Part of the tourism thrust of Trinidad and Tobago is to promote our beaches , bird watching and tours to Bocas Islands. In doing so information about the destination, things to do, and safety tips should be readily available.
Recently I conducted a survey in Tobago with visiting tourists at the Pigeon Point beach; locals ( fishermen , restaurant owners ) residing in Tobago; and a few vacationers resident to Trinidad. The survey conducted was about the Manchineel tree, whereby data collated has shown that eighty percent of the participants were unaware of the tree. Some of the locals who are familiar with the tree were plying their trade selling fish , craft or just simply relaxing ignoring the “Do Not Touch” sign posted on the trees. As one local said, the sign says “Do Not Touch” which was inferred as exactly that, therefore nothing is wrong being under the tree or hanging bags or apron on the branch of the tree.
The Manchineel,is part of our indigenous fauna along the sea coast of Tobago and the Bocas Islands protecting the island from coastal erosion, and in some cases acts as a wind break against hurricanes. This is nature and relevant to the environment however, this innocuous tree is also known as the “little apple of death”, and should not be taken for granted.
The name of the tree, Manchineel, was given by the Spaniards, as early as 1521, when conquistador Juan Jose Ponce de Leon was wounded and eventually died from the poisonous sap-tipped arrows during the battle against the native islanders. In 1943 ,Diego Alvarez Chanca, a spanish doctor wrote in his journal “There were wild fruits of various kinds, some of which our men, not very prudently, tasted; and on only touching them with their tongues, their mouths and cheeks became swollen, and they suffered such a great heat and pain”.
It was indeed interesting to read the British Medical Journal published on August 12,2000 about a tourist who shared her experience biting the manchineel apple during her vacation in Tobago in 1999. And yet another reported case by Maria Boodoo, published in Trinidad Express, July 13,2012 while she was on vacation with her family in Tobago. What was even more surprising whilst doing my research, is that ,the Manchineel is also in the Guinness Record as the world’s most dangerous tree.
The Manchineel contains a complex ester of potent toxins which relates to every aspect of the tree , that is : the trunk, the fruit, the leaves, the branches , the spores and the sap. It is so dangerous that the run off from the leaves if it is raining or burning of the leaves of the tree can cause severe health risks.
Mild exposure from various parts of the tree can cause dermatitis, ophthalmitis, ulceration ,gastrointestinal issues, blistering of the skin , severe pain and swelling. I suspect that symptoms of this toxidrome has never been researched since there seems to be no reported cases or no recorded data from our islands.
So let me share my story of what happened during my visit to Tobago in 2016. My partner, unknowing to him, held a branch of the manchineel to get over a sand bank on the beach. After 15 minutes of exposure to the tree, his eyes started to burn, automatically he rubbed his eyes to clear his vision. My partner soon became overwhelmed with pain, his eyes were bloodshot and face was swollen.We quickly rushed him to Scarborough Hospital for immediate attention, which suffice to say the nurse washed his eyes with saline solution, then used a pain relief for his eyes and injected him with an allergy cocktail. The pain returned in 15 minutes and the nurse together with the doctor on duty tried to once again repeat the process to relieve the burning sensation he was experiencing. After about three hours, they provided us with free medication to reduce the pain and indicated to him that it would soon pass. But the pain was intensifying ,nothing seemed to be working and of course fear of losing eye sight was slowly becoming a reality. One of our friends, on hearing the issue , quickly got us on a flight to Trinidad to seek immediate attention from our eye specialist, Dr. George Hanomansingh. Within a few hours we were at the Doctor’s office ,where he immediately commenced his examination and procedure to remove the chemical toxins. The chemical had almost sixty percent coverage , which started to progressively burn the layer of both corneas. He was treated and carefully monitored for five days.
After this experience my concerns have been more so on whether there is statistical data on health risks to the local traders under the tree; health risks to persons who purchase and consume fish from under these trees; if persons who have sheltered under the trees have had skin lesions; or if anyone has actually died from the toxins ? What about the effects this toxic chemical can have on children , an elderly person or persons with serious health issues?
During my interviews, the immediate reaction by most partcipants after finding out the dangers suggested that the trees be removed. However, in my perspective the tree is a natural balance for the environment and with more research perhaps medical healing benefits can be explored.
In terms of our destination marketing , I would strongly recommend pictures of the tree and its dangers be posted at the ports of entry to the island of Tobago and also in Chaguaramas, Trinidad ; safety tips in travel guides; advisories by the authorities to keep local operators informed; the relocation of vendors under these trees along the swallows at Pigeon Point; provision of on-call medical specialists to treat with severe cases at our public health institutions; a solution for seats to be made available on Caribbean Airlines for medical emergencies , only if specialized care cannot be provided at the Scarborough Hospital; and lastly more visible markers on the trees to distinguish them to any unsuspecting visitor who want to enjoy the coastline.
Vendors under Manchineel Tree, Pigeon Point, Tobago