Culling of stray goats on Saba

Journalists Robert Slagt and Nynke Brandsma of the Dutch newspaper NRC wrote an article about the goat challenges on the Windward Islands. The article below describes their observations on Saba: The battle for the goat: ‘Maybe today was one of the last times we could hunt’

Goat hunting

Stray goats are eating away at the Windward Islands so Saba shot a lot of animals, allowing nature to recover.

“Have you seen the animal?” Shaun Johnson’s voice betrays excitement. It’s a sunny Saturday morning in the village of Windwardside and the 43-year-old Sabaan is bouncing with adrenaline. He has just shot a goat, which he has put in a plastic tub in the back of his pickup truck. He was tipped off that morning by his uncle, who saw a buck walking in front of his house, a male goat.

Johnson went straight to the scene because goats are rarely seen in the villages on Saba since the island government decided to cull the animals a few years ago. “I saw him right away. One shot was enough.” With his brother John, Shaun Johnson lifts the dead goat to a backyard table. With a sharp knife, the skin is removed, the intestines are removed, and the animal is suspended on a rod. Johnson works precisely. “I sell the head to Jamaicans on the island, they like it.” Half an hour later, the meat is in bags in the freezer. “On Sunday, we eat goat meat.”

Shaun Johnson has been working for the Saba Electric company for almost twenty years, but his great passion is hunting. Almost every weekend he goes out with his son, brothers and friends. “I went along for the first time when I was eight. It’s a family tradition, something we do together.” They only hunt ‘their own animals’. By that he means: goats roaming around in ‘their’ territory at Spring Bay, on the northeast coast of Saba, near the airport. Each family has its own area. These are the unwritten laws of the Saban hunters. But that’s all changing.

Goat Control Project

Goats have been roaming the Caribbean islands of Saba and St. Eustatius for centuries. The animals were taken in the seventeenth century by European settlers: French, British and eventually the Dutch. They became rich through sugar cane plantations and the slave trade, but most left after slavery was abolished in 1863. The black island population was left empty-handed. For them, the goats were important to provide for themselves.

Until the Second World War, Saba and St. Eustatius lived mainly from agriculture and fishing. After that, there was more work in tourism and the oil industry and the animals were increasingly left to their fate. Goats have no natural predators on the islands and multiply rapidly. Gardens and orchards are their prey, but so is nature. The volcanic slopes were eaten away more and more barren, resulting in erosion.

Traditional butchering of a goat on Saba (Photo Nynke Brandsma)

In 2020, the Executive Council on Saba decided to structurally tackle the goat nuisance. At the time, the goat population was estimated at more than four thousand animals, twice the number of residents. The Goat Control Project was supposed to make Saba goat-free in three years. Sometimes professional foreign hunters came over, including some from New Zealand, but most goats were shot by local hunters like Shaun Johnson.

“Several thousand goats have now been killed,” says Sarah van der Horn, who coordinates the project from within the local government. “The local hunters get $65 for each goat. They can consume or sell the meat themselves.” Because a goat is heavy, they often only handed in the head, but the officials didn’t like the confrontation. Now the hunters can also hand over goat ears as evidence, or photos, when the goat has been shot in a hard-to-reach place.

At first, the Sabans – the island has 2,000 residents – were skeptical about the shooting, but according to Van der Horn, this has changed. “Now more and more people are saying: we’re glad we don’t have them in our garden anymore. As soon as someone sees a goat, you hear complaints. There is a growing consensus that the goats should go. And we also see the effect on nature: on the slopes, the vegetation returns and the trees that we plant remain standing.”

The island is now being reforested, also with fruit trees, and vegetable gardens and greenhouses are being set up for tomatoes, arugula and zucchini, which are sold on the island. In the supermarket, fruit and vegetables are very expensive, because everything has to be imported.

Last February, a group of Dutch hunters came to Saba who, together with local hunters, shot more than 350 goats. A slaughterhouse was specially set up to process all this meat. A Dutch game butcher was also flown in to teach local hunters how to make burgers and sausages from goat meat for the local market.

Shaun Johnson thinks the new slaughterhouse is a bit of nonsense. “They want us to slaughter more hygienically, but we’ve been doing it ourselves for years and it’s going well.”

Selling on Sint Maarten

We drive to Spring Bay, where Shaun Johnson goes hunting with six men. Along the way, they pick up a donkey to carry the animals they have shot. It’s getting close to four o’clock when the group parks the car and turns into a path. It goes down steeply. First through a forest, then over open terrain. The men walk in silence, concentrated, searching into the depths. When they see a group of black goats near the bay, they descend at lightning speed. The donkey and the journalists stay behind.

We hear a bang. The herd darts in all directions, but one animal is fatally hit. After that, there are intermittent shots. After more than an hour, the hunters resurface. They carry four goats in sacks, which they tie to the donkey. They have already removed the heads and intestines below. “We sell this to other islanders, or to restaurants on Sint Maarten,” Johnson says. It’s a 50-kilometer boat ride, but a single goat can fetch $80 to $130.

For Johnson, that extra money is a bonus, but not a necessity. He descended from British immigrants and belongs to Saba’s middle class. For the black population, who mainly live in The Bottom, it’s a little different. A third of them live below the poverty line. In the middle of this village there is a large protest sign with the text ‘Goat lives matter’, and also: ‘Stop the steal’.

“There are some hunters with families who need the goat meat more. For sale, and to eat from. It would be better not to eradicate the goats entirely, but to maintain a small population.” But that seems like wishful thinking, Johnson realizes. He sighs. “There won’t be many left. Today was also perhaps one of the last times we will be able to hunt. People are still angry about this.”

NRC (article in Dutch)

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  1. There is still a small herd of goats on Booby Hill and Johnnie’s Ground, seen about a week ago.

  2. We live in The Bottom and still have problems with goats.
    Yesterday 3 were in our garden.
    We are constantly monitoring our garden.

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