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Profile of Paradise–Virgin Gorda

By Judith A. Towle and Jean-Pierre Bacle

What is it that tells an island’s unique story, connects us to the wisdom of nature’s order, sings a hymn of insular diversity, speaks in a cautionary voice about beguiling tomorrows, and implores VI residents and tourists to always respect the genius of the place? This year, the answer to these questions was examined within the unique and comprehensive Virgin Gorda Environmental Profile, recently completed by a group of researchers from Island Resources Foundation (IRF).

The Baths at Virgin Gorda. Photo by Dan O’Connor. All other photos provided by the Island Resources Foundation.

From 1987-1993, IRF published environmental profiles for eight Caribbean countriesNo profile was prepared for the BVI, although IRF hoped to extend the process eventually to the BVI. This did not occur until 2009 when the Jost Van Dyke Environmental Profile was prepared by IRF in partnership with the Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society. In May of this year, the second BVI Profile was published—the 255-page Virgin Gorda Environmental Profile. It is the most complete source of information available on VG’s environment and will quickly become the “go to” reference for a variety of users, both within the BVI and elsewhere.

Stenocereus fimbratus.

The profile highlights the richness of the island’s flora and fauna. Each species is a special part of Virgin Gorda’s natural history narrative and, collectively, they present a distinctive story that is only Virgin Gorda’s to tell. Many are indigenous species—true “Belongers” of the islands, as described in the profile. There are, for example, at least 97 plants we can call Virgin Gorda Belongers. And there may be others yet to be discovered. Fieldwork for the profile added new species, and further study will undoubtedly add more.

Most of the unique and rare flora and fauna identified in field expeditions were discovered by profile scientists in areas painstakingly difficult to access. One such area was the remote boulder fields at The Baths, which was only accessible thanks to the team’s knowledgeable local guides. Many rare species of bromeliads and orchids were spotted in the boulder fields. However, the highlight of the team’s investigations was the discovery of a bat cave occupied by Antillean Cave Bats (Brachyphylla cavernarum). This omnivores bat was the first of its kind recorded for VG.

Surprisingly, many native and endemic plants were found on accessible pathways, just waiting to be discovered. The towering columnar cactus, known scientifically as Stenocereus frimbriatus, was noted along Bitter End’s “Mangrove Trail” and is also a first recording for the island. Other rare plants discovered on the slopes of Deep Bay and the Eastern Peninsula were the highly aromatic shrub, the Bahamas Berry (Nashia inaguensis), Fishlock’s Croton (Croton fishlockii), and the Alfillerilo (Machaonia woodburyana), a shrub endemic to St John and VG.

A rare sabal palm on the north coast of Mosquito Island.

The diverse landscapes and habitats on VG and its neighbouring islands make it possible for a host of vertebrate and invertebrate wildlife to flourish. Indeed the team’s search through shrublands, woodlands and dense forest uncovered one of the world’s smallest vertebrates, the Dwarf Gecko (Sphaerodactylus parthenopion), endemic to VG and Mosquito Island, and the rare Skink (Spondylurus semitaeniatus) and the endemic blind snake (Thyphlops naugus), found at Savannah Bay. Over 85 species of birds ranging from seabirds to warblers to finch-like birds were recorded for the VG area.

The Environmental Profile provides abundant evidence that VG is graced with spectacular physical beauty, from the lofty slopes of its central mountain peak to its white sandy beaches and the dramatic landscape of The Baths. The island is home to a vibrant yachting and water sports tourism niche, and it was here that the tourism sector in the BVI came of age in the 1960s and 1970s with upscale accommodations that still augment the BVI’s reputation in travel and leisure circles. Seemingly, VG has it all.

A rare orchid near Leverick Bay.

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However, a mini-case study at the end of the profile, focusing on one of the island’s most remarkable assets—the North Sound—urges caution. It outlines a decades-long pattern in decision-making for the North Sound that might well be a harbinger for the future.

To some, the changes experienced in the North Sound in the last 40 years seem extreme and excessive; to others, they are a sign of prosperity and success. But what does seem irrefutable is that change has generally proceeded in an ad hoc fashion, with too little appreciation or understanding of the interconnectedness of the development choices of multiple singular players, be they from the public or private sector—an observation that could well be extrapolated to much of the Virgin Islands.

A Puerto Rican racer snake.

As the North Sound looks to the future, the profile encourages the kind of forward-looking planning that was not in place there in the 1970s and 1980s. The profile suggests that this is an opportune time to rethink the benefits of comprehensive planning for the North Sound—and indeed for all of VG. Time to seriously assess the carrying capacity of targeted marine resources and the escalating demands of recreational tourism. Time to establish a management framework that identifies where and why water quality has been compromised. And time to implement best management practices for all road construction and reduce the scarring of landscapes and polluting of coastal waters.

These are only a few of the environmental issues for VG found within the pages of the Environmental Profile, each issue influenced and shaped by yesterday’s judgments and today’s choices.

Lesser yellowlegs at Pond Bay Salt Pond.

The profile concludes by summarising sites, habitats, and species of priority for VG. As identified by profile researchers, most have multiple parameters of value and therefore require judicious protection and management. The profile was created to help the community of Virgin Gorda and its government make more informed decisions about these resources and to more fully assess the consequences of its actions (or inactions) on the long-term security of the richly diverse and equally splendid environmental treasures of Virgin Gorda.

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