WILD ST LUCIA
St Lucia is really not that big. Twenty-eight miles long and thirteen miles wide, it could easily be swallowed up by Greater London or New York City. But size isn't everything, and when it comes to wildlife, this little island boasts a profusion of native species that would put most larger countries to shame. St Lucia's golden beaches, lush forests and colourful coral reefs are home to thousands of species of plants and animals, of which some are unique to the island and can be found nowhere else in the world.
Unsurprisingly, ecotourism is a popular activity for visitors to the island, and a wide range of opportunities exist, from bird-watching to scuba diving, and from adventurous rainforest hikes to afternoon rambles in exotic botanical gardens. For a slightly more off-beat wildlife experience, though, why not consider getting to know some of St Lucia's less well-known residents - the reptiles?
St Lucia is home to some truly remarkable reptiles, including some of the largest, smallest and rarest reptiles in the world. The Guinness Book of Records bills St Lucia's Worm Snake as the smallest snake in the world, whilst the Leatherback Turtle that nests on St Lucia's beaches is the world's largest living reptile, weighing up to a colossal maximum of 1144 kilos. Visit the Maria Islands Nature Reserve and, if you are very lucky indeed, you might catch a glimpse of the St Lucia Racer, which is probably the world's rarest snake (the racer is so rare and elusive that it is impossible to count exactly how many of them there are!). The St Lucia Racer, known locally as the Kouwès, can be recognised by its olive-green colour and the black zig-zag pattern on its back. If you visit the Marias but don't spot the Kouwès, don't be disheartened - you're almost certain to meet another local speciality, the St Lucia Whiptail (or Zandoli Tè), a large, colourful ground lizard that sports the colours of the national flag - yellow, blue, black and white. Both the Racer and the Whiptail are unique to St Lucia's tiny offshore islands.
Of course, you can meet some of St Lucia's reptilian residents without ever leaving the comfort of your hotel balcony - tree lizards and house geckos are common throughout the island (and if you feel a bit squeamish about sharing your balcony with scaly scampering creatures, remember that they are very good at catching troublesome insects!). But venture further a-field, to St Lucia's remote and rugged northeast coast, and hopefully you'll be rewarded with a sighting of some of the world's largest, most ancient, and most charismatic reptiles - sea turtles and iguanas.
Turtle-watching at Grande Anse
Grande Anse, about 10km north of Dennery on the east coast, is one of the most important beaches in the region for nesting sea turtles. Pounded by a dramatic (and dangerous) surf, this ruggedly beautiful spot has never been developed, and the only signs of human habitation are the lights of the village of Desbarra that twinkle up on the distant hillside once night falls. Most of the time the beach is empty, but from March to August a steady trickle of visitors make the dirt-track truck ride to experience a true natural wonder - the spectacle of leatherback turtles, the world's largest living reptiles, coming ashore to lay their eggs.
Leatherback turtles are one of three species of turtle (along with Hawksbill and Green turtles) that nest on St Lucia's beaches. All three species are threatened with extinction, due to hunting, pollution, disturbance and destruction of their nesting sites and commercial fishing (turtles frequently become ensnared in nets and lines or are injured by ships' propellers). The Leatherback is unmistakeable due to its massive size (it can reach a length of over two metres) and leathery shell, with seven prominent ridges. Leatherbacks spend almost all of their lives at sea, where they feed primarily on jellyfish, and rarely stop swimming, even to sleep (Leatherbacks have been tracked swimming over 7500 miles in a single year). They can live to well over fifty years old, can dive to depths of 1200m (deeper than any other turtle), and can tolerate colder water than other turtles thanks to a unique system of blood supply to their bones and cartilage - reptiles are cold-blooded, but this special adaptation allows the Leatherback to keep its body temperature several degrees above that of the surrounding water.
