Aliens. Whenever this word pops up in popular culture our first imaginings are of green-skinned and bug-eyed beings, who took it upon themselves to travel millions of light years to our solar system, visit earth and frighten the bejesus out of us simple humans (or to eat, enslave, experiment, exterminate or impregnate us! Yikes!). Needless to say movies like Aliens and Predator (my absolutely favourite movie franchises of the genre!) perpetuates quite brilliantly this idea of human-hungry/xenophobic aliens we all love to watch on the big screen.
In the context of today’s tour though, I’m talking about the deliberate and not so deliberate introduction of earth-bound animal species from other geographic locations into Jamaica’s ecosystem and their consequences, if any. One or two might just surprise you.
Yep, that’s right; camels were introduced to Jamaica many donkey years ago. (By the way, donkeys were also introduced to Jamaica by the Spaniards in the 15th century, when Columbus arrived during his second voyage; but with a positive impact overall, as history attests.)
I already see the question marks over your heads: Why were camels introduced and for what purpose? Here’s the story.
It is thought that several camels were brought to Jamaica during the 1600s, and later were also bred. Writing in the late 18th century, historian Edward Long recorded in Vol. III of his The History of Jamaica (1774, pg. 898) that: “These animals were originally bred here, with a view of carrying sugar and rum to the market, instead of mules.”
Many had great expectations for these camels, the so-called “ships of the desert.” I guess the thinking was that if they managed so well in the sandy reaches of the world then they should work well in Jamaica. Additionally, “the camel was known to be far more docile and tractable, and equal to bear much heavier burthens…” (Long 1774, pg. 898).
This project proved quite futile as the camels were not able to adapt to the rocky and hilly terrains of their new home. Long (1774, pg. 898) reported that: “…upon trial, it appeared, that the roads were much too rocky for their hoof; that the hills were too steep, and that nature had designed them only for extensive and level sandy deserts.” They eventually became nothing more than road hazards , “terrifying horses traveling the roads, and causing the overturn of carriages now and then” (Long 1774, p. 898).
Having realised the economic folly of their experiment, the colonialists lost interest in the camels, and they eventually died out.
It surprised me to learn that we have an invasive specie of deer, the white-tailed deer, roaming sections of Portland. They have been sited in and around the communities of Mount Pleasant, Industry, Shrewsbury, Content, Darley, Little Spring Garden, Eden Wood, Paradise and Swift River (NEPA 2007).
According to reports, a number of these deer were imported in 1980 as additions to the local tourist attraction, Somerset Falls in Portland. Reports have it that several of the deer (no definitive number was found) may have escaped during the 1980 hurricane Allen; and in 1988 six escaped into the wild during the September 1988 hurricane Gilbert: three males and three females.
With no natural predators and an appetite for the local flora, including agricultural crops such as carrots, pumpkins, potatoes, peas, tomatoes and corn from the areas they have been sited, the white-tailed deer’s population has increased rapidly since 1988. NEPA estimated back in 2007 that the deer population in Portland had increased to 182 animals (NEPA 2007).
Needless to say, small-scale farmers in the affected communities are not happy. Environmentalists are also concerned about the possible impact of the increasing deer population on the natural habitat. These worries have their basis in history, such as the problems in the past with the introducton of one particular invasive animal, the mongoose (no. 3).
On the other hand, others enjoyed the benefits of these animals as new sources of nutrition and income. Some have declared “[deer] meat eat sweet” (Owen 2007), while others have been catching the deer as a new source of income in response to the demand for deer meat. In 2007, deer meat was being sold for JA$400 or more per pound.
The deer population in Portland also caught the eye of nature lovers, with many going out just to catch a site of these expatriate animals. I found out that local tour company, Sun Venture Tours, also organised “a fact-finding trip once a year in March-April into the hills of Portland during the full moon for the curious deer-watcher” (Mills 2001). I’m not sure if they still do this (their website doesn’t say).
The mongoose has become the poster animal of the negative impact of introducing an alien animal specie to Jamaica and in other Caribbean countries where it was also imported. Introduced in 1872, the government undertook the task of importing mongooses to the colony “because of the fact that the finest and largest surgar estates were infested by rats” (The Daily Gleaner 1890).
