A Precious Treasure

Recording TCI’s remnants of paradise

Story & Photos By Kathleen Wood

Few places on Earth persist where nature’s ancient rhythms remain unconstrained by human ambition and greed. In 1971, visiting scientists described the Turks & Caicos Islands’ natural environment as “ . . . as close to the natural state as is likely to be the case for any similar islands within the American tropics due to relatively light utilization by man” (Ray & Sprunt, 1971, p. 6). The authors also forewarned: “Their [the islands’] value lies in their still retained beauty and relative remoteness. Their ecology and small size makes mandatory that development not violate ecological integrity or natural beauty. Their remoteness makes mandatory that they not imitate or compete with the massive developmental schemes in the more accessible Western Hemisphere tropics. In short, these islands are a special case. They deserve to be treated in a very special way” (Ray & Sprunt, 1971, p. 20).

The shallow ponds of East Caicos are home to a large population of West Indian Flamingos.

The shallow ponds of East Caicos are home to a large population of West Indian Flamingos.

In spite of the above foreboding, development in the Turks & Caicos Islands has not taken place in a special way. Investment interests began flocking to TCI shortly thereafter, seeking to capitalize on the same natural assets Ray and Sprunt so eloquently described. The destruction of pristine dry dwarf forests, wetlands, and coastal habitats, clear-cut for hotel development and infrastructure, became synonymous with progress. Living and diverse coral reefs, mangrove estuaries, and seagrass meadows did not stand a chance against the allure of mega-yachts and cruise ships, promising dollars in exchange for pieces of paradise.
Particularly on Providenciales, the development that has taken place over the past few decades has completely reconstructed the island’s visual and ecological landscape. Once-wild Grace Bay is now lined with back-to-back resorts. Sweeping vistas of silver palms, sea oats, and sand have been replaced by swimming pools, sun decks, and broad expanses of sunburnt tourists. Remaining traces of beautiful by nature on Provo are now desecrated with not-so-beautiful trash and sprawling development that ranges from attractive to hideous.
The transition of Providenciales’ landscape, from one dominated by nature to one dominated by humans, represents an unfortunate status quo on a global scale. Although development throughout TCI to date has not taken place in a “special” way, it is not too late to ensure that the specialness that endures is protected from future poor development choices.

The east shore of East Caicos has thus far avoided development.

The east shore of East Caicos has thus far avoided development.

East Caicos is a place that has thus far avoided development carnage. As the northeastern-most island on the Caicos Banks, it is surrounded along its northern and eastern shorelines by practically uninterrupted fringing reefs and shallow bays scattered with coral heads. Along the southern and western coastlines, shallow flats and wetlands of international importance stretch as far as the eye can see. Such conditions foster ecosystem services of incomparable values, while simultaneously making access to the island treacherous.
Inaccessibility has been East Caicos’ saving grace from an ecological standpoint, although its isolation has not completely impeded habitation and development interests. Lucayan Indians known as “Taino” probably permanently occupied the island from approximately 900CE, until they were extirpated for the slave trade by European explorers following Columbus’ discovery of the New World. In the late 19th century, an Irish entrepreneur, John Ney Reynolds, established a sisal (a textile) plantation and bat guano (used as fertilizer) mining operation. Feral donkeys, imported to East Caicos for transporting guano and sisal, are among the few artifacts of Reynolds’ activities.

Research and scientific values
For close to a century, East Caicos has largely been left to the donkeys. Although the donkeys have undoubtedly caused their own environmental impact, much of nature’s design remains intact here. As the largest uninhabited island in the Caribbean region, East Caicos is the focus of significant scientific interest. An original Darwin Initiative project undertaken by the United Kingdom Overseas Territories Conservation Forum and Turks & Caicos National Trust (UKOTCF and TCNT) made the first effort, since the early 1900s, to conduct ecological surveys of East Caicos. That research identified many environmental attributes of high value.
Based on preliminary findings, this author, in association with Harvard University, has developed a multi-criteria assessment model that incorporates desktop and field studies to identify and map ecosystem values and services. The model is being applied and field tested on East Caicos. Endemism, conservation status, rarity, range and biome restriction, critical habitats, biodiversity, provisioning, regulation and maintenance, and cultural values are the criteria taken into consideration and then GIS-mapped on a gradient to create a graphic illustration that can be used to inform development decisions. Areas with the most ecosystem values appear darker on the resultant map, and areas with fewer ecological attributes appear lighter. The simplicity and graphic nature of the final product make it readily understandable and easy to use for decision-making purposes. The model can also be applied to any area under threat of development. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is generously sponsoring this research.

