A dedicated environmentalist and passionate photographer, Greg Peterson is also the Board Chair of Aruba’s National Park, Parke Nacional Arikok.
Talk to Greg Peterson on just about anything, and he will quote past greats from Gandhi to Einstein. During our discussion about Aruba’s birds, he used an ancient Native American saying, “A man killed the bird. With the bird, man killed song. And when man killed song, man killed himself.”
That prophetic quote perhaps explains part of the motivation that led Peterson to start the Aruba Birdlife Conservation Foundation in 2010. He believes that habitat fragmentation, checkerboard development that essentially destroys natural habitat due to human encroachment, is rampant on his island. “We have human behavior with unplanned development with no recognition of nature on Aruba. It is causing fragmentation of the habitat. Plus, you have this invasive species, the boa constrictor. It is the impact of the two that are affecting the birds.”
The first boa spotted in wild Aruba was in 1999. Experts believe that there are now 5000 on the loose. The impact of the snakes, one-third of their diet is birds, has not gone unnoticed by Peterson. “We only have two sub-species on Aruba that are endemic-the prikichi and the shoko. Prikichis (brown-throated parakeets) have really been decimated. I used to see hundreds in a flock. Now, if I can see 9 or10 in a group, I have had a really good day. This has happened over the past 10 years. The shoko (the Aruban burrowing owl) has also been hit hard. One day after dissecting a boa, we found four baby shokos in the belly of the snake.” Considering that estimates peg the population at around 400, that is a significant loss for the burrowing owls of Aruba.
In addition to being president of the Aruba Birdlife Conservation Foundation, Peterson is also a member of the Boa Task Force, a group formed to control the boa population. “I killed 7 boa constrictors in 25 minutes around a watering hole one day. They wait there for birds to come in to drink. But boas will go anywhere. We’ve even had them in the parking lot in front of Parliament. We’ve come to accept the fact that you can run into a boa almost anywhere. It’s a beautiful animal, a marvel, but not here.”
How Peterson got to this point in his life can be traced back to his love of photography. As a child growing up in the small Aruban town of San Nicolas in the 1960s and 1970s, Greg learned to shoot with his trusty Kodak Instamatic camera. Later, he left Aruba to study sociology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. He returned to work in the labor department at labor market planning, became the director of the postal service, and finally, director of Aruba’s Free Zone. But he never lost his passion for making images, and in the last ten years, began capturing wild birds on camera.
“Two things came together. I always loved taking pictures and I needed a get away since I’m a workaholic. My sanity escape is always on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Doing my walks, I had an epiphany—the beauty of birds.”
In the process, Peterson became a lensmaster with a vision. He has spent countless hours in the field photographing boas and their attacks on wild birds. The power of his stunning photos is making politicians and pundits take notice. Greg has documented boas eating troupials (tropical orioles) and other species. That visual evidence helped spur on the creation of the Boa Task Force. He also made videos to teach residents on how to properly identify and hunt boas. There is now a ten-florin bounty for each live boa brought to the veterinarian center.
But Peterson is active in other ways in his crusade to save Aruba’s natural world. “I’m an environmentalist. It has to do with bringing back the balance scale. Aruba has been very successful in many ways. We tilted the whole balance scale into concrete. One of the things that can help us balance out is accepting nature, getting back in touch with nature.”
Peterson is positive about his island’s future. He lead a successful initiative to have the “shoko” (Aruban burrowing owl) declared the national bird of Aruba so that it may be better protected. He envisions an expanded National park, the establishment of a marine park, and protection of other key natural habitats on the island. He spends countless hours trying to bring decision makers and power brokers together to advance environmental causes.
“Aruba has gone into an unsustainable development. It has gone from 60,000 to 110,000 in one generation. Traffic has become the boogie man on the island. As Einstein once said, ‘If you keep doing the same thing and you expect different results, you are on the verge of insanity’. But I see a lot of light at the end of the tunnel. I do think we can catch up very fast. That’s the power of a little island. You can really tilt it.”
If the future is to be decided by people like Greg Peterson, the island better prepare for a change of seismic proportions. In the process, Aruba’s natural world may become the envy of the Caribbean. If it does, much of the credit will belong to this lensmaster with a vision.