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An ecotourism succes story

Monday, November 12 2007

click on pic to zoom in
The late Asa Wright...
The late Asa Wright...

THE ASA Wright Nature Centre and Lodge, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, continues to be a global leader in ecotourism, attracting nature lovers, researchers and environmentalists from around the world.

Yet, had it not been for the vision and commitment of a few individuals, the world-famous destination might have been just another neglected and abandoned estate hidden away in the Northern Range.

The Nature Centre occupies nearly 1,500 acres of mainly forested land in the Arima and Aripo Valleys of the Northern Range, retained under forest cover to protect the community watershed and provide important wildlife habitat.

The main facilities are located on a former cocoa-coffee-citrus plantation, previously known as the Spring Hill Estate. This estate has now been partly reclaimed by secondary forest, surrounded by impressive rainforest, where some original climax forest on the steeper slopes have a canopy of 100-150 feet. The whole effect is one of being deep in tropical rainforest.

In 1936 Joseph and Helen Bruce-Holmes bought Spring Hill Plantation from the government, which acquired it in default of taxes. Holmes, an oilfield engineer, was particularly interested in the property because of the very accessible Oilbird Cave. The couple renovated the plantation house, and lived there until after World War II, when they returned to the United States. For a while the plantation was neglected until it was sold to Newcombe and Asa Wright. Wright was “sickly,” so his wife Asa, described as “a strong, confident, Icelandic woman” took charge of the plantation.

At about that time William Beebe of the New York Zoological Society, acquired the adjoining plantation, Simla, as a field station for the study of the New World Tropics. Because of the well-known Oilbird Cave, Asa Wright became the hostess to numerous visiting scientists, including David Snow, who studied the resident oilbirds for over four years, and John Dunston, a local entomologist, who helped protect the colony from poachers (the Cave is named in his memory).

Springhill began to gain international attention because of its ease of access to spectacular wildlife, and Asa Wright became an innkeeper to visitors from around the world.

Newcombe died, leaving Asa Wright with dwindling financial resources. As she aged it became difficult for her to maintain the plantation. This was a source of concern for conservationists from around the world. William Beebe died and Simla fell into disrepair.

A small group was formed to do something to save the two facilities.

In 1967, Don Eckelberry, a renowned wildlife artist, Erma Fisk, a prominent ornithologist and conservationist, and Russell Mason of the Florida Audubon Society raised money to buy Spring Hill. A non-profit Trust administered by the Bank of Nova Scotia Trust Co., and an international Board of Management composed of 11 Trinidadians and ten foreign members was set up to establish the Asa Wright Nature Centre.

And so it was that 40 years ago, the world-famous Nature Centre was opened to the public for recreation and the study of tropical wildlife, as well as to preserve the wildlife and rainforest of the Arima Valley.

Asa Wright lived at the Centre untill she died in 1971.

Shortly thereafter the New York Zoological Society gave the Asa Wright Nature Centre the Simla Research Center, and it became a tropical research facility.

In recognition of its contribution to conservation, the Nature Centre has been the recipient of several prestigious national, regional and international awards.

The Caribbean Conservation Association recognised the Nature Centre in 1992 with an award for its “outstanding contribution to the conservation of tropical Wildlife.”

The Green Leaf Award, which is conferred annually by Trinidad and Tobago’s Environmental Management Authority (EMA) to individuals and organisations that have made a significant contribution to environmental conservation in the country, was also awarded to the Nature Centre in 2000.

ISLANDS magazine declared the Centre as its Ecotourism Award winner for 1998 and the following year Audubon magazine selected the Centre as one of just nine eco-lodges worldwide that it considered one of “The World’s Ultimate Outposts.”

In 1993, the Nature Centre was awarded one of TT’s highest national honours, the Hummingbird Gold Medal, for its community service in the field of environmental conservation.

Last Saturday the Nature Centre commemorated its 40th anniversary with an official luncheon and sod-turning ceremony for the new Jonnie Fisk Administrative Centre.

(Information courtesy the Asa Wright Nature Centre and Lodge)

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