Tropical Dry Forest
Summertime in the Turks and Caicos Islands is definitely an acquired taste. Sometimes, July or August rolls around, and it literally hasn’t rained in months. The natural landscape takes on a dry and somewhat frazzled appearance. The native trees and shrubs either turn brown or give up altogether and lose their leaves waiting for a spot of rain that will surely come in October. For the majority of the year, the sun shines, making this an ideal place for sun-loving tourists but, seemingly, not such a hospitable locality for plants. In fact, precipitation records over the past 100 years or so indicate that only about 20-30 inches of rain fall on these islands each year, almost all of which is deposited in the month of October. The rest of the time, we’re out of luck. The sun bakes the earth, leaves turn brown and fall off of the trees and the constant trade winds dry out everything else.
When observing the humble landscapes of summer, it is difficult for most to imagine that the native vegetation or “Bush”, as we affectionately call it, is actually a very rare type of tropical forest known as “tropical dry forest” or “tropical deciduous forest.” Constant warm temperatures and scanty seasonal rainfall characterize this fragile ecosystem. While tropical dry forests bear little resemblance to their sister, the tropical rain forests of the Amazon, they are of no less significance. The unassuming landscape is a Treasure Chest of ecological secrets not readily visible but of consequence just the same. For within its confines are species of plants and animals not found anywhere else on earth, valuable hardwoods, plants of medicinal value and other untold virtues. Our bush ranks high among the most bio-diverse, but also the most threatened, ecosystems on the planet. Indeed, tropical dry forests may even be more at risk than the much publicized rain forests, for without the great variety of colorful plants and strange animals of tropical rain forests, they do not attract as much attention for conservation.
Dry forests are naturally found in India, Australia, Central and South America, Mexico, Africa, Madagascar and the Caribbean. But, unfortunately, in many of these regions, population pressures have leveled these forests as impoverished populations have cleared them for subsistence farming or gradually consumed them piece by piece as they collect firewood to cook their meager fare. In some places, such as Madagascar and closer to home, Haiti, it is estimated that as little as 1% of the original forests remain. And, once cleared, it takes a very long time for these slow-growing forests to recover, if they are able to recover at all.
(ph;Charcoal making–Boat building)
Population numbers in the Turks and Caicos Islands have remained low and relatively constant for the past couple of hundred years, increasing dramatically only in the past twenty years or so. This has allowed people to live in a sustainable way with the forests, taking what they need and allowing the forests time to recover after planting crops or harvesting lumber for building and charcoal. This is significant because it means that the TCI is one of the few places on earth where this rare forest type is still, for the most part, intact. This fact saddles the residents and citizens of this country with a very large responsibility indeed. For not only are we the stewards of this land for the future generations, but also the guardians of an extraordinary and precious resource that is growing increasingly rare in today’s over-populated and globalized world.
Contributing to the rareness of the tropical forests are the assemblages of plant species that are found within them. It is estimated that the Turks and Caicos Islands are home to some 500 species of plants. There is no definitive count to date because comprehensive surveys have not been conducted, although the Turks and Caicos National Trust is making great strides with efforts to catalogue as many species as possible as part of the Darwin Initiative – a program for the preservation of global biodiversity.
Among the estimated 500 species, scientists have discovered eight species within seven genera that are endemic to the Turks and Caicos Islands, meaning that they are found nowhere else on earth save for our small island group. In addition to the eight rare species that are unique to the TCI, we also share approximately forty more endemic plant species with the rest of the larger Bahamian archipelago, and are also not found anywhere else on earth. There are also numerous others that are found only here and in certain other parts of the Caribbean. This is remarkable when you consider that Britain, another small island country, with an area of 92,278 square miles (over 500 times the size of the Turks and Caicos) has only 16 endemic plant species. These endemic species represent a natural heritage unique to the Turks and Caicos, which should be protected and treasured at all cost.
(ph:TCI Endemics-pepper,cotton,caicos plum)
Blessings From the Bush
Apart from their rarity, tropical forests world wide are recognized as having a number of economic and societal values, few of which are exploited within the Turks and Caicos Islands. Still, this does not negate their value. The earliest inhabitants, the Lucayan Indians, recognized the value of the Bush and depended upon it for their daily survival. Archeological evidence shows their cultivation and use of many native plant species, some of which are presently endangered or locally extinct.
Without the convenience of modern medicines, early colonial residents made due with bush remedies to treat and cure everything from the common cold to diabetes and cancer. Today, even with the wide availability of the benefits of prescription and over-the-counter medications, this tradition continues. Some of the more noteworthy medicinal species include Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) which has been proven to be an effective treatment for leukemia. The native Railroad Vine (Ipomoea pes-capre) has extracts, which are chemically similar to Benadryl and can be used as a topical antihistamine. The Five-finger Tree (Tabebuia bahamensis) has properties that are anti-fungal, antibiotic and anti-carcinogenic. There are scores of native plants with reputed medicinal characteristics, not to mention the several supposed aphrodisiacs.
The Bush also has a strong economic value as a source of forestry products. In these Islands, several trees that have been extensively harvested in the past include Caribbean Pine (Pinus caribbaea var. bahamense), Mahogany (Swietennia mahogoni) and Lignum Vitae (Guaiacum sanctum). Early inhabitants used these woods to build their homes and boats, but their low-level and sustainable use of these products has left these resources intact and available for future generations.
Other values are more difficult to quantify. The value of the beautiful bush to tourism is often understated. Who hasn’t marveled at the unspoiled beauty of Northwest Point, the Leeward Cays, Middle Caicos and all of the other untouched landscapes of the Turks and Caicos? There are very few places left on earth that are still in their natural state, and those that are have an immeasurable tourism value. Unspoiled natural areas can translate into big bucks as tourism revenues in terms of hotel accommodation, car rentals, guided tours, recreation and food and gift items. And much of this revenue can be generated by the simple act of leaving natural areas natural.