A natural history
Early results have revealed the all-but-lost fragments of TCI’s marine, terrestrial, and wetland natural history. In the coastal zone, coral reefs along the northeastern coastline are dominated by elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), a species now listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Extremely vulnerable to climate change, it is estimated that more than 80% of this species has been wiped out globally in the past 30 years (IUCN, 2011). The remaining numbers are at risk of extinction. The conservation of East Caicos’ elkhorn coral population is therefore critical if this species is to survive in TCI and on a global scale into the future.

The turtles that nest on East Caicos' beaches are genetically distinct.

The turtles that nest on East Caicos’ beaches are genetically distinct.

The elkhorn reefs along the northern and eastern coasts also shelter dynamic windward beaches, where Critically Endangered hawksbill and Endangered green turtles are known to nest. The nesting turtles on East Caicos are residual members of once-large populations of these animals that nested throughout TCI. Their numbers have been reduced to a few adults that now nest only on the increasingly rarer secluded beaches that are free from human development and the resultant light pollution that interferes with nesting behavior. Turtles are highly migratory animals, and the nesting turtles of East Caicos are genetically distinct, encompassing the few final fragments of these species that are truly unique to TCI.
Upland from windswept beaches, the terrestrial habitats of East Caicos give refuge to some of the rarest plants on earth. Eight plants that are known only to exist in TCI, and nowhere else on earth, have been recorded thus far as part of the study. These include fine-leaved buttonweed (Spermacoce capillaris), broom bush (Evolvulus bahamense), Britton’s buttonweed (Spermacoce brittonii), silvery silverbush (Argythamnia argentea), Caicos Islands orchid (Encyclia caicensis), Lucayan prickly pear (Opuntia lucayana), Turks Islands’ heather (Limonium bahamense) and TCI peppergrass (Lepidium filicaule).

Milk tree is a succulent shrub known to exist only in TCI and the Bahamas.

Milk tree is a succulent shrub known to exist only in TCI and the Bahamas.

Of these species, fine-leaved buttonweed is known only to exist on South and East Caicos, with only an estimated 250–400 individuals still living on earth. The South Caicos population is under threat from development, making the East Caicos population a final stronghold of biodiversity and stalwart against extinction for this Rare and Endangered species (Barrios & Manco, 2015).
TCI’s endemic orchid (Encyclia caicensis) graces the north shore coastal habitats of the island, allied with a silver palm species that is endemic to TCI and the southern Bahamas (Coccothrinax inaguensis). The range of the orchid is also restricted to a few of the Caicos Islands, and it is severely threatened elsewhere in TCI by coastal development, such as hotels.
Mosaics of other unique and rare floral species color the tropical dry shrublands, woodlands, and forests of East Caicos. Milk tree (Euphorbia gymnonota) and monkey fiddle (Pedillanthus bahamensis) are both succulent shrubs known to exist only in TCI and the Bahamas. While these are rare throughout the rest of TCI, they are abundant on East Caicos, along with several other range-restricted floral species that thrive in unspoiled expanses of tropical dry forests, woodlands, and shrublands.
In addition to exemplary marine and terrestrial ecological values, East Caicos’ wetlands may be the island’s most outstanding natural features. While wetlands on the southwest of the island are protected under the Ramsar convention, the remainder of the islands’ wetlands, which are of even greater ecological value, remain unprotected.
Tidal mangrove creeks, located within the southeastern portions of the island, are the finest example of this ecosystem type found in TCI. These habitats stretch inland from the coastline for meandering miles. Proximity to adjacent deep ocean makes them ideal nursery areas for ocean species. Juvenile nurse sharks and lemon sharks browse lazily here in shallow warm water that is littered with queen conch (Strombus gigas) in all life stages. The intricate underwater tangles of the prop roots of red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle) provide refuge to juvenile commercial fish species, such as various species of snapper, grunt, and grouper. Spawning and juvenile habitat of this impeccable quality undoubtedly plays a major role in the long-term productivity and sustainability of nearby South Caicos’ fishing industry.

