Perched along a ridge on the eastern side of Brewers Bay lies Shark Bay National Park. This small gem of a park encompasses scenic vistas, a meandering path to a vaulted cave formation known as the Bat Cave, as well as some rugged terrain that's not for the faint hearted. It is at the park's entrance that I met the team from Kew Gardens, horticulturist Martin Hamilton and biologist Sara Barrios, who were assessing the status of the flora at Shark Bay. Guiding the way were Keith Grant and Denville Hodge terrestrial wardens for the BVI National Parks Trust.
Over the years Kew has made several expeditions to the BVI including one in 2005 as part of the Millennium Seed Bank Project. This global conservation program, which was conceived, developed and managed by the Seed Conservation Department at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, had the impressive aim to collect and conserve 10 percent, or over 24,000 species, of the world's seed bearing flora by the end of the decade – a target that was met and surpassed. In the BVI, which was one of several countries around the world participating in the project, 30 species that grow nowhere else in the world were identified. Half the seeds that were collected in the territory were kept at Kew in trust and the other half were sent back home where they were placed in a special freezer at the JR O'Neal Botanic Gardens in Road Town.
The current expedition, explained Dr. Colin Clubbe, Head of UKOTS and Conservation Training at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, is to "refresh our work from five years ago and try to plug in some holes." This is exactly why Martin and Sara were at Shark Bay. Over the previous two weeks the team, including Dr. Clubbe and members of the National Parks Trust staff, surveyed some of the islands they had been to five years ago like Anegada as well as some new ones like Prickly Pear. In sleuth-like fashion, they were on the lookout for native and endemic species in new places, as well as other previously undiscovered specimens.
One such example is the Acacia anegadensis (known locally as the Poke Me Boy), which on the team's 2005 survey had only been found on Anegada, and was considered endemic to that island. As a matter of fact so few of the plants were found on Anegada, that it was listed as critically endangered. Then in 2008, the team found a healthy population on Fallen Jerusalem, a small, boulder-strewn island off Virgin Gorda that is a national park. More were found this trip, bringing the total to 44. This discovery, according to Dr. Clubbe was one of several of the trip's highlights. Now there was a second population in a protected national park, secure from development and grazing animals, two of the dangers that threaten the Territory's delicate ecosystems.
On Shark Bay, Martin and Sara hoped to find more secure populations of endangered plants, identify new ones, as well as invasives like the neem and wild tamarind which may pose a threat to natives species. As we walked along the dirt path which was interspersed with small boulders, Martin pointed out some of the more familiar native plants along the trail including the climbing cactus known locally as strawberry (Hylocereus trigonus), and the razor sharp jumping cactus (Opuntia repens), which seemingly leaps out of nowhere to attach itself to a leg or foot. More benign park residents are the white cedar (Tabebuia heterophylla), the BVI's national tree and the tillandsia a native bromeliad. The stigmaphyllon emarginatum, a yellow flowered native, was found growing at the side of the wooden lookout perched along the trail that leads to the park's furthest most point above Brewer's Bay.
When Martin and Sara discovered a plant of interest, they recorded its information on a hand held computer. The date, plant species and other site specific notes, including the height of the canopy and slope of the land, were keyed into the mobile databank. This information will later be entered by Sara into the UKOT (UK Overseas Territories) Online Herbarium. The aim is to enter all specimens along with descriptions, illustrations and other relevant information from Kew Garden's BVI collection on its special BVI page, one of many pages that exist for countries' flora throughout the world.
Trekking through BVI national parks can be hot and arduous. Equipped with large hats, sturdy trousers, boots, and a machete, Martin and Sara were prepared for a hike through rough terrain. But although the going sometimes got tough, the rewards were many. During their forays through the BVI's various parks they discovered many floral jewels and a few surprises. Among these were the Calyptranthes kiaerskovii, an important BVI endemic found on Virgin Gorda and the Calyptranthes thomasiana, endemic to the Puerto Rican bank, with a flourishing population on Gorda Peak. Another Puerto Rican Bank endemic, the Malpighia woodburyana, originally found on Anegada, has also been found on Prickly Pear, Jost Van Dyke, Necker and Mosquito Islands.
This is not the first time that Kew Gardens has taken an interest in the British Virgin Islands. Walter Fishlock, a Kew gardener, came here to work at the Agricultural Station on Tortola in the early decades of the 1900s. His studies of local flora revealed many indigenous species, including one that was named after him, Croton fishlockii, a rare member of the Euphorbiaceae or spurge family. An extended population of this Virgin Islands endemic has been found by the current Kew team on Virgin Gorda, and most excitingly for the Kew researchers, another population has been found on Prickly Pear.
Walter Fishlock's extensive collection of specimens remains at Kew to this day and are in remarkably good shape. Although plants are still collected and dried in time-honored methods, many new techniques are also used, including conserving leaf material in silica to preserve its DNA. Now DNA from a contemporary plant can be compared with that of a Fishlock specimen from 1919, indicating among other things, the effects of climate change or other environmental stresses. It is a priceless resource, said Dr. Clubbe.
According to Joseph Smith Abbott, the Director of the BVI National Parks Trust, the importance of this work to the territory is manifold. The findings, he said, "will afford the Territory the opportunity to understand the value of its plant populations where it is found, how best to protect it and how best to incorporate such into our tourism product." He went onto explain that the information gathered by the team will be shared with various stakeholders, including students and those at the Parks Trust.
Over time islanders will see some of the work carried out by the Kew team here in the Botanic Gardens. Resultant databases and websites will serve as useful tools for parks staff and for local students. The work will also show how invasive species may impact local agriculture, and allow the territory to best manage its natural resources.
The team's tour around the islands was comprehensive by even the standards of the most diligent of tourists. The whirlwind expedition included not only Tortola, Prickly Pear and Fallen Jerusalem, but also Jost Van Dyke, Virgin Gorda, and the luxury island resorts of Guana Island and Necker Island. This wide diversity of locales yielded a diversity of flora – giving the botanists an insight into the vegetation in different habitats and under different levels of protection. The BVI is situated within what has been termed "the Caribbean global biodiversity hotspot," and it is estimated that there are well over 700 plant species native to the territory.
The team's work in the BVI is ongoing, explained Martin, who plans to return to the Territory in June when he will focus on the Botanic Gardens, assessing damage that was incurred during last year's hurricane and making recommendations for restoration.
There is also the case of Croton fishlockii. During their trip to Virgin Gorda, Sara, Martin and Colin discussed the need to get the plant into cultivation where it will receive additional protection in the event that anything should happen to the wild plants. But with the BVI currently experiencing drought-like conditions, this project, along with several others on the team's wish list, will have to wait for another time. For the staff of the BVI National Parks Trust and the team from Kew Gardens, uncovering the BVI's botanical