The first investigations in the archipelago
The first steps towards the preservation of the archipelago were taken by scientists who on numerous investigation campaigns emphasized the cultural and bio diverse richness present in the set of keys.
Fernando Cervigon one of the pioneers in the study of Venezuelan marine fauna, tells in his book Las Dependencias Federales about these expeditions.
He mentions that in the 16th century the exiting cartography gave origin to the name, which went from “ La Roca ” to “Los Roques”. He also mentions the participation of naturalists, from the botanic Adolfo Ernst in 1871 up to the visits done by the La Salle society of natural sciences which in the 50´s carried out the first multidisciplinary approximation to the richness in biodiversity in this landscape. (ictiofauna, herpetofauna, crustaceous, and flora).
In 1963 the Los Roques scientific foundation established its laboratories and facilities in Dos Mosquises and together with the collaboration of the University of Venezuela (UCV) and Simon Bolivar including the American universities, Harvard and Miami have carried out the most recent works on archaeology, fish, turtles, corals, fishing and oceanography.
Los Roques archipelago National Park
Decreed as a park in 1972 as a tribute to the one hundred years of the creation of the first national park in the world, the Yellowstone national park; the Los Roques archipelago with its bio diversity and colorful landscapes had been almost untouched, the reason its distance from the coast which protected it from the industrial discharge, cities, sea transport as well as the massive inflow of visitors. The archipelago was visited in pre Columbian times (almost 1000 years) and later in the 17th century, as a matter of fact there were industrial activity such as salt mining, timber and tannin from mangrove, limestone from coral and guano, bird droppings used as fertilizer. Almost a century after the cease of these activities, only the expert eyes can identify the traces left by those customs.
Fishing activity has lasted throughout time and although its relevance has changed greatly, it has always been important food for small settlements and slums. It is from 1950 with the arrival of ice for and motor boat engines that fishing becomes the predominant economic and social activity. However it has always been basically a craft activity and among the most abundant species are lobster, Botuto and others.
Towards the late 80´s and early 90's a great change took place which gave way to the archipelago we know today: tourism. A few adventurers and well off Venezuelans were the first ones to try the excellence of the Los Roques environment for relaxation and pleasure. Los Roques receives approximately 80,000 visitors per year.
Cultural and natural values of Los Roques
According to the Washington convention (1940) national parks are established regions for the protection and preservation of natural scenic beauty and the flora and fauna of national importance which ones placed under official surveillance can be enjoyed by the public. In addition these areas enclose exceptional representative samples of nature and landscape not totally changed by man.
In the case of Los Roques the classification plan emphasizes as its main objectives: To guarantee the existence of the coral reef, the covering of mangrove Halofic and Xerofilic communities, as well as the places and objects of historical and cultural heritage.
As far as the historical-cultural aspect is concerned those findings carried out by different archaeologist are quite outstanding. These refer to the Amerindian population who came from the Venezuelan central coast:
The Ocumareoids one thousand years ago and the Valenciaoids who came from the area around Lake Valencia on the mainland of Venezuela .
More recently are the remains of salt mining, Botuto shells, limestone ovens and the light house, which gives an idea of the lifestyle of early settlers who were able to colonize surroundings that were definitely much more hostile than they are today.
In the environmental aspect the richness of the coral reef must be highlighted. It has given way to the greater part of the archipelago, with the exception of the rock masses of Gran Roque. The rest of land which rises out of the water came from the development of these animal colonies in symbiosis with algae and with the capacity to believes you calcareous skeletons which over the years and as result of the changes in the it is level, gave way to islands and keys.
The archipelago has an atoll structure not very frequent in the Caribbean and common in the Pacific with external barriers formed by very developed and diverse coralline communities, an internal lagoon of shallow waters and sandy at the bottom of the sea.
These coralline communities are able to colonize transparent waters of low o nutritious content with warm and stable temperatures and to give cover to a wide variety of species of algae, sponges, mollusks, crustaceans and fish.
The complexity and fragility of the reefs is compared to that of the tropical rain forests and although these ecosystems are in a receding in all the coasts of the Caribbean , the reefs of the archipelago are a good example of communities in a very good state of preservation.
Mangrove swamps are adapted forests to saline soil. They are formed by a group of adapted species to different soil conditions, from areas always flooded to others influenced by the tides and the contribution of land fresh water. Among the most attractive adaptations are the reproduction from germinated seeds and the presence of air roots.
The swamps act as protection of the coast against erosion and they are refuge areas as well as feeding for the larva and juvenile phases of numerous species. Traditionally man exploited these communities for the obtaining of wood, vegetable coal, bark tannins for dyeing of leather and more recently for the construction of shrimp farms. In Los Roques archipelago it can be observed very well preserved examples of these types of communities.
Besides the swamps, the vegetation of the archipelago is formed by other types of communities:
Xerofitica, adapted to the scarce rain fall in the area (200mm average rain fall), The Cactus Melon as a representative species and the Halofila community adapted to the sandy soils, with its golden green carpet as the most representative element.
