Green Pages

A Heart for Conservation

Bryan “Naqqi” Manco wins well-deserved Blue Turtle Award.

By Kathleen Wood, Director, DEMA

Bryan “Naqqi” Manco was awarded the 2012 Blue Turtle Award for nature conservation.

Integrity and curiosity are the two attributes that stood out when I first met Bryan Manco (known to most as “Naqqi”) 13 years ago, when he had just returned to the Turks & Caicos to work for the UKOCTF’s/National Trust’s Darwin Biodiversity Project on Middle Caicos. I met Naqqi with Dr. Glenn Gerber (an iguana specialist) on Little Water Cay to discuss the dietary habits of TCI’s Critically Endangered rock iguana.

From that day, TCI’s leading conservationist began a destiny that led to a distinguished career that has now been appropriately recognized by the international community. Naqqi was awarded the 2012 JNCC Blue Turtle Award for nature conservation in the UK Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. The award includes a £1,000 prize to be applied to plant conservation and research collections for the people of the Turks & Caicos Islands.

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s (JNCC) announcement of the award cites a sampling of Naqqi’s myriad achievements in conservation in TCI, including community outreach, public education campaigns, important ecological discoveries and the implementation of critical conservation programmes. He is the creator of the TCI Environmental Club, which engages in ongoing community projects such as native plant rescues, and he has worked tirelessly with schoolchildren, teaching them the importance of TCI’s rare plant species and working to overcome a cultural mistrust of snakes. He was instrumental in the re-discovery of the endemic Caicos barking gecko, previously thought to be extinct, and the first recording of the long strap fern in TCI.

Naqqi currently works for the Department of Environment & Maritime Affairs as Project Manager for the Caicos Pine Recovery Project, an initiative that is providing the impetus to save the National Tree from an invasive pine scale insect that threatens the species with national extinction.

Thirteen years ago, Dr. Gerber was particularly interested in identifying the plants that iguanas were utilizing as a food source, and Naqqi was intensely curious about every plant and animal he saw, demonstrating near-photographic recollection of any information he could extract from Dr. Gerber or me. With this innate sense of curiosity, he has over the years managed to amass a working knowledge of the natural history of the Turks & Caicos Islands that is veritably encyclopaedic.

At the time, I was working as a private sector consultant, with a specialty in terrestrial ecology and environmental impact assessment. After some brief words of introduction and describing what I did for a living, Naqqi said something like, “Well that’s very nice, but I could never work for private sector interests,” and I thought to myself, either this guy is incredibly idealistic or he has an admirable conservation ethic.

Over the dozen+ years of having the pleasure of knowing and working with Naqqi, I have concluded that it is definitely the latter.

 

What makes Naqqi tick?

How did you get interested in nature and the environment?

I was interested in nature for as long as I can remember. My first love was dinosaurs and dragons, which both disappointed me: the former being extinct and the latter being mythical (which didn’t stop me from asking museum personnel where the skeletons of fire-breathing mega-reptiles were displayed). I began bringing home all sorts of creatures, including a gigantic green caterpillar inside my lunch box that nearly gave my mother a fit. She allowed me to keep it, and it ate through the summer, transformed into a chrysalis in the autumn, then in the spring appeared as a black swallowtail butterfly. My mother’s support of this interest (and tolerance for the often surprising presence of myriad organisms showing up in unexpected places — a New Guinea river turtle in the bathroom laundry heap, a butterfly agama lizard running down the hall, an injured pigeon peering angrily out of an antique wooden crate) allowed me to gain confidence in the field and promoted my appreciation for nature.

What brought you to TCI?

My mother worked in TCI in tourism and dive marketing, so I am well-familiar with the country. I spent a lot of time in TCI in my teenage years, mostly in Grand Turk following annoyed donkeys, getting stabbed by Acacia and prickly pear spines, and being thoroughly caked with vile smelling salina mud from the North Wells. After university, I returned to TCI in 2000 full time to work on the Darwin Biodiversity Initiative Project with the National Trust. I’ve lived in the TCI all of my adult life and spent a significant portion of my formative years here, so I can’t really imagine calling anywhere else home.

What did you do before working in TCI?

