Islands of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean

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This ecoregion differs greatly from the moist forests of the Windward islands to the north. Trinidad and Tobago were connected to the South American mainland as recently as 1,500 and 11,000 years, respectively and remain in close proximity. As a result, the forests of this ecoregion have a high species to area ratio and share many of the same flora and fauna with South America. Trinidad and Tobago lack the high proportion of endemic species which is characteristic of many of the other Caribbean islands. Principal threats to the biodiversity in this ecoregion include habitat destruction mainly from expanding agricultural and industrial areas, uncontrolled exploitation, insufficient protected-area staffing, a need to update legislation for the establishment of protected areas, and a lack of public education concerning resource protection. Approximately 5% (24,748 ha) of the land area in Trinidad and Tobago is protected through legislation and as much as 13% (69,000 ha) has been proposed. While these further protected areas have yet to be approved by the Government, the proposals may serve to indicate the future direction of environmental protection in Trinidad and Tobago.

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    1,800 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Location and General Description
This moist forest ecoregion comprises approximately 90% of the land area of the archipelagic state of Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad and Tobago are the most southerly of the Caribbean’s West Indian Islands, and lie only 11.3 and 40 km, respectively, northeast of the Venezuelan coast of South America. The two islands have a combined land area of 5,128 km2. Both islands lie on the South American Continental Shelf and are directly influenced by the Orinoco and the South Equatorial Current. Separation from the continental mainland occurred in recent geological times, about 11,000 years for Tobago and 1,500 for Trinidad. The biota and terrestrial habitats of Trinidad reflect the ecology of equatorial South America unlike the other Windward Islands which have ecosystems dominated by island endemic species. On Tobago, four major vegetation communities have been described: littoral woodland, deciduous seasonal woodland, rain forest and swamp forests. The rain forest is restricted to sheltered mountain valleys of the Main Ridge. Lower montane forest, xerophytic rain forest, evergreen formations and some elfin woodland also occurs (Davis et al. 1986, Thelen and Faizool 1980).

In 1998, just over 248,000 ha (approximately 48% of the land area) was still classified as forest land, although much was under severe pressure from alternative uses. In Trinidad and Tobago it is estimated that the annual rate of loss of forest cover is approximately 300-600 ha as a result of squatting and agricultural and forest industrial activities (CARICOM/FAO/ODA 1993). Trinidad and Tobago's protected areas cover 24,748 ha, approximately 5% of the country's land area (IUCN 1992).

Biodiversity Features
Resulting from the proximity to, and recent geological split from, the South American mainland, Trinidad and Tobago have a high species to area ratio. The two islands have approximately 175 families and 2,500 species of plants, 110 that are believed to be endemic to the island, including numerous palms. There are also reported to be over 400 species of birds, 100 species of mammals, 85 species of reptiles, and 30species of amphibians (Huber and Meganck 1987; Kenny et al., 1997).

Tropical rain forest covers much of this ecoregion. In this forest type there are several tiers of vegetation interlaced with lianas and vines while epiphytic orchids, bromeliads and ferns are common. Typical plant species include Carapa guianenis, Ceiba pentandra, Spondias monbin, Pentaclethra macroloba, and Brownea latifolia (French 1991). One notable type of forest found extensively in east Trinidad, especially near Matura and Mayaro, is mora forest, dominated largely by Mora excelsa.

Birds constitute the largest group of vertebrates. Sixty-six families in twenty orders are represented in Trinidad and Tobago. The dominant order, as it is in many other parts of the world is the Passeriforms, accounting for almost a third of the families represented. A little over 400 species have been reported in Trinidad. As with other vertebrate groups, there are substantially fewer species in Tobago. About 170 species have been recorded for Tobago (French 1991).

Nine orders and about 27 families of mammals are represented and all are typical of the adjacent mainland and the wider neotropics. There are approximately 100 indigenous species but the bats and rodents predominate. Bats account for over half of the mammalian fauna. The rest of the mammalian group includes the marsupials, edentates, a single armadillo species, several rodents, primates, a few carnivores, and deer. About 40 species of snakes in six families can be found in Trinidad. In Tobago, there are fewer families and numbers of species. There are five families of lizards and about 25 species in Trinidad and Tobago. Of the amphibians in Trinidad, there are about 30 species in nine families, all in a single order. Tobago has only about one-third the number of species. All are frogs or toads of the anuran order. The golden tree frog (Phyllodytes auratus) is a notable endemic frog species of the montane forest in Trinidad.

Current Status
The Policy for the Establishment and Management of a National Park System in Trinidad and Tobago (Thelen and Faizool 1980) identified 61 areas as needing protection. These areas covered approximately 69,000 ha, and were classified into six different categories. Included were thirteen scientific reserves, eight national parks, eight natural landmarks, thirteen nature conservation reserves, six scenic landscapes and thirteen recreation parks. The eight proposed national parks, Caroni Swamp, Chaguaramas, Madamas, Maracas, Matura, and Nariva Swamp in Trinidad; and in Tobago, Bucco Reef and Eastern Tobago, cover almost half the proposed protected areas system (IUCN 1992).

