BY DONNA HUSSEY-WHYTE Environment Watch staff reporter firstname.lastname@example.org
'TRESPASSERS will be eaten' are the ominous words of the sign mounted at the entrance to the Jamaica Swamp Safari Village in Falmouth.
Thankfully, they belie the wonder to be experienced beyond the gates of the attraction, one of the few the historic town has.
"Once upon a time, crocodiles used to just walk the grounds while you were touring," said guide Maurice McGann.
This, he said, could be the reason for the sign, which was mounted in 1968 when the safari was opened.
Today, the attraction doubles as a rescue centre for the feared reptiles and several other species on whom visitors can feast their eyes, secure in the knowledge that they will not be harmed by the animals.
Swamp Safari was started by Ross Kananga, but exchanged hands after his death in 1978. It closed some years later, but was leased to Johnny Gourzong by the Tourism Product and Development Company (TPDCo) last December.
It is currently home to a variety of species, all with interesting stories of how they came to be there. Gourzong said two owls, for example, were brought in from Spanish Town after their mother was killed. Not knowing what to do with the juveniles, the man who found them put them into a box, got on a bus and headed to the Swamp Safari.
A hawk, he said, was brought in after it was rescued from a tank in which it fell after it miscalculated its landing while it tried to catch a pigeon for a meal.
Swamp Safari now boasts more than 200 birds from 20 different species and 78 adult crocodiles and their more than 200 juveniles, many of them only weeks old. In addition, there are some 20 other animals to view, including indigenous as well as imported species. They include Jamaican boas or yellow snakes; blue, yellow and scarlet macaws; yellow-billed amazon parrots; peacocks; Jamaican Iguanas; and Jamaican conies, among others.
They have all been attracting an audience.
Since December, Gourzong said more than 150 schools have visited the village, along with a number of locals and cruise ship passengers.
"We promote and advertise with hotels and tour companies [as well as] with Royal Caribbean Cruise line — and is in communication with over 1,500 schools," he told the Jamaica Observer.
"We have sent out packages to corporate companies, churches, etc. We are also trying to cover every area because you sit down with people and when you ask 'you ever seen a Jamaican Coney?', they don't even know that such an animal lives in Jamaica," he added.
"Every September, you have a new set of five-year-olds who enter the school system and it is important to teach them what sets of birds and animals co-exist with them in Jamaica as well as what animals live in the Americas and places like Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize, etc," Gourzong said further.
The 50-acre property on which the attraction and rescue centre is sited was developed naturally and is a part of the main swamp. However, it was fenced and sectioned off to keep unwelcome crocs and other animals out.
As part of the entertainment, crocs are fed horse meat and handled by veteran feeder Donald 'Buddy' Roach, who has worked at the facility since 1969. In the process, visitors get to meet interesting 'characters' like Vybz, Rygin and Sammy B.
Vybz is a two-coloured croc named after a local dejay who is reputed to bleach his skin. The croc, which is lighter in the face than other crocs, has been around Swamp Safari for 44 years.
Rygin is an aggressive croc named after the infamous Jamaican outlaw seen in Jimmy Cliff's movie The Harder They Come. Rygin makes a habit of stalking the pen keeper, seemingly in an effort to make a meal of him whenever he enters his confines.
"Just like the infamous outlaw in the 60s who wanted to kill everybody, it's the same thing with this crocodile," McGann explained. "So we named him Rygin. Whenever you call somebody Rygin in Jamaica, it's because they have an aggressive behaviour or carry a foul smell."
At 17 feet long, Sammy B is the largest croc at Swamp Safari. He was captured in Lacovia, St Elizabeth, where he had been eating cows raised by farmers. Sammy B now has only one eye after losing one in a territorial battle while still in the wild. Still, it is said that no other croc is brave enough to cross his path.
There is, too, a small but mischievous shiny-tongued bird, which kicks the eggs of bigger birds from their nests before laying her own eggs in it, causing other birds to unknowingly hatch them.
Also on offer is a petting area where children and adults get the chance to engage rabbits and guinea pigs as well as turtles, snakes and baby crocs for which there is a nursery in place.
Some of the crocs, Gourzong said, may be given to the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) as soon as they are old enough to be released into the wild since the facility may not be able to accommodate them all.
At the same time, Gourzong said they are implementing plans to improve the facility, including the addition of an anaconda, two species of monkeys and a big cat — a leopard, lion, tiger, or puma. There are also plans to install 'mistings' so that visitors can walk sections of the grounds without being overly affected by the heat.
Also in the plans is the construction of a boardwalk that leads into the swamp, the natural beauty of which visitors can also enjoy.
A visit to the facility, culminates with a treat to a nine-minute clip from James Bond's movie Live and Let Die, which was filmed at the safari in 1971. In this movie Ross Kananga, played stunt double to Bond. Kananga is said to have received a number of bites from crocodiles during the filming as he tried to run across their backs in a getaway scene. However, according to the tour guide, the money was worth it.