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Keeping a Weather Eye on Wildlife

We appreciate the Virgin Islands for its epic sailing culture, its grand, panoramic views, the comfortable climate, and the unique wildlife surrounding—all of which contribute to the tropical allure we value so highly.

As we work on our preparations for the coming hurricane season, remember that we are not alone in dealing with the awesome forces of nature.

While there is not much we can do to protect wildlife from the ravages of a storm, there is a lot we can do to lessen the blow and help nature recover more quickly.

We can be better stewards of the environment, reduce pollution, plan our developments—particularly near the coast—so that the negative impacts are reduced.

Our wild creatures already have to adapt and survive hurricanes; humanity should provide that extra support via environmentally friendly initiatives.

During this season, while we pay attention to weather reports and double check the annual preparations—focusing on our properties and yachts—we usually don’t think about the impacts of these tropical storms on the natural environment. Beaches may disappear and trees become uprooted, but our empathy sometimes falls short of the other aspects that occur during a storm.

The environment has been here for millions of years and has adapted to the extreme forces of weather, but wildlife suffers a lot during this period. This damage has increased proportionally with humanity’s ‘intervention’ on the environment.

From a humanitarian point of view, it is discomforting that so many animals do not survive the fierce conditions associated with storms. With these natural pressures now compounded by human induced pollution and habitat degradation, the reality is that large numbers of plants and animals are killed.

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When a tropical forest is leveled by a major hurricane, new habitat is created and the trees will grow again. But, what about the lizards, frogs, and furry little mammals hiding among the branches, or the baby birds huddled in the nest?

It has been well documented that hurricanes can drastically reduce populations of many birds, especially the big ones. Numbers of pelicans, gulls and terns often drop off after a storm. It may take years to rebuild the populations.

Many years ago, a major hurricane passed through the everglades of south Florida. Afterwards, park personnel found thousands of dead egrets and herons. Today, scientists try to document the impact of storms on wildlife.

This is especially significant where rare and endangered species are concerned. When a species is teetering on the brink of extinction, a major storm can easily become the final nail in the coffin.

What about our own wildlife here in the Virgin Islands?

What do you suppose happens to the Flamingos on the pancake flat salt ponds of Anegada? If you have large populations numbering in the tens of thousands, you can afford to lose a big part and still recover. But, the population today is only a little over 200. A big storm could undo two decades of conservation efforts.

Think about our tiny hummingbirds and Bananaquits, or sugar birds as they are locally called. These birds rely on nectar from flowers. Flowers are delicate and most do not survive strong winds, therefore, if the little birds are able to find shelter and survive the storm, they will find almost nothing to eat. In the time it takes for the flowers to regrow, many little will starve.

Survival is not much easier in the ocean that sailors and divers relish greatly, especially the shallow coastal areas – Fish, lobster, snails, and most reef creatures will do their best to hide and find safe shelter. Unfortunately, the turbulence and energy associated with storm waves can dislodge entire coral heads and cast them on a beach.

Following a hurricane in 1995, visitors to Cooper Island found hundreds of juvenile Queen Conch dead and washed ashore. Many more, still alive, were wedged into rock crevices just below the water line.

Volunteers worked for hours trying to dig out the surviving conch and release them in deeper water. Beaches in the path of any hurricane will be littered with marine life that could not escape.

While hurricanes can be damaging to wildlife, it is also an important part of the tropical ecosystem. For example, we know that hurricanes act as a gigantic engine that moves energy from the overheated tropics to the higher latitudes, maintaining the heat budget of our planet.

In the process, hurricanes redistribute flora and fauna over a wide area. sustaining the pristine beauty of the BVI – Both plants and animals expand their ranges as a result of hurricanes. Proof of this can be seen along the US east coast, or even the UK, where bird watchers flock to the shore after a storm passes for the chance to see rare tropical seabirds swept from their normal island homes.

There is little doubt that hurricanes are one of the forces that helped shape the flora and fauna of the Caribbean islands, but an important part of this attractive environment is the wildlife.

If we want to continue enjoying our Virgin Islands environment for all the wonders it offers-the boat cruises on clean turquoise waters, our beautiful landscape views, our fantastic climate-when considering our hurricane preparations this season, think of the critters as well.

Erin Paviour-Smith

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