'If you're into wildlife you can't miss seeing the leatherbacks come to lay their eggs'. So my friend told me and so I found myself rattling down the dirt track to Grande Anse beach in the dark (turtles lay only at night, to avoid predators), unsure of the way and unsure of how I'd stay awake for long enough to see any turtles after a long day at work. But I need not have worried on either count. A few minutes later I had reached the beach, where Moses, a member of the local community conservation group, was waiting for me, and after settling my belongings into the tent, we set out on the first patrol of the night. The moonlight was so bright that the palm trees fringing the beach cast crisp moon-shadows - which made our job easier, as when you are on patrol you cannot use artificial light as this disorients and deters the turtles. After little more than half an hour, we saw a dark, bulky form away ahead of us - a Leatherback! We hung back initially, to avoid scaring her away, but once she had heaved her bulky shell onto the land and started to excavate her burrow she seemed oblivious to our presence. She was small for an adult, with her shell measuring not much more than a meter in length - perhaps she was laying her very first clutch of eggs? Leatherbacks reach sexual maturity at 6-10 years of age, and breed every two to three years after that, laying as many as 500 eggs in a breeding season (though this will be spread over a number of visits to the beach). Slowly, methodically, puffing and sighing with the effort, she excavated a burrow in the sand using her back flippers, into which she deposited 64 round white, leathery eggs, before covering them carefully with sand and turning in circles over the nest area to disguise her tracks. Later on that night, we had the good fortune to come across Leatherback hatchlings. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, with outsize flippers, these tiny, engagingly clumsy creatures must make their way alone to the Atlantic - turtles, the same as most reptiles, show no parental care. As I watched these intrepid youngsters emerge from the sand and struggle towards the big, black ocean, I tried not to think of what their chances were - only one in 1000 baby turtles will make it through to adulthood.
Turtles can also be seen in their element in the waters around St Lucia. Whilst on land leatherbacks lumber and puff and seem barely able to haul their massive weight around, in the sea they are remarkably graceful and agile. Scuba-divers might be lucky enough to have a close encounter (Turtle Reef near to Soufrière is a good spot to try), and it is even possible to see turtles whilst snorkelling - they turn up now and again at the Jalousie Hilton and Anse Chastanet reefs (both of which are in safe and easy swimming distance from beaches that are open to the general public).
'Island of the Iguanas'
If you have never seen an iguana, imagine a miniature dinosaur that can climb trees. Iguanas are just about the closest you'll get to Jurassic Park - OK, smaller, and minus the scary teeth, but they really look like survivors from another era. St Lucian iguanas can be distinguished from iguanas on other islands by their nose horns, long neck spines, and by the pronounced black stripes on their body. The largest individuals reach a length of around six feet, though four feet is a more typical size for a fully-grown adult.
The Amerindians, who lived here before European colonists arrived in the 1600s, called St Lucia 'Ioüanalao' and 'Hewanorra', meaning 'there where the iguana is found'. Unfortunately, it is getting harder and harder to find iguanas on St Lucia, and their future is uncertain. Adults are killed by dogs and hunted by humans - believe it or not, some people still eat iguanas! - and hatchlings are heavily predated by cats and mongooses, both of which were introduced by European settlers. If you are determined to see iguanas in the wild, then your best chance is to visit Louvet or Grande Anse on the north-east coast, which are the only areas on the island where iguanas are still known to breed. Contact the Forestry Department for information about access (the Louvet and Grande Anse estates are private property), and be prepared for disappointment - the few remaining St Lucian Iguanas have learned to be very wary of humans, and you'd be amazed how hard it can be to spot a six-foot lizard hiding in the top of a coconut tree! Alternatively, you'll be sure of a sighting of the iguana (as well as parrots, boa constrictors, agoutis and other native wildlife) if you visit the Forestry Department's Mini Zoo and Nature Trail at Union, just north of Castries. In an attempt to preserve the species, it is now an offense to capture or kill iguanas, punishable with a EC$5,000 fine.
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