St Kitts and Nevis – or, more formally, the Federation of St Christopher and Nevis – is the smallest sovereign state in the western hemisphere in both land area and population. Less than three kilometres apart, the islands are shaped like an exclamation mark, with Nevis forming the dot.
Both islands are mountainous, with their highest peaks often shrouded in cloud. The tallest peak is the dormant volcano Mount Liamuiga – previously called Mount Misery – at 1,176 metres above sea level.
In many ways this country is the picture-postcard paradise, with fertile soils, a rich cultural heritage, and a liberal amount of sun, sea and sand. Tourism has become the mainstay of the economy, with over one million visitors every year, most of them arriving on cruise ships.
Among the attractions touted for tourists are the opportunities for selfies with monkeys, although they are a long way from home. Green vervet monkeys were brought from Africa as pets in the 17th century and have since become very abundant, probably outnumbering the human population. They are unpopular with most residents, especially farmers who can lose as much as 90% of their crops to monkey damage. Their impact in the forest is equally serious, as these omnivorous primates are rapidly driving native plants and animals to extinction.
Other exotic mammals on St Kitts and Nevis include high densities of rats, mongooses, white-tailed deer, feral pigs and tens of thousands of feral donkeys. Although many local people are calling for these animals to be controlled for the sake of their livelihoods and their natural environment, most attempts to remove the animals have been shut down by international animal welfare organisations.
Only one site in St Kitts and Nevis, Booby Island, appears to be free from the non-native mammals. This forms a vital refuge for native species despite being only one hectare in size.
Other challenges facing conservationists in St Kitts and Nevis include garbage, removal of coastal dry forests – the most threatened habitat type in the Caribbean – and limited capacity to address the islands’ environmental needs. Among the species lost to date are the lansan tree, Lesser Antillean iguana, red-bellied racer, St Kitts bulllfinch and several species of rice rat.