Technically not a banana republic, Sint Maarten acts like one
PHILIPSBURG, Sint Maarten––Suddenly globally infamous for a scheme to exterminate an estimated 450 feral vervet monkeys, who have colonized the 16-square-mile Caribbean island nation for nearly 400 years, the former Dutch colony of Sint Maarten might be considered a banana republic.
Sint Maarten does have most of the characteristics of a banana republic, including a long troubled history of often changing notoriously corrupt governments and an ultra-wealthy upper class taking advantage of tax shelters.
Yes, Sint Maarten has no bananas
But Sint Maarten does not produce an export crop of bananas. Indeed, the French half of the island, the separate nation of Saint Martin, imported $122,000 worth of bananas in 2020, since bananas are not produced locally.
Yes, Sint Maarten has no bananas for sale, not today, not yesterday, not tomorrow. Only a few ornamental banana trees grow in between hotels, estates, yacht harbors, bars, and banks.
The entire Sint Maarten agricultural sector accounts for less than 1% of the national economy, well behind banking and finance, and even farther behind tourism, which accounts for 45%.
The 450 vervets now on the government hit list happen to be among the most popular Sint Maarten tourist attractions, and are certainly the most watched land mammals, other than fellow tourists on the beaches in various states of undress.
That makes the Sint Maarten scheme to kill the vervets all the more bizarre, especially since tourism is only just beginning to recover after Hurricane Irma devastated the tourist facilities in 2017 and then COVID-19 brought a two-year slump in cruise ship traffic in 2020-2021.
Brought from Africa before 1700
From the first introduction of vervets, brought from Africa as pets in the late 17th century, generations before the slave trade brought the ancestors of much of the resident human population, until just a few years ago, one would be hard-pressed to find any published mention of the Sint Maarten vervets as any sort of problem.
Brought to other island nations including St. Kitts & Nevis, Barbados, and Cape Verde around the same time, possibly by the same Dutch mariners, and later introduced to Florida, vervets in almost any of their longtime habitats tend to co-exist almost as easily among humans as cats and dogs.
Sometimes––like cats and dogs––vervets are identified as a nuisance, but more as a nuisance requiring humans to keep doors and windows closed when away than as a threat warranting killing.
Nature Foundation Sint Maarten
The earliest hint of a scheme to kill the Sint Maarten vervets may have been a web posting dated September 9, 2020, in which the Nature Foundation Sint Maarten announced “a new project to find solutions for the continuing issues created by the invasive monkey species on the island, the vervet monkey.”
The real continuing issues might have had more to do with the Nature Foundation Sint Maarten finding a way to perpetuate its own existence.
“The invasive monkey species could be detrimental to the island’s economy and agriculture if left unattended,” the Nature Foundation Sint Maarten claimed, without specifying how a tourist attraction might harm the economy, or how vervets could do much damage to an agricultural sector consisting of little more than a few market gardens in the first place.
“He said, she said”
According to Caribbean Loop News writer Dionne Baptiste, “The Foundation says it was stated by a St Maarten Zoo board member that some vervet monkeys escaped the zoo or were looted and released after Hurricane Irma, increasing the issue of invasive monkey species on Sint Maarten.”
Note the reliance on anonymous hearsay.
Continued Baptise, “A recent local survey conducted online show that most monkeys are recorded by residents on the east side of the island, mainly including Pointe Blanche, Guana Bay and Dawn Beach. A large majority of respondents who participate in home agriculture said their crops were being affected by the monkeys entering their properties.”
In other words, some gardeners complained. But even a small lap dog might have cheerfully chased vervets away, without ever actually catching and harming them.
This is how vervet depredation on garden crops is done throughout the vervets’ native habitat in Africa.
What does a marine biologist know about monkeys?
“To investigate the monkey population,” Baptiste finished, “Alice Manley, a returning local who recently graduated from Anglia Ruskin University, will be interning for the Foundation to study this invasive species for possible management options.”
Manley describes herself online as a marine biologist. A newly graduated marine biologist could not normally pass for an expert on monkeys or monkey behavior; that would be the role of a primatologist. Neither could a marine biologist be considered an expert on agriculture, though she might know something about growing sea monkeys.
But Sint Maarten, with a human population officially believed to be 41,486, or one person per 92 vervets according to the quasi-official vervet count, is a place where one person may wear many hats, especially if the hats come with grant funding.
Are dope growers complaining?
Reported the India-based global news portal WION on January 23, 2023, adding to a similar report from The Guardian, “Nature Foundation St. Maarten, which as per its website aims to ‘preserve and enhance its (St Maarten’s) nature for generations to come,’ will execute the government-funded plan to capture and euthanize more than 450 monkeys over the next three years.
“The numbers are from a now-outdated survey carried out in 2020.