These vulnerable Least tern chicks nest on a small scrape of the earth.

These vulnerable Least tern chicks nest on a small scrape of the earth.

Further inland, East Caicos’ high ridges and low valleys serve to catch runoff from rain, and seasonal ponds and marshes stretch the length of the island from east to west. During the rainy season, the shallow ponds are stained pink with possibly the largest population of West Indian flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) known in TCI. Hundreds of these birds can be counted in each pond. The ponds also serve as a rare source of fresh to brackish water, thereby providing critical stopover areas for migratory birds during the winter months. During the summer months, East Caicos’ broad expanses of diverse wetlands provide nesting and foraging areas for seabirds, waders, and shoreline bird populations. Many of these species, such as the least tern (Sternula antillarum), nest on the ground in nothing but a small scrape in the earth, making them extremely vulnerable to any kind of human development. In its undisturbed state, East Caicos is an oasis for birds, critical to the survivorship of many species on a local, regional, and international level.

Paradise at risk

Mangroves provide refuge to juvenile commercial fish species.

Mangroves provide refuge to juvenile commercial fish species.

East Caicos’ refuge for the country’s last few ecological pieces of paradise is at risk, and the island’s remoteness will not protect it from development forever. The TCI development boom and concurrent land grab that took place in the early 2000s put most of TCI’s Crown Lands into private hands. The thousands of unspoiled acres of East Caicos now represent most of the remaining large parcels of Crown Land in the country. TCI has thus far subsisted on a development-based economy; therefore, for some, these last few fragments of TCI’s intact natural history represent an economic opportunity that is irresistible. Development seems inevitable.
At a trade conference in 2014, Premier Rufus Ewing announced the TCI government’s intention to develop a trans-shipping and cruise port on East Caicos. Such a development would not only require the dredging of pristine wetlands and bulldozing of coral reefs, it would also open up the island, improving access, and making further development unavoidable. Without a viable sustainable development plan in place, there will be nothing to stop East Caicos from looking like Provo in a very short period of time.
The earth is filled with high rise-shaded beaches, pollutant-spewing marinas, and otherwise devastated landscapes. The remaining wild places in TCI are special because they do not have these things. East Caicos does not have to suffer from the same development mistakes made in the past. It can be treated in a special way.
The island’s ten miles of windswept beaches can persist wild forever and still generate revenue for the country through ecotourism activities, such as the development of nature trails, high-end, safari-type accommodation, and day excursions by experienced boat captains from nearby South and Middle Caicos, providing much-needed business opportunities for those islands.
The finest mangrove tidal creeks in TCI don’t have to be dredged to support livelihoods. In their current state, they are supporting the vibrant fisheries industry on South Caicos, which will likely collapse without them. These same wetlands have enormous potential for ecotourism development in the form of catch and release bonefishing, kayaking tours, and other high-end excursions.
Endangered and rare species can continue to thrive on unadulterated coral reefs and within unfragmented terrestrial landscapes. The entire island of East Caicos can be set aside as a national park, ensuring that TCI’s remaining fragile fragments and wonders of nature will always be free for everyone to enjoy and benefit from, rather than just the elite few with the dollars to pay for them.
Just as humans leave their mark on nature, the environment in which we grow and develop informs our culture and identity. For all of the country’s history, TCI’s children have grown up barefoot and carefree, digging holes and scavenging flotsam and jetsam from wild, white-sand beaches that stretch undeveloped as far as the eye can see. They make friends with wild dolphins and have faith that a bountiful sea will always provide sustenance. With innocent religiosity, they believe that the unspoiled beauty of nature is the status quo of existence.
TCI’s natural environment is part of the people who live here, and we are in no way separate from it. The precious pieces of nature that are preserved for future generations are no less than the heart, soul, and identity of the Turks & Caicos Islands. All humans crave connection to a natural baseline, and it is this baseline that makes TCI special. Protecting East Caicos will ensure that TCI’s children will always know the beauty and wonder of this place that makes them who they are.

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Gary James at Provo Pictures (www.provopictures.com) used a drone to photograph this bird’s-eye view of Dragon Cay off Middle Caicos. It perfectly captures the myriad of colors and textures that make God’s works of art in nature so captivating.

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