Hunting Shorebirds in Guadeloupe
The hunting in Guadeloupe is very different than in French Guiana. Here hunters are better organized and command greater political power. They are skilled at using guns of quality and most seem expert at attracting and shooting shorebirds. In the US you might compare them to waterfowl hunters. They manage wetlands for the hunting of shorebirds called, in English, “killing swamps”. For over three months hunters will ring the swamps shooting at greater and lesser yellowlegs, golden plovers, stilt sandpipers and many other species. Whimbrels are the favorite targets.
In many ways you would be hard pressed to distinguish these hunters from hunters in the US–with one key difference. They lack a conservation ethic. The concept eloquently described by Aldo Leopold in the 1940’s places the burden on hunters to be sure their prey is sustainably managed. He said “In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” Since then US hunters have built one of the most successful and well funded conservation systems in the world. In Guadalupe, and many of the Caribbean Islands, where exhausted shorebirds seek refuge after grueling flights across the Atlantic, hunters care little for the welfare of shorebird populations.
This is not to say these are unethical people or that they are bad in any way. When we spoke to them they were personable and guileless, people who truly loved the sport of hunting: the rigors of the quest, the thrill of the kill and the joy of eating their prey. I was impressed with their mastery of shorebird calls with various shaped whistles. In another world they would be a great asset to us cannon netters.
In this world, however, they have no sense of the status of the animals they are killing. Consequently they don’t understand, or choose not to understand, they are killing animals in decline and not killing a harvestable surplus ( a cornerstone of wildlife management). For example the most common prey is the lesser yellowlegs. Canadian biologists have found it to be declining at over 7%/year with an accumulative decline of over 80% since the 1970’s. At that rate this abundant species will no longer be common. The reasons for the decline are complex but killing them for sport only adds to the problem.
The French Government, (Guadeloupe is a province of France), has acted recently to impose new protective measures. For example, the red knot was recently added to the a list of protected species. Additionally the National Hunting and Wildlife Agency (Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage) has begun implementing a new regulation that would stop hunting for 5 days following an orange flag event, an event warning citizens of an impending tropical storm or hurricane. This would stop the shooting of large numbers of vulnerable shorebirds seeking refuge during and following the passage of major storms. Much more can be done and agency biologists, like Anthony Levesque, and administrators seem aware of the need for decisive action.
Crucial to any agency action, however, is the need for the hunters of the Lesser Antilles to embrace a conservation ethic. I can’t say I condone the unmanaged hunting of shorebirds that are decline. Nevertheless it’s likely to continue so we should find ways to help manage it better. It should be remembered that in the US, hunters harvest birds in migration like waterfowl, including some shorebirds in decline, like the American Woodcock. The chief difference however is that US hunters have contributed to the restoration of game wildlife by investing millions of dollars from taxes and fees in widespread and effective monitoring and management programs. Paradoxically the harvest of these animals contributes to their successful management making them secure for the foreseeable future.
The hunters of the Lesser Antilles could take the same leadership role in the recovery of the shorebirds they now kill. There needs to be much better monitoring programs, sufficient to drive mathematical models that could estimate the population of harvested shorebirds and the maximum sustainable harvests. Hunters should be trained in the identification of shorebirds and educated in the principles of wildlife management, so they can find new ways to support restoration programs. Key sites should be protected from hunting, an equivalent of our National Wildlife Refuges, which incidentally, were established for the similar reasons but for waterfowl. More species should be added to the list of protected birds. Collected fees should drive these programs, so the hunters themselves play the key role in management.
The situation for shorebirds in the Western hemisphere is dire. Most are in decline some are in free fall and hunting them cannot help. But hunting, resting on the solid foundation of a robust conservation ethic could become a new powerful force for restoration that has thus far eluded North and South American ornithologists.