In the case of the proposed Matura and Madamas National Park, management plans have been prepared by the Forestry Division and the Organization of American States (OAS) (Forestry Division/OAS 1990). In the early 1980s it was widely agreed that the level of conservation management being undertaken throughout all protected areas was minimal. In wildlife sanctuaries, including the Caroni Swamp, exploitation of timber was the principal activity (Chalmers 1981). A decade later indications were that although there were some controls on timber exploitation, poaching continued unabated. . Patrolling was reported to be inadequate in all wildlife sanctuaries, and only Caroni had active habitat management and a warden system. In December 1991, four areas, Aripo and Caroni Swamp, Matura Bay and Fishing Pond, were listed as gazetted forest reserve prohibited areas under the Forest Ordinance and Grande Riviere was added in 1997. By 1988 there were reported to be 13 wildlife sanctuaries totaling 17,076 ha.

The daily management of biological resources falls within the purview of the Ministry of the Environment, which has various divisions for specific resources. The Wildlife and National Parks Sections fall under the Forestry Division. The former regulates hunting, conducts wildlife research and implements the CITES and Ramsar Conventions while the latter oversees all state lands that have been designated as national parks on account of their ecological or socio-historical features.

Types and Severity of Threats
A great deal of forest in Trinidad and Tobago has been altered by humans. Roads, trails and clearings have opened up the forests in many areas, especially in the oil-producing districts of the south, while agricultural activities encroach gradually upon the lower slopes of the Northern Range and much of the lowland areas of the east and south (French 1991).

Principal threats to the biodiversity in this ecoregion include inadequate protected-area staffing, a need to enact legislation concerning establishment of protected areas, and a lack of public support for resource protection. Environmental concerns relate to those areas that are extensively mined resulting in a loss of topsoil, vegetation and fauna. Legislation is inadequate to prevent excavation, illegal forestry, squatting and other potentially environmentally harmful activities. Many of the sanctuaries and forest reserves have been invaded by squatters (Bacon & French 1972). The former Kronstadt Island, Morne L'Enfer and Valencia wildlife sanctuaries have been mined, quarried or logged to such an extent that in 1988 they were recommended to be degazetted. However, this has not been effected. Forest fires have taken their toll on Trinidad’s forests, especially on the slopes and ridges of the Northern Range. It is likely that most are the products of ‘slash and burn’ agriculture. This practice has consequently led to large areas of secondary growth forest.

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
Trinidad is unique in that it has been seeded by the mainland through flooding of the Orinoco River, and thus contains many of the mainland species as well as recent evolutions of endemic species resulting from this one way passage from which they arrive. The island is predominantly moist forest, and is mapped as such – with only mangrove and a small patch of dry forest which have been differentiated from it according to Beard (1944 & 1946). We have lumped together the following classifications from his Natural Vegetation of Crown Lands map: seasonal forests, intermediate formations, marshes, timber plantations, and montane forests.

Bacon, P. R., and R. P. French. 1972. The wildlife sanctuaries of Trinidad and Tobago. Wildlife Conservation Committee, Ministry of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries.

Beard, J. S. 1944. The natural vegetation of Tobago. B.W.I.

Beard, J.S. 1944. The natural vegetation of the island of Tobago, British West Indies. Ecological Monographs 14:135-163.

Beard, J.S. 1946. The natural vegetation of Trinidad. Oxford Forestry Mem. 20. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK.

CARICOM/FAO/ODA. 1993. National Forestry Action Programme. Port of Spain: Trinidad and Tobago.

Chalmers, W. S. 1981. Forests. St. G. C. Cooper and P.R. Bacon, editors, The Natural Resources of Trinidad and Tobago. Edward Arnold, London.

Davis, S. D., S. J. M. Droop, P. Gregerson, L. Henson, C. J. Leon, J. Villa-Lobos, H. Synge, and J. Zantovska. 1986. Plants in danger: what do we know? Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK: IUCN.

French R. 1991. A guide to the birds of Trinidad and Tobago. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Forestry Division, OAS. 1990. Management and Development Plan for the Madamas and

Matura National Park. The Eastern Northern Range Plan in Trinidad (1991-95). Phase II Report.

Huber, R. M. and R. Meganck. 1987. National parks of Trinidad and Tobago. Naturalist 7(3): 629.

IUCN. 1992. Protected areas of the world: a review of national systems. Vol. 4: Nearctic and Neotropical. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK: IUCN.

Kenny, J., P. Comeau, and L. Katwaru. 1997. A Survey of Biological Diversity, Trinidad and Tobago. United Nations Development Programme, Port of Spain.

Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Marine Resources. 1998/99. Annual Report of the Forestry Division.

Stoffers, A. L. 1993. Dry coastal ecosystems of the West Indies. In E. van der Maarel, editor, Ecosystems of the world 2B: dry coastal ecosystems Africa, America, Asia and Oceania. B.V. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science Publishers.

Thelen, K. D., and S. Faizool. 1980. Policy for the establishment and management of a national

park system in Trinidad and Tobago. Technical Document Forest Division/OAS Project on the establishment of a system of national parks and protected areas. Port of Spain, Trinidad: Forest Division, Ministry of Agriculture.

Prepared by: Sean Armstrong
Reviewed by: Rosemarie Gnam and Anne Sutton


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