There are few vistas that are able to thrill the soul the way an unspoiled landscape unencumbered by man’s activities can. With fewer and fewer natural areas left, the aesthetic value of the beautiful bush of the Turks and Caicos Islands is a priceless and rare legacy that can be left to future generations if natural areas are managed properly.
(ph:Birds and lizards –bullfinch, whistling duck)
In addition to the enjoyment that we as humans get from an unspoiled environment, numerous animals not only enjoy but also depend on these terrestrial communities for their livelihood. Over 190 species of birds have been recorded in our Islands, several of them rare, threatened or endangered on a global scale. The Bush provides these delicate avian species with food and shelter making their existence in the Turks and Caicos possible when it has been undermined elsewhere. In addition to birds, there are numerous species of reptiles that depend on the bush for their welfare. Many of these, including the critically endangered TCI Rock Iguana are found nowhere else on earth and only survive here in areas where development has been kept at a minimum.
Humans are Hazardous
As the Turks and Caicos Islands develop, the population increases, and this presents several threats to the forests that didn’t exist in the past. Traditional methods of land clearance involve the burning of the low bush and hand clearing of larger plants. While this practice does make an immediate impact, it doesn’t destroy the seed bank in the natural soils that would allow native plants to re-grow over time. With limited rainfall, salty air, water and soil, constant breezes and little topsoil to speak of, the re-growth process is painfully slow. Some species can take decades to reach maturity and it may take as much as a century to replace the cleared bush. But these traditional practices are not as damaging as current land clearance trends.
Today, utilizing heavy machinery, a forest that it has taken Mother Nature centuries to grow can be cleared in only a few hours. Compounding the damage is the method of clearance that involves clear-cutting an entire development site even though only a fraction of the site will usually be built upon. Another devastating practice is the scraping of the land, removing all topsoil and thus any seed bank that might eventually allow for the recovery of the land. Our rare forest type can never recover from this kind of treatment - not in our lifetime or even our children’s lifetimes.
Our Islands have prospered largely because of the appeal of their beautiful, untouched environment, but this has led to unprecedented land clearance in recent years. Maintaining the status quo in terms of land clearance at the current rate will mean that there won’t be much left in a few years’ time. Development methods involving the clear-cutting of bush lands is the number one cause of deforestation in the Turks and Caicos Islands
The introduction of exotic plant species threatens our native plants in a number of ways. Some species, such as the Brazilian Pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius), Scaveola (Scaevola taccada) and Australian Pines (Casuarina equisetifolia), threaten the existing plant communities by aggressively invading an area and crowding out native plants. Over time, the native plant communities are replaced with artificial ones. This type of succession is apparent at Leeward Point where natural coastal plant communities have been all but replaced by Australian Pines. Most imported exotics also require much greater quantities of water, fertilizers and pesticides than our native species. Acclimatized to our dry, windy environment over many thousands of years, native plants are, by nature, the right plants for our locale.
Other threats that exotics bring with them are pests and disease. For example, the Oleander Moth is not native to these islands, but was probably introduced with imported Oleander (Nerium oleander) at some stage and is now a common pest. The problem is that the Oleander Moth doesn’t just dine on Oleander. It also has a taste for native plants in the same family as Oleander including Yellow Alamanda (Urechites lutea), Lice Root (Angadenia sagraei), Frangipani (Plumeria obtuse) and others. These plants, unaccustomed to this foreign pest, stand little chance against it and are easily devoured.
A small, but very noisy, species of tree frog that has invaded water tanks and brackish ponds in Providenciales and the Caicos Cays was introduced accidentally in the 1970’s with imported landscaping plants. Though there were no native amphibian species to be displaced by this imported pest, it’s impact on local populations of other species is unknown. Despite better importation controls, occasional reports are still made of exotic snails, snakes and other creatures showing up in imported plants.
Foreign diseases are of even greater concern. An exotic plant bearing a biological infestation could potentially wipe out a significant population of certain susceptible species. In Florida in the early 1970’s Lethal Yellowing Disease was introduced into the state and annihilated the coconut tree population. A similar situation could easily take place here, as the delicate plants of these islands, growing in isolation for thousands of years, have no resistance to foreign diseases.
Wishes for the Future
Eventually, summer will turn into fall and the oppressive heat of September will give way to the refreshing rain showers of October. It is then that the Bush comes into its own, bursting into flower and leaf in order to grow, reproduce and proliferate before the next drought sets in. The Bush is patient. It waits each year for rain. It has waited thousands of years to develop into its current state, but its time is running out unless man’s activities adapt to protect it.
While it may sometimes seem that the ways of the world are conspiring (BUSH Logo) against the preservation of the exceptional forests of the Turks and Caicos Islands, there is hope for the future. Recently, the Turks and Caicos Society for Architects, Surveyors and Engineers (TCASE) and the National Trust hosted the first Beautiful Bush Conference for the purpose of promoting the preservation and more widespread use of native bush plants in development and landscaping. Over 100 people attended, showing that these timely issues are being taken seriously by many. This is encouraging because no argument to preserve the natural vegetation is going to have any impact unless the Turks and Caicos Islands decide as a nation that it is a duty to protect and preserve the natural integrity of the precious gift that has been bestowed upon them – the tropical dry forests.
Thousands of years ago, these Islands emerged from the sea and were gradually inhabited by plants, animals and eventually humans. And, for centuries, man and nature have co-existed without detriment to each other. We would wish for these islands that this history continues and that man’s prosperity is extended to an inalienable respect for the natural environment that makes these tiny ocean islands unique on earth.