These vegetable communities, with their different green and brown rhymes; white sandy beaches the result of coral erosion and calcareous algae; the turquoise greens of shallow waters with this intense white sandy bottom make up this wonderful landscape of the archipelago of Los Roques.
"Los Roques a protected natural paradise"
The need to preserve the environment and its biodiversity is a relatively new feeling. Towards the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th there was significant progress in trying to classify living beings and classical naturalists emerged. In their trips around the world, these naturalists picked and classified plants and animals, which allowed them to make for the first time a vision of the range of the exiting bio diversity. Among the most outstanding are Linneo, Darwin, Wallace, Bates and Mutis. At the same time these discoveries were made, the first scientific associations came into existence that were aware of the capacity of industry to alter the environment and place the recently discovered species in danger. For the first time there was the possibility that future generations would not know a living world as that discovered by scientists. The London Zoological Society one of the pioneer societies was born in England in 1826. A few years later the London Zoo was created in order to keep living collections which represented animal bio diversity. Soon it became obvious that what was important was not to keep species but to maintain complete ecosystems that would warrant the survival of these species. In 1872 the Yellowstone national park was created in the United States . The need to preserve nature involved at the beginning small groups of scientists and people who were sensitive to what was beginning to happen; until in 1886 the Audubon Society was founded becoming the first association whose primary goal is the preservation of nature. Afterwards many similar associations sprang up all over the world such as Sierra Club, UICN, WWF among others which have managed to have political clout in national as well as international decisions.
In Venezuela the movement for the creation of national parks as a means for preservation of representative ecosystems of flora and fauna of the country was started in 1937. The first one was the Henri Pittier Park created as a tribute to the Swiss naturalist. This was followed by the Sierra Nevada in 1952; Avila and Guatopo in 1958. Mainly focused on the conservation of hydrographic basins and the quality of water for cities. Currently Venezuela has a total of 43 national parks and 40 natural monuments which make up 16% of the country's total land surface. These parks are managed by the National Parks Institute (Inparques), which depends on the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources.
Organization of the National Park
In the National park of Los Roques , due to its characteristics of border region and the population's size, there are many ministries such as Health, Education, Environment, and Defense, of State, Production and Commerce. Before the creation of the park and in the first years of operation the maximum authority (Autoridad Única) was the commissary, which depended on the Ministry of the State and with very limited functions in relation with the basic community services. Population growth and tourist activity made it necessary for major coordination between the public institutions in the island and in 1990 the Maximum Authority was created as well as an ordaining plan and regulation for the use of the park. The creation of this authority which depends on the Ministry of the State makes it clear how relevant natural components and preservation of the archipelago is for the government.
The Maximum Authority is a coordinator among the existing institutions and takes it upon itself the representation of the national park. At the same time carries out operations similar to those of a mayor one of the elements which has favored the success of this institution has been the possibility of obtaining its own funds and thus carries out its policies. The Maximum Authority collects the corresponding fees such as park entrance and all those other fees from the many different tourist activities, such as concessions from sailboats and Posadas , diving and fishing operators. This has made Los Roques economically independent from the rest of of Venezuela . The fact is that Los Los Roques has a much higher living standard and economically than any other place in Venezuela . Due to that fact the Crime rate is almost cero only beaten by the Maldives Islands (Indian Ocean) as being the safest tourist destination in the world. Perhaps one of the weakest points of the ordaining plan and regulations for park use has been the scarce participation of the population in the management of the park itself. An important change that has occurred in recent times has been the inclusion of the original local inhabitants through civil associations and work with Inparque (the Venezuelan National Park Authorities).
Important risks to the preservation of the national park of Los Roques
At present it is considered that the park is in good state of preservation. Its distance form the coast ( 104 miles ), the reduced communities that historically have occupied it, the development of industries at a small scale and the creation of the national park in 1972 has allowed the archipelago to be in conditions quite similar to those experienced by early settlers. However, changes which have recently taken place in the last two decades have made it clear the existence of a series of situations that may endanger the preservation of biodiversity and the beauty of this natural enclave.
The most important risk is related to the growth of tourist activity. In little less than a decade the park has seen a few thousand visitors with need for basic services to almost 80 thousand visitors per year and the type of more sophisticated and demanding tourism. This growth in tourism has generated new jobs and has brought with it an increase of steady population: from 400 inhabitants in the early 80´s In Gran Roque, it has gone to one thousand in the year 2000. Population growth and the increase of visitors have produced a greater demand for basic services (water, electricity and removal of solid waste and water treatment) with the corresponding environmental impact. Navigation within the park has increased as well as the pressure of visitors on keys and beaches.
Up to now there is no evidence that population growth has caused irreversible impact, but it is foreseeable that they may occur if tourist activity continues to grow at the same rate it has over the years. The unique authority together with the help of the Spanish government has carried out a study of tourist load capacity in order to establish the limits of this growth and the most important risks it brings.