The first to introduce the mongoose on his plantation was a planter named William Bancroft Espeut on his sugar plantation, Spring Garden in Portland: four male and five female mongooses from India. The aim was for them to exterminate the cane rats. While they did lessen the presence of the rats on the sugar plantations (not exterminating the rats as the authorities had hoped), thus saving the sugar planters an estimated £45,000 annually 10 years after their introduction (Senior 2007, pg. 325), their dramatically increased numbers across the whole island proved detrimental to local poultry, birds and small animals. The mongoose eventually became a pest itself.
During a discussion on the mongoose problem in the Legislative Council, held on Friday, April 19, 1890, it was decided to appoint a commission to “enquire thoroughly into the matter and suggest what would be the best way of exterminating the mongoose” (The Daily Gleaner 1890, pg. 2). The mongoose was blamed for nearly exterminating “all the ground laying and feeding birds, poultry, eggs of all kinds, on the ground and in trees including those of the land turtle…” The mongoose was also blamed for killing “young pigs, lambs, and kids; [eating] fruits of all kinds, canes, ground provisions, fish, wildfowl, snakes, lizards, crabs &c.” (The Daily Gleaner, Thursday, September 5, 1895, pg. 4).
In fact, the mongoose is held responsible for the extinction of five endemic vertebrate species: a lizard (Giant Galliwasp); a snake (Black Racer); a mammal (Jamaican Rice Rat); and two birds (Jamaican Paruraque and Jamaican Petrel) (NEPA 2007). The mongoose still remains a threat to endemic and endangered animals such as the Jamaican iguana.
The mongoose is found all over the island, from the valleys to the hills, from urban to rural areas. Known for how swiftly it scurries from place to place, and for its voracious appetite and lengths to which it will go to catch a meal, the mongoose is immortalised in Jamaica’s popular culture with the following proverb an ode to its bravery: “Mongoose seh, “Ef yuh nuh tek chance, yuh nuh man.””
Yes, rats were also introduced to Jamaica and what a nuisance they were and still are. As you’ve read above, cane rats were a particular nuisance to sugar planters who, before introducing mongooses, would have to hire rat-catchers to get rid of them. Of course this was no hindrance to the growth of the rat population and its negative impact on the sugar plantations. So the mongoose was introduced, with its own dire consequences.
According to Long (1774) during the 18th century, four different species of rats infested the island, two of which were introduced:
- The Charles-price rat: the largest of the four species that is thought to have been introduced to the island from a Danish ship that was driven into Kingston Harbour during bad weather.
- Black house rat: originally brought to the island from England in arriving ships.
The other two were indigenous to the island and referred to as field rats, a danger to the cane fileds, and domestic rats.
Rats have become such a problem within the Corporate Area that one of the promises from newly appointed Mayor of Kingston, Senator Angela Brown-Burke, in 2012 was that the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation (KSAC) would “move post-haste to address, frontally, the widespread rodent infestation and to work with all stakeholders in designing a full-scale rodent eradication programme” (Burns 2012).
Only time will tell the success of such a programme. I’ve broken out in goose pimples the several times I’ve seen some of the rats that infest the New Kingston area. Some of them are just so huge! And trust me, they are not afraid of humans.
Many animals that call Jamaica home sweet home were introduced to the island, some without impacting negatively on their surrounding environments. Others, like the mongoose, has had a seriously negative impact on Jamaica’s natural habitat. Only time will tell what will be the overall impact of the white-tailed deer.
You can visit the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) for more information about invasive animal species in Jamaica.
Until next time…
Burns, Chris (2012). Rats, Rats, Everywhere! Jamaica Observer, Monday, April 9, 2012.
Long, Edward (1774). The History of Jamaica, Vol. III. London: T. Lowndes.
Mills, Claude (2001). Deer Population Growing in Portland. The Sunday Gleaner, December 17, 2000, pg. 1A & 3A.
National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) (2007). Aliens of Xaymayca, Vol. 1, Issue 1 (October 2007).
Owen, Everard (2007). Two Deer to his Heart. Sunday Observer, January 7, 2007.
Senior, Olive (2003). Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers, Ltd.
The Daily Gleaner, Saturday, April 19, 1890, pg. 2.
The Daily Gleaner, Thursday, September 5, 1895, pg. 4.