I completed my undergraduate degree in the US and worked for a year at the Pittsburgh Zoo in Pennsylvania, where I was core trainer, responsible for the coordination and care of the Education Department’s animal collection. I also designed and taught classes and outreach programmes there. I had a side-business of growing and selling exotic houseplants and I worked in an aquarium store, too. Even though my studies focused on botany, animals were always my first passion and I still spend a great deal of time enjoying their company and working on projects to help with animal protection, research, and education.

Do you have any pets?

Far, far too many. I try to keep animals outside the house these days, because I tend to get carried away! When I moved to TCI, I had to find homes for the inhabitants of over 25 aquariums and terrariums in my house, almost all animals from an exotic pet rescue programme. Right now I care for Liza, the last original North Caicos donkey, along with Witch, a potcake I share with my landlord. I also raise ducks, geese, chickens, guinea fowl, and quail, comprising over 150 birds on my farm. I’m sure when I have my own land I will be far less conservative regarding my animal companions . . .

Are you afraid of any animals or plants?

I’m absolutely terrified of raccoons, because I have a phobia of incurable viral pathogens like rabies! I can’t think of any plants that scare me, but I promise that one will never see me countenancing the presence of clowns or balloons nearby.

What is the driving force behind your strong conservation ethic?

I believe conservation is just the right thing to do. Humans focus on so much in life that is unimportant — material objects and other obsessions we construct that really don’t benefit the world, and in many cases harms it (and us!). Humans also fit the definition of an invasive species: we are adaptable, generalist, and change our environment to suit our needs — often to the negative impact to other living things. I am quite offended that people who came before me in the world figured it was not my right to see a living thylacine, quagga, passenger pigeon, dodo, or Rodrigues solitaire bird — due simply to human greed and obsession to conquer nature. I don’t want future nature enthusiasts blaming my generation for any more extinctions than we have already caused.

What are your hobbies?

Gardening and growing plants like orchids, water plants, herbs and vegetables, basketry and weaving, handicrafts, snorkeling, learning about languages and cultures, vegan cooking, and honing my amateur chocolate connoisseur skills by repeatedly consuming outlandish quantities of fine-quality dark chocolate.

What do you do in your spare time?

I enjoy volunteering when possible, for TCSPCA in North Caicos, the TCI Red Cross, and the Turks & Caicos National Museum. I am also shamelessly addicted to the “Golden Girls” and can often be found watching them or quoting their lines.

What is your favorite part of your job?

The ability to be outdoors and in nature is definitely the best part. The opportunity to work with like-minded people is a close second — I feel very fortunate to work in an industry that is driven by passion and interest rather than pay cheque.

What is the craziest thing that ever happened to you on the job?

I’m not the most athletic field conservationist in the world, and my techniques for getting myself through wilderness obstacles tend to amuse and bemuse my colleagues. When trying to cross a swampy area on small rocks, or extracting myself from a deep, undercut sinkhole by rolling myself up a fig tree root, I’ve realised that the only suitable descriptions are “the Fantasia ballerina hippopotami” and “a manatee on the flying trapeze,” respectively. I’ve inadvertently squatted on more Turk’s head cacti than I care to admit (to the deign of my trousers, which have shorter lifespans than most invertebrates), and I trip so frequently in the field that my intrepid coworker Flash doesn’t even bat an eye when I fall and scatter myself on the ground like a ruptured bag of groceries. Fortunately, I don’t tend to feel the emotion of embarrassment at all, and I don’t mind one bit laughing at myself!

Of what accomplishment are you most proud?

As of 2013, I have located, collected, and photographed all nine endemic plant species in TCI, including two which were lost to science for over 40 years, and one which was not even known to actually exist. Having seen and photographed all of these plants in flower has allowed me to share them with others, which I think is vital for their protection. TCI’s endemic plants, found nowhere else on Earth, are an important component of the Islands’ biodiversity heritage and I’m very glad to be able to finally say I can show any of them to anyone at any time.

What will you do with the Blue Turtle funds?

The personal award funds, I plan to save for travel — possibly to Haiti to volunteer time with the National Botanical Garden there and some environmental and social NGOs. The institutional award I plan to assign to the purchase of botanical collection and research infrastructure through the Turks & Caicos National Museum Foundation and Turks & Caicos Islands Government to benefit future botanical researchers and conservationists in TCI.



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