“The plan to kill hundreds of monkeys comes after farmer complaints that the invasive species were ‘raiding their crops and destroying their livelihood.’”
No report on the forthcoming vervet putsch, however, appears to have identified anyone in Sint Maarten who is a “farmer” whose livelihood might be destroyed by vervets––not even a marijuana grower.
$55,000 a year to bump off monkeys
Continued WION, “Sint Maarten’s ministry of tourism, economic affairs, transportation and telecommunication in December approved $55,000 in funding per year for the project.
“Leslie Hickerson, the Nature Foundation St. Maarten manager, said that it can be difficult to maintain population size control for invasive species as they lack natural predators in the area,” WION added.
That being the case, what controlled the vervet population for 400 years before the Nature Foundation St. Maarten showed up?
For that matter, what qualifies Hickerson to become the Heinrich Himmler of Sint Maarten vervets?
From office manager to dive instructor
Coming originally from Kearney, Missouri, Hickerson has been in Sint Maarten for fewer than a dozen years, none of them spent studying agriculture, ecology, primatology, wildlife management, or any other closely related subject.
Hickerson did, however, enjoy considerable opportunity to ingratiate herself with officials of the ministry of tourism, economic affairs, transportation, and telecommunication.
According to Hickerson’s LinkedIn page, “After graduating with my bachelor’s degree in sustainable tourism, I moved to the island of St. Maarten and began working in the tourism industry.
“Over the years I have worked as a front office manager for small inns, dive instructor, boat captain, underwater photographer, and many other positions.
“Tag, you’re it!”
“As a diver,” Hickerson adds, “I was an active volunteer for the Nature Foundation St. Maarten,” before obtaining a funded position.
“I participated in sea turtle tagging efforts, shark tagging, and educational shark weeks for local students,” Hickerson elaborates.
Note that tagging marine life is in increasing disrepute for harming the tagged animals more than helping to actually conserve species.
Vervet expert recommends sterilization
Dave Du Toit, founder of the Vervet Monkey Foundation, headquartered in Tzaneen, Limpopo state, South Africa, recommended to The Guardian and other media that to “vasectomize the males and sterilize the females” would accomplish far more effective vervet population control than just culling vervets.
“Du Toit also said that research into food disposal practices and the availability of food for wildlife might help in achieving a more harmonious existence between the monkeys and the humans of Sint Maarten,” wrote Guardian reporter Rebecca Bird.
“However,” Bird said, “yet another suggestion is to capture and relocate the entire monkey population. The proposition has been offered by Eusebio Richardson, a ranger with the Nature Foundation who says that given how fast these monkeys reproduce, relocation might be the only way to ‘protect the biodiversity of the island,’” which has yet to be shown to be at any risk from vervets.
Human population 15 times what it was in 1960
The human population of Sint Maarten, however, is now nearly 15 times what it was in 1960, when it had just 2,833 human residents––fewer than swarm ashore from many of the cruise ships that now dock there.
Yet to be mentioned by the Nature Foundation Sint Maarten is what it will do if the targeted vervets flee from the Dutch half of the island to the French side, Saint Martin, where vervets are not considered a problem.
Sint Maarten and Saint Martin have fought brush wars before. Would Sint Maarten invade Saint Martin to keep refugee vervets from re-invading?
The prospect of war over vervets may be remote, but that any extirpated species will re-colonize the habitat if it can, if the habitat remains attractive, is an ecological certainty.
Meanwhile, what about that vervet population in Florida?
Reported Rebecca Blackwell for Associated Press on March 30, 2022, “Vervets have roamed Dania Beach since the late 1940s after a dozen brought from West Africa fled a now long-closed breeding facility and roadside zoo. Today, Sint Maarten and Saint Martin 40 descendants are broken into four troops living within 1,500 acres around the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
“Florida wildlife officials often kill invasive species to protect native animals,” Blackwell mentioned. “But they tolerate the vervets, if they stay put. The monkeys are local celebrities, their travails detailed by TV and newspapers, and popular visitors with nearby workers, who feed them despite signs saying that’s illegal.”
Agriculture is big business in Florida, which ranks first in the U.S in production value of oranges, sugarcane, fresh market tomatoes, and watermelons, second in production value of strawberries, third in production value of cabbage, grapefruit, and fresh market sweet corn.
Vervets love all of those food crops. But no one in Florida appears to consider vervets any threat to the $4.8 billion-dollar-per-year field and tree crop industry, to say nothing of the $1.5-billion-per-year Florida marijuana industry.
Kenya vervet cull
There are places where vervets are killed at times to protect crops, currently including Muranga County in central Kenya, one of the most agriculturally productive parts of a nation in which farming employs 40% of the population.
At this writing, vervets had been culled for six days in eight Muranga County wards.
Yet even in Muranga County, 56 times the size of Sint Maarten, the vervet toll is unlikely to reach 450.