- November 30th, 2011
- in Yachting
A brown streak zips across the road in front of you. It happened so quick, you’re not sure what you saw. Maybe a rat, but it seemed bigger. Something like a small Dachshund with really short legs. Like most people, this is probably the closest you will ever get to a mongoose.
While you may not see one very often, the mongoose is actually widespread in the Virgin Islands and in the West Indies. Of course, they are not native to our region. Another example of humans moving animals around for some presumed benefit. Sometimes it may seem like a good idea, but it almost always turns out bad. The mongoose in our islands is a perfect example of good intentions gone horribly wrong. Let’s take a closer look and see why releasing these furry creatures on our islands harms our native wildlife.
First, a bit of science. The word mongoose usually refers to the Indian Mongoose in the genus Herpestes. Snake charmers occasionally pit the mongoose against the deadly cobra to demonstrate its speed, cunning, and strength. This is the animal that has been introduced throughout the Caribbean, the Hawaiian Islands, Australia, and much of the world’s tropics. There are over 30 species of mongoose, most native to Africa and parts of Asia. They look a lot like weasels and stoats, though not related to either. The meerkat, a well known member of the mongoose family, lives in extended family groups in Africa.
Seen up close, the mongoose is actually quite a charming little animal. It’s sleek brown fur, pointed snout and inquisitive eyes look cute and may even remind you of a pet ferret. Looks like you want to pick it up and give it a cuddle. Don’t do it. Their sweet, innocent looks are deceiving; the mongoose is really a voracious predator. This small package packs a potent set of teeth and a disposition to match. The mongoose is an active diurnal predator constantly on the prowl for its next meal. Its carnivorous diet will include just about anything it can catch and subdue. In the Virgin Islands that includes lots of insects and small animals like frogs and lizards. Baby birds in the nest and young chickens are definitely on the menu. After terrorizing the wildlife, the mongoose is not above tucking into the nearest dumpster for some restaurant leftovers.
Mongooses were originally introduced in the belief that they would eliminate rats and snakes from the islands. Unfortunately, this is a classic example of a rather poorly thought out idea backfiring completely. Rather than eliminating rats and snakes, much worse environmental damage was done. Human health also suffered in the process.
The mongoose is active in the day. Rats are active at night. Mongooses rarely encounter rats. Plus, the mongoose lives on the ground while rats are good climbers and will climb trees, especially when a mongoose is around. True, a mongoose does eat snakes. Trouble is, snakes in the Virgin Islands are not only harmless to people, they are an important part of the ecosystem. Snakes are very beneficial to humans, especially to farmers. In fact, mongoose do not eat rats, snakes do. Much more importantly, rats spread diseases to humans and do damage to property. Snakes do neither.
The sad truth is that the fear of snakes stirs from the recesses of our primordial past. Thus, anything that gets rid of snakes is fine by us, mongoose included. The result is that we do far more damage to the environment, and ourselves, in the process.
Time and again, fragile island ecosystems have been decimated by the furry fury unleashed by well meaning humans. The story is repeated throughout the world’s tropics, on every continent and remote islands in all the oceans. The wildlife in the Virgin Islands have not been spared the wrath of these pint-sized predators. The mongoose has been here a long time, probably brought in during the Plantation Era. Tortola, St Thomas, St Croix, and many other islands have been impacted.
A perfect example of how mongoose can devastate wildlife may be seen on Jost Van Dyke. We don’t know for sure, but we suspect the mongoose was introduced only a few decades ago. The prolific breeders found an abundant food supply and few predators to keep their numbers in check. It wasn’t long before the population exploded. On a brief stroll around Great Harbour, you will easily seen dozens of mongooses, maybe more. You probably won’t see any snakes or ground lizards. The mongoose has cleaned out most of the small lizards and frogs. Too bad, because those harmless little reptiles and amphibians help you by eating mountains of mosquitoes. The ponds in Great Harbour once contained lots of baby ducks, moorhens and shorebirds. Not many survive these days. Of course, the rats are doing just fine. The mongooses actually help the rats by reducing their predators.
Over the years scientists have learned that there are often serious consequences to humans when the environment is disturbed. In a natural ecosystem, there are predators and prey, insects and birds, lizards and frogs, all in equilibrium. Once the hand of man starts to manipulate the system to “improve” it, disaster is usually not far away. There are countless examples of human interference resulting in costly mistakes. The mongoose has upset delicate island ecosystems worldwide. Endemic island animals have been driven to the brink of extinction. Don’t forget it was the rat that unleashed the black plague in medieval Europe. The loss of life was enormous and human suffering unimaginable. Remember, more mongooses equal more rats. Think about that when considering adding the mongoose to a new island.
The mongoose is a fascinating animal. It is full of personality and interesting to observe—in its native habitat. It is certainly worth looking for in Asia or Africa. Mongoose importation is now banned in the United States, Australia, and many other countries. We should try to make the Virgin Islands mongoose free so our own unique and indigenous wildlife can survive as they did for eons before the arrival of Columbus.