Population growth has also produced a problem of space in Gran Roque. At present the area allocated for housing, according to the ordaining plan, has been almost used up. The purchasing of homes for guest houses and other tourist activities has put aside the population to the inner most part of the town with over crowding in some areas of Gran Roque. At the same time the demand for labor for tourist services has attracted towards Gran Roque workers from allover the country. This situation produces great pressure from the community to urbanize areas which at present are restricted. If at any time the area that can be allocated for urban growth is increased, this decision should be accompanied with a regulation for the settlement of new inhabitants; if is not so, in a very short time Gran Roque will lose its present aspect and all its surface will become built up.
Fishing is another great risk for the biodiversity of the national park. For centuries this activity was done in the archipelago, but the arrival of motor engines in the 50's, the use of synthetic fiber in fishing and the use ice allowed for a greater exploitation of resources at a more efficient and a greater rate. Towards the late 80's the traditional Botuto (King Conch) fishing was banned due to the low densities it showed. Unfortunately seizures by park officials of Botuto caught illegally are still common.
Preliminary studies on lobster fishing have indicated that the death rate by fishing is surpassing recommended levels. Over fishing of this resource will cause losses to fishermen who obtain to great deal of their profits from this treasured crustacean. It is clear that once lobster is not available, just as it happened with Botuto, fishermen will turn to other species and thus repeating the same cycle with other elements in the park.
Likewise fish were exploited in the archipelago from the arrival of the first visitors. At the beginning fish was used for the consumption of locals and another part was salted to be taken to other places. As from the 50´s the catch was intensified due to technological advances. However, since the creation of the park the tendency has been to reduce the more efficient arts and of bigger impact used frequently by fishermen who come from nearby Margarita Island and allow the more elementary ones, for the benefit of local fishermen.
The lack of reliable statistics on the activity of fishermen does allow for an evaluation of these resources. Nevertheless, the criteria for the ordaining of fish resources is normally aimed at keeping the population at levels of abundance that will allow for bigger catch in a sustainable way.
In the case of Los Roques we find a coral ecosystem of enormous complexity whereby the relations between the different elements which make it up are hardly known. It is known for example that the decrease of Caribbean hedgehogs had important repercussions in the coral communities due to the decrease in consumption of algae by hedgehogs and these compete with the coral for space. It is also known that some fish are equally important in the control of algae, but it is unknown the greater implications that the decrease in numbers of these fish may have on the reef community.
The solution to this problem lies in the evaluation of the fish resource and an assessment of the efficiency of the existing ordaining measures, and the agreement on behalf of the fishermen that the measures will be obeyed.
Gran Roque (the capital of Los Roques)
During their stay the majority of visitors dedicate the morning to visit the keys and set aside the afternoon to go for a ride somewhere in Gran Roque. The most interesting is the one going up to the old light house and its best to see it between 17:30 and 18:30 in the evening to enjoy the beautiful sunset lights. Start in the back part of the town in the dry area. During the way up you can appreciate the rock mass which makes up the Gran Roque. The wide variety of cactus (melon cactus) and prickly pears is outstanding. Half way along the road there is a small water course where one can observe the cliffs on the north side of the island and two small rocky islands called Los Morritos. These rocks have white patches because of the guano droppings left by birds when they nest or simply when they stop here. The last part of the way up is quite steep; a little before reaching the top the ground becomes white due to the remains of carbide which the light house used to operate with. The view from the light house is simply magnificent. In the horizon you can see the closest keys: Francisqui, Madrizqui and Cayo Pirata, Esparqui, Rabusqui, Crasqui and the Noronqui, but on a clear day you can see mount Avila on the main land (part of Caracas) also the island of Orchila can easily be distinguished. The light house built between 1870 and 1880 operated until the mid 50´s. At present it shows the passage of time and hopes that some of the projects for its restoration will come through.
From the light house there is an unrivaled view of Gran Roque, the landing strip and the three lagoons that occupy the west side of the island. These lagoons become filled with water by an existing crack in the farthest storm terrace; two of them are bordered by a thick dark mangrove forest and the closest one to the town was a salt lake where salt was obtained for the salting of fish. Currently the construction of the landing strip and the border wall of the town prevent it from drying up completely. From the light house there is a small trail that leads to a mountain top with a little cross: it is called Calvary where a ceremony takes place on May 4th, a custom brought over from nearby Margarita Island. For joggers there is a track that runs out from the town's main street (1st street), it goes out to the services area and comes back to the base of the light house until the back part of the town. Very early in the morning and at sunset this track is the meeting place for the lovers of the sport. The beach at Gran Roque is not visited very much by swimmers or bathers, because of the many boats anchored there. The real beauty is located on the nearby keys with magnificent beaches and nature. The Autoridad Unica has carried out several efforts to recover this beach with limited success. Anyhow this beach continues to be an attractive promenade ideal for a good walk, where the traditional fishing boats are next to modern fiber glass boats. After the basket ball court there is the fisherman's harbor, where they untangle their fishing hooks at the first thing in the morning and make the baits in the afternoon. The beach is full of sea birds which dip into the sea for their food constantly. The beach of Gran Roques is one wonderful place to enjoy the sunset, and the night life is full of real romance.