Green Pages

Conservation and Resilience

The Darwin PLUS 129 Project focuses on TCI wetlands.

By Christopher May, Samuel Pike, Katie Medcalf, B Naqqi Manco, Dodly Prosper, and Junel Blaise

As development steadily progresses throughout the Turks & Caicos Islands, it remains crucial to conserve and protect the areas that make the country “Beautiful by Nature.” The North, Middle and East Caicos wetlands are of international importance, containing a variety of marine and coastal habitat types and complex natural transitions. Noteworthy are mangrove swamps, diverse bird life, numerous Arawak sites, and several inlet cays. The whole area is a particularly good example of coastal wetland habitat in the Caribbean, providing shelter and nursery locations for various species of waterfowl, turtles, and commercial fish species.

The Darwin Plus Project 129, entitled “Understanding Ramsar Wetland Dynamics for Marine Conservation and Environmental Resilience,” is funded by the UK Government under the Darwin Initiative, and aims to furnish evidence showcasing the value of the Caicos Islands’ wetlands. It considers how these ecosystems contribute to biodiversity, coastal protection, and natural capital, while also evaluating the potential impact of future climates on the wetlands. Led by Environment Systems Limited (ESL) in the UK, this project uses satellite imagery indices which are being developed to help establish a monitoring framework and build capacity amongst technical and scientific staff of the Department of Environment and Coastal Resources (DECR).

The Turks & Caicos Islands’ wetlands in the Ramsar Site constitute a rich tapestry of habitats, including coral reefs, seagrass meadows, mangrove forests, salinas, blue holes, and pine forests, spanning over 58,000 hectares. The ecosystems form a series of interconnected and interdependent networks which support biodiversity, carbon storage, and hydrodynamics within the North, Middle, and East Caicos Nature Reserve. The environments often border one another and form intricate connections, especially with regards to water movement and retention.

The West Indian Whistling Duck is one of many migratory species that travel great distances to the isolated shelter of the TCI’s RAMSAR site’s wetlands.

Many migratory species such as the Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas), the West Indian Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna arborea), and the West Indian Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) traverse great distances to the isolated and sheltered wetlands of the RAMSAR site, which they heavily depend on for nesting and shelter. Five of the eight endemic species of plants within the Turks & Caicos, such as Caroline’s Rock Pink (Stenandrium carolinae), Bahama Broombush (Evolvulus bahamensis), and Bahama Hatpin Sedge (Eleocharis bahamensis) are confirmed to have been found within the RAMSAR site’s borders.

In addition to their biological and ecological significances, these wetlands and other ecosystems are culturally important, with local communities benefiting from both an aesthetic standpoint as well as a gain of resources. One such cultural event is the annual “Crabbin’” season, which sees locals and visitors take part in the excited gathering of Blue Land Crabs (Cardisoma guanhumi) as the crabs emerge from their burrows at the start of the rainy season. Iconographic flora such as the Turk’s Head Cactus (Melocactus intortus), Caicos Pine (Pinus caribaea var. bahamensis) give the Islands’ hillsides and low-land forests their respective significant identities. The national bird, the Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) can often be seen flying, fishing, and nesting along Middle Caicos.

The beautiful and natural landscapes of the TCI RAMSAR site provide a plethora of functions and benefits to the country and its residents, through means of storm mitigation, agriculture, recreation, and research.

Here, the DECR’s North Caicos staff members examine the mangroves, another important wetland species.

ESL and the DECR have partnered together over the last two years to conduct steady research into the RAMSAR site and evaluate threats to the ecological functioning of the nature reserve, both via anthropogenic and climatic influences. Due to low elevation of the islands, sea level rise and saltwater intrusion pose imminent dangers, particularly for coastal areas, allowing more saline water to permeate the internal sections of the land and affect ground water. The vulnerability of these wetlands to changes in rainfall patterns and increased drought durations amplifies the risk, leading to dry conditions in salinas that impact migratory birds’ breeding and feeding grounds. Increases in average annual temperature and UV indices (a consequence of climate change), present an additional threat, influencing the growth cycles and amounts of crucial wetland species. Migration and spawning cycles, as well as seed and fruit production and dispersal are increasingly vulnerable to these changing environmental conditions.

Unfettered and ill-planned construction can lead to deforestation, forests and waterways being fragmented, and compacting of soils. It is in these vulnerable and exposed areas that invasive species such as Cow Bush (Leucaena leucocephala) and Australian Pine Trees (Casuarina equisetifolia) can quickly spread and outcompete native species and ultimately change soil chemistry.

Increasing development, including residential and commercial construction, brings about localised pollution, threatens ground-nesting birds, sea turtles, and iguanas, and intensifies unregulated activities such as fishing, poaching, and charcoal burning—all of which contribute to the degradation of these vital wetland habitats.

To map an area of over 580 km2 which is largely inaccessible, technology is a huge enabler. Satellite imagery was used to identify key features and functions by designing several indicators which will help monitor the wetlands in the future, highlighting potential issues in near real time.

This is a natural flood plain on East Caicos, another important part of the ecological system.

A habitat map for the TCI was previously created by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) as part of an earlier project, utilizing AI generated random forest models using Sentinel 2 and optical imagery. The accuracy of the map is good but understandably not perfect. However, it forms an excellent baseline which can be updated with field work. This project has allowed for ground truthing and a more accurate description of some areas, particularly around the coast of East Caicos. To understand more of the surrounding areas, the field team used an aerial drone to visualise areas in the vicinity of the survey points.

The project actively contributes to capacity building by enhancing the technical capabilities of the DECR staff and engaging local students in the fascinating complexity of the wetlands and the species they support. Through strategic outreach efforts, the project has built up the knowledge of the importance of the wetlands to both Islanders and visitors. This engagement instils a deeper understanding of the wetlands’ ecological significance, fostering a sense of shared responsibility for their preservation. By helping residents understand the broader significance of the RAMSAR site, we cultivate a sense of stewardship and collaboration, reinforcing the importance of collective efforts in the preservation of these ecologically vital wetlands.

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South Caicos was once a major exporter of salt harvested from its extensive salinas. Award-winning Master and Craftsman Photographer James Roy of Paradise Photography ( created this vertical composition by assembling a series of six images captured by a high-definition drone which was a half a mile away from his position.

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