In 1979 the islanders voted in a referendum to protect their environment and resist development. Bonaire is one of the Caribbean's least tourist-developed islands. There are no high-rise buildings, no chain hotels, no theme parks and no mass tourism. Only 5% of Bonaire's land area is developed. Bonaire set aside nearly 25% of the land, mainly the Washington Slagbaai National Park, which includes the northern coastline, for conservation purposes. The entire island of Klein Bonaire, close to the west coast, is a nature reserve. Being "undeveloped" means that visitors who want to explore and enjoy Bonaire's natural world can do so in peace and quiet.
In 2006 with the assistance of CARMABI, the agriculture department of the Island government
and STINAPA's Bonaire National Marine Park, a reforestation program was initiated.
Several hundreds of native plants have been planted - and successfully established - to date.
There are 569 indigenous and naturalised species of flora on Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao - South American, Central American and Caribbean species. Bonaire's flora consists of a variety of native and imported species, 387 registered plant species, 301 indigenous and 86 of foreign origin. Bonaire's elevated northern area is a desert landscape with many cacti species including Candle and Prickly Pear - and trees like Brasilwood, Divi Divi, Mesquite Acacia and Calabash. Gardens, and more fertile areas around the island contain numerous, colourful flowering plants and trees. Bright orange Flamboyants, Bouganvilla, and Oleanders of all colours. Century Plants, Rock sage and Aloe appear in different places throughout Bonaire.
The annual rainfall on Bonaire is just 532 mm (21 inches) per year. There are only one or two months during the year in which rainfall exceeds evaporation. The flora on Bonaire has had to adapt to this very dry environment. Consequently there are numerous "annuals", plants which complete their life-cycle within the three months of the rainy season. Visitors will notice the common characteristics associated with a dry environment on plants and shrubs - thicker leaves and a thin wax cover combined with water storing tissue in leaves and stems, in plants such as cactus and agaves.
Vegetation on Bonaire has suffered from the voracity of the thousands of half-wild goats and a smaller number of donkeys roaming the island, and the consequent prevention of rejuvenation. The native flora has to compete against exotic species brought by men for different purposes like agriculture and ornamentation. The donkeys and goats are now more closely controlled , and with reforestation of indigenous species the natural flora of the island is in a much healthier state than it has been for many years. Some of the most common species on Bonaire : Candle cactus, Melon cactus, Prickly pear, Snake cactus, Calabash, Yellow poui, Divi-divi, Brasilwood, West Indian cherry, Lignum vitae, Century plant, Sea spinach, Aloe, Cat's nails, Lady of the night and many more.
Rubber Vine - after the First World War this plant was introduced from Madagascar to Curaçao with the purpose of extracting latex from it but the development of synthetic rubber stopped the project and the plant ran wild. With no natural "enemies" the plant spread very rapidly across the Antilles - unfortunately suffocating other plants and trees.
Bonaire's large mangrove forest is a fascinating and vital part of the island's natural habitat. The mangroves, designated as internationally important wetlands, have immense value as a nursery, refuge and food source for fish and marine animals. Mangroves consist of around 70 species of trees and grow only in tropical coastal areas. Mangrove forests are vital for our eco-systems: as natural coastal protection - producing organic material to feed the reefs - the extended roots of each tree are a nursery. For example the seaweed in the mangroves, green strands like tagliatelle, is a vital food source for green turtles - animals just as fragile as the coral reefs. Mangroves grow slowly and, although standing in salt or brackish water, the trees need fresh water. These amazing trees make their own fresh water out of seawater. Until recently mangroves were considered useless swamps - of little scientific interest and certainly not protected habitats. Consequently mangroves became one of the most endangered habitats - the planet lost about 50% of all mangrove forests during the 20th. century. The vital importance of this special habitat is now recognised and protected - not just as a coastal defence system - but as the nursery for much of the marine life we all value so highly - and need so much.
There are several guided tours – and kayaks for hire - please ask for details. A kayak trip is a novel, and easy, way of enjoying this unspoilt natural environment. There are day and half day kayaking trips through the mangroves - we can personally recommend these as an interesting and fun "day out".
The Washington Park is an exceptional area where the indigenous flora and fauna of Bonaire thrive, and is the focus for people who are interested on the natural world of this small tropical island. The Park museum has a display of local flora. Slagbaai is an old plantation – one fifth of the entire island - which has been set aside as a wildlife sanctuary. The rugged terrain of the 13,500 acre Washington Slagbaai National Park is a wilderness style park where tropical birds, lizards, goats and iguanas etc., live in their natural habitat. The landscape is dominated by cactuses, trees and bushes.
The park has a 33k (21 miles) and a 10k (6 miles) route.
Bring something to eat & drink. This is a fairly rugged 3 – 4 hours drive, saloon cars are not allowed.
Close to the national park is Goto Meer - lake Goto - a spectacularly beautiful lake, a sanctuary for thousands of Pink flamingos, surrounded by lush vegetation and many indigenous plants and flowers.
The flora of Klein Bonaire has suffered due to grazing by goats. Historical photos show large, full-grown trees but no shrub layer - when the island was heavily populated by goats. The absence of goats for over forty years has allowed the natural flora of Klein Bonaire to make a comeback, so that it has become home to many varieties of plants and animals, some not present on the main island of Bonaire. The island still does not have its large trees or candelabra cacti back, but there are signs of recovery towards a more luxuriant vegetation. On Klein Bonaire 76 species of flora were recorded: 21 trees, 12 shrubs, 20 herbs, 17 species of grasses, 5 succulents and 1 water plant. Most common species on Klein Bonaire : Sea Purslane plants that can withstand a saline environment, Wild Olive and Calabash trees with branches covered with small groups of oblong leaves, broadening out to the tips. The fruits are the well-known gourds, which are hollowed out and filled with the seeds of the flame tree and used for maracas. Button Mangrove or Buttonwood grows along the edges of the Salinas of Klein Bonaire.