret Atwood, acclaimed nature writer Scott Weidensaul, celebrity birder Edward Rooks and his wife Dr Janice Edgerly-Rooks and many other scientists, ecologists and university professors.
World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) star Nikki Bella also paid a visit to the nature centre in 2017 and labelled it as an incredible experience.
At the AWNC, I crossed paths with Dan Eatherley, a British naturalist, snake aficionado, writer and environmental consultant. Eatherley had come to Trinidad in search of the largest bushmaster. His research formed the basis of one of his books. While many visited AW for the sole purpose of bird watching, others came for more personal reasons; Andrey Bebchuk of Moscow Russia travelled to Trinidad with one very specific goal—to plant a tree at the nature centre in memory of his wife who had died two years earlier from cardiac arrest. Bebchuk was aggrieved upon learning about the closure of the nature lodge.
Some may have felt that the centre’s location was too inconvenient and out of the way. But being tucked away in the Arima Valley far away from bustling traffic and the rest of civilisation only added to its charm. Besides, driving past forests along the North Coast road only filled one with anticipation for what was at the end of the long winding road.
A place for networking
The AWNC wasn’t just a place to relax and enjoy nature, during busy seasons, its famous verandah became a place where one could literally meet interesting people from all over the world who shared one thing in common—an abiding love for birds and nature in general. The verandah was the site of my encounters with wildlife biologist Dr Ted Beedy and bird artist Keith Hansen who has illustrated countless publications. Their passion for the environment was infectious and palpable. I still recall Hansen telling me as we sat on the verandah admiring the rainforest that the highest honour one can give nature is to behold it. Needless to say, both Beedy and Hansen were saddened to hear that the nature centre has closed its doors.
“I was privileged to spend a week there in 2017 and experienced the amazing diversity of birds and nature that it offers first-hand,”said Beedy. “It represents one of the most important and accessible natural habitat areas on the island of Trinidad, and is a major destination for birders and other naturalists from all around the world. Of particular interest for international birders are the Crested Oropendola colony near the main house, and the chance to view and photograph Ornate Hawk-eagles, White-bearded Manakins, Golden-headed Manakins, Channel-billed Toucans, as well as the Oilbird colony which is a short walk from the main lodge. The bell-like “bong” of the Bearded Bellbird can be heard continuously.”
The closure of the AWNC is a reminder that Covid-19 is not only a global health crisis but also an economic catastrophe. It is estimated that 50 million jobs in the tourism industry were lost in 2020.
“The closure of nature lodges is one of many casualties of the Covid pandemic to the great detriment of biodiversity and conservation efforts worldwide since the revenue generated by visitors is critical to maintaining these facilities for public use and enjoyment,” adds Beedy.
Over the years, the AWNC enticed me to explore and appreciate the abundance of biodiversity that is all around us. Like Beedy and others, it is my hope that once the pandemic is behind us, AWNC and other nature lodges around the world will consider re-opening so that birders and other naturalists can experience the many tropical treasures that can be found in our forests.