"You need to have a keen eye to spot wildlife; many are well camouflaged and could be sitting still right next to you without you even noticing – such as our Cascabel (a highly endangered species of rattlesnake)."

- Natasha Silva, Chief Conservation Officer

Natasha Silva, Director of the Aruba National Park Foundation and Chief Conservation Officer, gives us an insight on how to explore the best kept secrets of Arikok National Park - whilst sharing her journey of how her interest in animals as a child led her to become not only an academic in cultural anthropology and biology but a hands-on conservationist.

TTG: Where did you grow up?

NS: I was born in Aruba and grew up in Aruba, the Bahamas and England.

TTG: How did you come to live in Aruba?

NS: I returned to Aruba after having studied - I am a cultural anthropologist (Utrecht University), museum expert (Reinwardt Academy) and biology lecturer (Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences), specializing in ecology, sustainability and development - worked and started a family in the Netherlands.

TTG: How did you come to work at Arikok National Park?

NS: Since I was little I loved animals and being out in nature; I would chase behind them barefoot all over the island. When I was 6 years old, I decided that I wanted to work in a zoo. I ended up working for more than a decade in zoos in the Netherlands. While working at the zoo I became increasingly involved in conservation programs for endangered species and concerned about nature conservation on my birth island. When the job opening at Arikok National Park became available I leaped at it and moved back with my family to Aruba.

The Natural Pool, also known as "Conchi"

TTG: Tell us about your role at Arikok National Park.

NS: I am the Director of the Aruba National Park Foundation so I spend a whole lot of time at my desk or in meetings. I tend to get jealous of my team out in the field. So whenever I can I try and join them with field research and related activities. I also join in as support for the Junior Ranger Camps as I enjoy working with kids and taking on an educational role. I will also substitute in for rangers on hikes and ‘rough walks’. But what gets my blood really pumping is the hands-on conservation work, e.g. with our reptiles, bats, birds and soon also with sharks. Anytime I’m out in the field I return rejuvenated and excited after seeing something amazing and will tire my colleagues, family and friends with not stopping talking about it!

"Together with the RAMSAR wetland area of the Spanish Lagoon it is home to more than 250 species of plants and animals – some of which are considered critically endangered."

- Natasha Silva

TTG: Why do you think people enjoy the Arikok National Park so much that they post their experience on social media?

NS: Well, you need to rough it a bit when exploring the park, so perhaps they want to share their feeling of accomplishment, showcase their survival spirit and the fun they had in the process. Or, just pure enthusiasm for their challenging journey. You need to have a keen eye to spot wildlife; many are well camouflaged and could be sitting still right next to you without you even noticing – such as our Cascabel (a highly endangered species of rattlesnake). When you do see wildlife and on top of that manage to photograph our endemic and endangered fauna then you deserve a medal. So I guess also a sense of pride? Certain vistas are just so rugged and breathtaking or secluded and magical, and certain flora are just so out-of-this-world. Who wouldn’t want to share this with the folks back home?!

TTG: What’s your favourite part of being the chief conservation officer?

NS: Having an amazingly dedicated team working together to realize our conservation goals. Conservation work can at times be very tough but together we lighten the burden and achieve more. I am doing the work I love and feel truly blessed to be able to do that on my island of birth. I enjoy helping conserve the species and nature that give Aruba her truly unique character and were such an important part of my childhood which I hope now to secure for my children and grandchildren to enjoy.

Quadirikiri Cave

TTG: How many species are there in the park?

NS: Arikok National Park forms a stroke of nature straddling straight across the island from coast to coast. Together with the RAMSAR wetland area of the Spanish Lagoon it is home to more than 250 species of plants and animals – some of which are considered critically endangered.

"The Caquetío Indians left rock paintings in Cunucu Arikok and Fontein Cave approximately 1000 years ago and the (humming)bird drawing in the park logo is a copy of one of these historical artistic expressions."

- Natasha Silva

TTG: What makes Arikok National Park unique?

NS: I work for the Aruba National Park Foundation. The Foundation manages Arikok National Park and RAMSAR area Spanish Lagoon (incorporated into the National Park in 2017). Soon, our Foundation will also manage the new marine park, which is in the process of being realized. Although the Foundation is partly subsidized by the Government of Aruba, a large part of our conservation work is financed by entrance fees, hence called Conservation Fee (we currently only charge for visiting the Arikok National Park).

