The Union Island wardens look like they are ready for battle. They wear camouflage and have been trained in self-defence.
In fact, they are on a mission to protect one of the smallest species in the world. This species is so rare that it only lives in 50 hectares (123 acres) in a remote part of one of the smallest islands in the Caribbean.
The Union Island gecko is about the size of a paperclip. It is on the verge of extinction, and its biggest threat comes from poachers.
After it was officially found in 2005, the strange creature quickly became the most trafficked reptile in the Eastern Caribbean because collectors were fascinated by its gem-like markings.
At least, that was the case before the Union islanders got involved. Residents of St. Vincent and the Grenadines who have been trained as wardens have been walking through this dense virgin forest since 2017. They are on call 24/7 in case anyone breaks in.
Their work, which was done in cooperation with the government’s forestry department and international conservationists like Fauna and Flora International (FFI), has been credited with an 80% rise in population. A recent survey showed that the gecko population has grown from 10,000 in 2018 to around 18,000 now. This is six times more than the number of people living on the island.
Glenroy Gaymes, the government’s top wildlife officer, says that community involvement has been very important.
Mr. Gaymes says, “A lot of people didn’t even know the gecko existed.” “We went from house to house, held meetings on the side of the road, and put on programmes in schools to make people aware. We had to go into the forest to catch one and bring it to the meetings so people could see what it was. Everyone was surprised because they had been hoping for something much bigger.
“It’s only an inch and a half long, but everyone was so impressed.”
Refuge for biodiversity
In February 2018, Roxanne Froget became the first woman to be in charge of Union Island.
“When I heard that the gecko only lives on Union Island, I thought, “Wow!” “It was so beautiful the first time I saw it, with all its colours,” she says.
When brought into the light, the geckos slowly change from dark brown to different colours.
Ms. Froget was excited to join the project because she loves nature.
“We check the forest every day and are on call at all times. We are protecting everything, from the animals and plants to the stones that people used to build with because they are part of the geckos’ home. “The area must be completely unspoiled,” she says.
“I love being out in nature and hearing the birds. “Every day I look forward to going to work,” says the mother of two with a smile.
“So does my son, who is nine years old. I tell him everything I know about the gecko and how I help take care of it. I’m so proud to be a part of this work, especially since it’s happening on my island, which is also my home.
In addition to active patrol training and self-defence skills, which are taught by Mr. Gaymes, who has a fourth-degree black belt in taekwondo, wardens are taught about the many interesting species that live in the forest and the traditional uses for medicinal plants so that they can teach local schoolchildren and visitors about these things.
Union Island doesn’t have a lot of money, but it has a lot of different kinds of plants and animals. Since the gecko project started, the team has added work to protect other endemic animals, like the “pink rhino” iguana, which is also threatened by poachers.
The fact that reptiles are hard to find and have bright colours has hurt them.