Native Son Captures Beauty of Trinidad's "Eden"

Betsy Querna
National Geographic Today
May 8, 2001
Most people are still asleep when Roger Neckles hikes up the mountains
of Trinidad and Tobago's Northern Range, which rises just over 3,000
feet (914 meters). Neckles is Trinidad's most famous wildlife
photographer and, this morning, he's at the Asa Wright Nature Center
trying to shoot the piping guan, locally called the pawi.

"This is the best time of the day for me," he said in an interview with National Geographic Today, "getting up at five in the morning—heading off for the sticks, up into the mountains. The atmosphere, the temperature up here is just fantastic, pure oxygen. This is a typical day in the office for me."

While it may be a typical day for Neckles, his work is anything but ordinary. Neckles is arguably the most prominent wildlife photographer in the Caribbean. His work has been published in numerous local and international publications, including National Geographic magazine.

Career Born of a Passion

Born in Trinidad in 1956, Neckles moved to London with his family when he was still a baby. His interest in birds began when he was a boy in England, but became a passion when he visited Trinidad, home to more than 400 species of tropical birds, in 1978.

He has had no formal training in photography, but began taking pictures of birds when he was frustrated at not being able to find good pictures of them in the library.

Neckles has been photographing wildlife in Trinidad and Tobago for the past 15 years. His love for these small islands is unquestionable. "Close your eyes. Imagine you died and went to heaven—the Garden of Eden," he said. "It's incredibly beautiful—flowers, birds, butterflies zipping all over the place. It's like paradise."

The Asa Wright Nature Center, where Neckles describes the "Eden" that lures him to this country, is covered by tropical rain forest. The 1,250-acre (500-hectare) center is home to about 170 species of birds, 29 species of bats, and 600 types of butterflies.

Fat Bird Colony

One of the most famous attractions at the nature center is Dunston Cave, which has colonies of the owl-like oilbird (Steatornis caripensis), the only known nocturnal, fruit-eating bird species.

Rich brown in color, oilbirds have powerful hooked beaks that they use to pluck fruit while hovering in the air. They feed their young on rich, oily fruits, which makes them grotesquely fat until they slim down when their feathers begin to grow in. In the past, the baby birds were captured and their fat boiled down for torch oil, giving the species its common name.

Today, the nature center is thriving under the leadership of a board with local and international members. But its future wasn't always so rosy. Formerly a plantation of cocoa, coffee, and citrus fruits, the area fell into disrepair until 1967. A concerned group of conservationists raised money and established the reserve as a public center for studying and conserving the wildlife of Trinidad.

Today, the center has more than 8,000 visitors annually. They come to see the beautiful foliage, the rare oilbirds, and the spectacular array of tropical wildlife. Those who are unable to come can experience the beauty of the land through Roger Neckles' work. "I have no plans to give this up at all," he told National Geographic Today. "I could do this for the rest of my life."

A report on photographer Roger Neckles and the Asa Wright Nature Center aired Tuesday, May 8, on National Geographic Today.

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