St. Lucia - The Collector, by Peter Jones (1983)

When Charles Darwin made his second voyage to the Galapagos Islands on HMS Beagle, he was most surprised to note that the creatures that he collected in different islands varied in small details from island to island, while each variation was constant in its own island. These findings became a crucial part of his evolutionary theory - that animals were affected by their environment and that differences in altitude, soil, vegetation, diet, etc., would create variations over the years in aspects of each animal’s development.

As for the Galapagos Islands, so too for the archipelago of the Eastern Caribbean, a chain of small islands stretching from Antigua in the north to Trinidad and Tobago and the coast of South America to the south. St Lucia, an island roughly no more than 50 by 30 km in size, has its own iconic Green Parrot, a different although related species to the green parrots of the neighbouring islands of St Vincent and Martinique. It also has a host of lesser known wildlife, much of which is unique to this beautiful, fairly mountainous island nation.

All this preamble is to explain why an illegal collector of rare species would find himself plying his trade in St Lucia. There is, sadly, a market in uncommon species in many parts of the world. We were alerted to his presence by the wildlife protection group on the island, a organization of concerned residents, both local and expatriate, who however had no official mandate to interfere in this gentleman’s activities. Was there any possibility, they asked, of searching his bags on departure? (There were no official baggage departure checks at the time).

The main airport in St Lucia is at Vieux Fort at the southern end of the island and fairly remote from the main centre of population. In the small town of Vieux Fort everybody knows everybody, so it was not difficult to get senior representatives of our handling agent, LIAT, the airport management, customs, immigration, plant health and others involved in a small plan to protect part of St Lucia’s unique heritage.

When our man checked in, his suitcase was put to one side. Ten minutes later, a call was put out for him to return to the check in area. It was explained that there was a problem with his baggage and he was asked to come behind the counter into the traffic office. Meanwhile, several customs and immigration officials had come into the traffic office together with the beefiest and most intimidating of the baggage loaders. He was asked to open his bag as strange noises had been heard from it (untrue). He refused. He was told the bag could not be loaded until it had been inspected. Refused again. Stalemate. Meanwhile the loaders had been encouraged to make threatening noises and gestures of dissatisfaction that one might expect from a Welsh colliery front row gearing up for the first scrum of a local needle match. Eventually, he conceded he would have to open the suitcase.

Wrapped up in towels, socks, are other garments were found a collection of small frogs, lizards, beetles and other creatures, all presumably unique to the island. No Green Parrots though. With the assistance of the island’s vet these creatures were carefully recovered and put in suitable containers, with those still alive to be liberated into their natural habitat in due course. The collector was allowed to travel on the aircraft with his remaining baggage, but not before all his passport and other details had been taken to be circulated to other wildlife protection organisations around the world. He is now persona non grata in St Lucia, the whole Eastern Caribbean and, one hopes, many other places besides.

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