by Larry Smith
Long before the science of ecology was born, adventurers were reporting on the natural wonders of the Bahamas. And one of the star attractions of the Bahamian environment was the flamingo - our national bird.
One early European visitor recorded hunting and catching a great number of "Swanees" during a stopover in the Bahamas on his way to Virginia in 1587.
These scarlet-coloured wading birds (which resembled swans to European explorers) are one of six species scattered around the globe. The West Indian variety nests in large colonies on coastal mudflats and saltpans, principally in the Bahamas, Mexico, Bonaire and in the Galapagos.
Mark Catesby produced the first illustrations of the West Indian flamingo for his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. This famous work was commissioned in the 1700s by Sir Isaac Newton to document the plants and animals of the New World.
In 1890, an American naturalist named John Northrop observed flamingo rookeries on the west side of Andros, and noted that "a large number of young birds are yearly destroyed by the people for food. We ate the bodies of those we obtained and found the flavor most delicious."
Frank Chapman, a pioneer ornithologist from the American Museum of Natural history, found thousands of nesting flamingos in South Andros during a field trip in 1904, and his reports helped promote passage of the Bahamas Wild Birds Protection Act the following year.
"Neither they, nor any other Bahaman bird was protected by law," Chapman wrote, "and I take no small pleasure in saying that when this matter was brought to the attention of the proper authorities, an adequate bill was prepared and passed at the next session of the colonial legislature."
Today, we are fortunate to have more than 60,000 flamingos surviving in the remote salt marshes of Inagua, some 380 miles southeast of Nassau, but a look back at the history of this achievement shows that things could so easily have gone the other way.
A good place to start would be in 1900, when a traveller named G. J. H. Northcroft described the flamingo as the "king" of Bahamian birds. But in his book, Sketches of Summerland, Northcroft noted a disturbing trend:
"Formerly plentiful on the larger islands (the flamingo) is now becoming scarce. The reckless way in which the young are taken, often when just hatched, and the older birds shot for their flesh or wings or captured for sale as curiosities, is lamentable. This wholesale destruction - as cruel as it is short-sighted - is causing the flamingo to go the way of the dodo."
During the first half of the 20th century flamingos were pushed into ever more remote areas as human development expanded: "The Inagua colony is the most magnificent of all," reported an adventurer named Gilbert Klingel in the 1930s. "Here the flamingos will make their last stand...and it will be only a short time before one of the world's most sublime sights will have disappeared from the Earth."
Frank Chapman (the ornithologist who had led the 1904 expedition) was a mentor to Robert Porter Allen, an Audubon Society expert who scoured the Caribbean searching for flamingos in the early 1950s. In his popular book, On the Trail of Vanishing Birds, Allen found that the colonies on Andros had already disappeared. And he determined that the largest surviving group of flamingos - only about a thousand birds - inhabited the isolated back-waters of Lake Rosa, which he described as an "immense watery prairie".
So Allen and the Audubon Society decided to make a stand at Inagua, where they believed they could "hold off the eventual extinction of this species no matter what happened elsewhere." A group of influential backers was recruited in Nassau to form a Society for the Protection of the Flamingo, with Arthur Vernay as its leader.
Vernay was an English antiques dealer who had made his fortune in New York. An amateur zoologist, he went on collecting expeditions around the world for the American Museum of Natural History and spent his retirement years in Nassau. Before he died in 1960, Inagua had become the epitome of conservation chic in the Bahamas.
"So far as Inagua is concerned, the Society for the Protection of the Flamingo, with Arthur Vernay at the helm and with the good will and assistance of the Erickson family at Matthewtown, has provided complete warden protection," Robert Porter Allen wrote at the time. Audubon helped to finance this operation.
In 1956 the Society undertook an expedition to survey the flamingo colony on Inagua, and one of Vernay's associates invited James Bond creator Ian Fleming along for the ride. In the Bond novel, Dr No, (which was written that same year) the fictional island of Crab Cay, where the novel's evil genius lived, is a mirror image of Inagua.
"His island's topography, its sights and sounds, and the two wardens with their primitive little camp in the interior smack strongly of Audubon's real-life project on Great Inagua." according to an article published in the Audubon Magazine years later. In fact, Fleming even took the name 'James Bond' from an ornithologist who had published a field guide on West Indian birds.