TTG: What makes Arikok National Park special?

NS: The Arikok National Park- home to the critically endangered Aruba Island rattlesnake (Cascabel) - was officially established in 2000. Arikok National Park is a 34 square kilometers (7907 acres) of nature reserve, located in the north-eastern part of Aruba which contains examples of most of the island’s flora and fauna against a backdrop of great geological complexity. The plants and animals here have adapted to harsh and extreme desert conditions, consistently strong eastern trade winds and salt spray. There are numerous cacti, drought resistant shrubs and endemic plants to be found in the park, including some specimens of ancient trees. Animals in the park consists mostly of birds, bats, rabbits, reptiles and numerous invertebrates including land crabs and hermit crabs. All animals are most active during the early morning hours and at sunset.

Natasha Silva, Chief Conservation Officer

The national park’s unique geological variety features the rugged hills of the volcanic Aruba lava formation, the mysterious rocks of the batholithic quartz-diorite/tonalite, and the limestone rocks and cliffs from fossilized coral. The two tallest hills on the island are situated within the national park: Sero Jamanota (188 meters / 617 ft) and Sero Arikok (176 meters / 577 ft), from which the park derives its name.

The line of the permanently wind-and-wave beaten north coast is broken by several bays (bocas). Most of them are small yet impressive inlets at the mouth of dry riverbeds (rooi). Some bocas are a spectacular sight, adorned with white, sandy beaches and sand dunes, as is the case at Boca Prins, Dos Playa, Moro and Daimari. Conchi or the Natural Pool is Aruba’s most popular natural attraction. The journey to Conchi is an adventure in itself and only accessible by foot, horse, ATV or 4×4 vehicle.

"I am a cultural anthropologist (Utrecht University), museum expert (Reinwardt Academy) and biology lecturer (Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences), specializing in ecology, sustainability and development"

- Natasha Silva

The park also showcases a rich cultural history. The Caquetío Indians left rock paintings in Cunucu Arikok and Fontein Cave approximately 1000 years ago and the (humming)bird drawing in the park logo is a copy of one of these historical artistic expressions. Ruins are scattered in the park at Miralamar attesting to the Gold Rush and old plantation sites (Cunucus) - such as those at Daimari, Plantage Prins, Fontein and Masiduri - tell the story of an active yet challenging agricultural past.

These Cunucus were also residential areas for the few families that worked the land. These families found ways to survive in the difficult conditions and were able to erect their homes with materials found in the area. At Cunucu Arikok and Plantation Prins you can find these historic adobe houses (cas di torto). Cactus hedges (trankeras) and stonewalls (transhis) were built to protect against goats, sheep, and donkeys.

Cunucu Arikok

TTG: What has been your most exciting experience so far since working at Arikok National Park?

NS: Well, there are many! But most recently perhaps doing a Sea Turtle Watch on one of our beaches together with the local NGO Turtugaruba and seeing an enormous leatherback turtle lay her eggs. I was in awe of the sheer strength and determination of such an ancient species and it happened under an amazingly starlit sky, it was such a beautiful and humbling experience!

TTG: Sum up Arikok National Park in three words

NS: Unique – Nature - History

"Nearly 20% of the island is a national park; not many countries can say the same!"

- Natasha Silva

TTG: Tell us one thing that tourists don’t really know about the island.

NS: Nearly 20% of the island is a national park; not many countries can say the same! Although the island is – unlike other Caribbean islands - very arid, we have many different species of plants and animals on the island. However, being a desert-like environment, you need to tread lightly, at the right hours of the day and really take your time exploring, island speed.

TTG: When you're not at work, where on the island would you be most likely be found?

NS: Relaxing at home on the sofa with my husband and dogs. Or in the Park! When I can steal the time I enjoy swimming at Mangel Halto – a beautiful coastal mangrove area, soon to become part of our new national Marine Park which will fall under management of the Aruba National Park Foundation.

TTG: If you could only recommend one thing for visitors to do on Aruba during their stay, what would it be?

NS: I would dare them to leave their vehicles and discover the true secrets of Aruba by taking an early morning or sunset hike in our National Park, the Sero Crystal area, or anywhere else along our rugged north coast. Just ask the friendly locals for the best routes. Just don’t forget your hiking boots, hat, sunblock and (reusable) water bottle!