In 1958 events accelerated. A Columbia University grad student named Carleton Ray teamed up with the well-known international explorer Ilia Tolstoy (a grandson of the 19th century Russian writer) to mount another Bahamian expedition, this time to the Exuma Cays. Robert Porter Allen and other big-name conservationists were included, and their report led to the creation of the world's first land and sea park in Exuma, as well as to the formation of the Bahamas National Trust.
In the early 1960s, this cadre of conservationists turned their attention to Inagua. According to Dr Ray, now in his 80s but still working as a research professor at the University of Virginia:
"After the passage of the BNT Act in 1959 and during the formal leasing process of the Exuma park, which was finalized in 1963, some of us were thinking about keeping up the momentum of protected-area conservation," he told me. "The flamingos were already protected to a degree, but we negotiated with government and the 184,000-acre Inagua National Park was set aside in 1965. This serendipitous series of events could never happen in today's more complex world."
Robert Porter Allen's pioneering visit to Inagua in the early 1950s had set in motion a train of events that just managed to enable the flamingo to evade extinction. But it was a story that would never have been told without the active involvement of one particular Inagua family - the Nixons.
Two brothers from Matthew Town - Sam and Jimmy Nixon - had guided Allen into the upper lakes region of Inagua to search for the elusive birds. And in 1952 Allen arranged for the Audubon Society to hire them as flamingo wardens. The Nixon brothers spent the rest of their lives working for the Bahamas National Trust, which had assumed responsibility for protection of the Inagua flamingos.
When Allen retired in 1960, his position as the Audubon Society's research director was taken over by Alexander Sprunt, a former Texas wildlife warden. And Sprunt spent the rest of his life working with the Nixons and the BNT to ensure the survival of Inagua's flamingos.
Sprunt and the Nixons, together with others from the BNT, carried out regular banding studies on the Inagua flamingos for years. As a result, scientists learned a lot more about the rate of mortality, the composition of flamingo populations by age, and the movement of these birds throughout the Caribbean, particularly between Cuba and Inagua.
The three men shared an unbreakable bond over more than 40 years, until Sam passed away in 1986. Jimmy Nixon and Sandy Sprunt both died in 2007. Years earlier, Sprunt had told a newspaper reporter: "The Nixons have virtually ended flamingo hunting on Inagua. They've been an ethical anchor and an educational resource for the people. And if it hadn't been for them, I doubt if there would be any flamingos left."
Largely uninhabited until the mid-19th century, Inagua's relative isolation makes the island a unique environment for birds, with more than 200 species wintering there. And it is impossible to separate Inagua's flamingos - which over the past 50 years have been rescued from near extinction - from salt.
Salt production had been a long-established industry in the southern islands, dating from 1848, when Nassau merchants formed the Henagua Salt Pond Company. Over the intervening years the salt pans changed ownership many times, but since 1954 the operation has been known as Morton Salt (Bahamas) Ltd.
Happily, this industry lives in delicate balance with the flamingo refuge. As one writer put it: "Algae, fostered by flamingo droppings, grows in the salt pans and darkens the water. This hastens evaporation by absorbing more sunlight. Then tiny brine shrimp begin feeding on the algae, cleaning the water. And the flamingos feed on the shrimp until the salt is ready for harvesting, leaving everybody tickled pink. Morton and the flamingos were made for each other."
Today the consensus is that, in many parts of the world, these extremely shy birds are at risk due to loss of feeding and breeding sites. The number of breeding sites in the Caribbean has fallen from possibly 35 to around five, and the largest colony is found in the Inagua National Park - which remains a true conservation success story.
Flamingos are among the world’s longest-lived birds - there is a 1998 record of a female flamingo breeding successfully at the age of 53. And The Bahamas National Trust still operates a field station at Lake Rosa (named after Arthur Vernay) while Inagua continues as a magnet for both conservationists and ecotourists.
It is not hard to see why. This description by Robert Porter Allen during one of his early visits to Inagua describes a large flock of flamingos engaged in their ritualistic courtship dance:
"We could see a solid band of red. It shimmered and undulated in the heat exactly as if it were a long sheet of flame...They moved this way and that, without obvious purpose, like a hysterical and leaderless mob. Tightly packed as they were, and with every individual jostling his neighbor and all of them jumping about like madmen, the outlines of the flock ebbed and flowed, as if it were molten, red-hot lava...the din was frightful."