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British Virgin Islands

Last edited: Feb 7, 2022, 3:40 PM

About the territory

Originally occupied by Amerindians, Columbus sailed past the British Virgin Islands (BVI) in 1493 but it was another 150 years before Dutch Buccaneers settled on Tortola, only to be ousted by an English group in 1666. They introduced the plantation system which continued for nearly 200 years. Following the abolition of slavery, droughts and economic decline, the plantations were sold off and the islands gradually converted to smallholdings, supplemented by fisheries and mining. During the latter half of the twentieth century significant changes accompanied the islands emergence as a tourist centre. The current economy is now almost entirely services and tourism based. The population was estimated to be 30,231 in 2020 (https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/british-virgin-islands-population/).


The British Virgin Islands (BVI) form part of the Puerto Rican Bank in the eastern Caribbean Sea. There are approximately forty islands in the group. The combined land area of the islands is 153 km2. The largest islands are Tortola (54 km2), Virgin Gorda (21 km2), Anegada (38 km2) and Jost van Dyke (9 km2). The average temperature is 28°C with rainfall averaging 102 cm per annum.

Biodiversity

Kew’s online Herbarium database states that about 940 plant species occur on the four main islands. Three species are regarded as endemic to the BVI with a further 22 endemic to either BVI and the US Virgin Islands (2) or the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Of the 332 species recorded on Anegada 44 (13%) are regarded as non-native.

There is one species of endemic butterfly and amongst the 24 species of reptiles and amphibians seven are regarded as endemic. The island of Anegada supports the last remaining population of the critically endangered Anegada Rock Iguana, Cyclura pinguis, whose numbers have been reduced to approximately less than 200 individuals in the wild. This has been brought about by a combination of habitat loss, habitat degradation by grazing animals and predation of juvenile iguanas by feral cats that prevent replenishment of the adult population. There are 210 bird species recorded on the islands with a small number of core breeding species supplemented by pelagic seabirds during the summer and numerous North American migrants during the winter months; there are no endemic bird species (Sanders 2006).

Policy and legislation

BVI has an Environment Charter signed jointly with the UK Government. Guiding Principle 7 is to safeguard and restore native species, habitats and landscape features, and control or eradicate invasive species. Under the associated commitment 2 the government of BVI will ensure the protection and restoration of key habitats, species and landscape features through legislation and appropriate management structures and mechanisms, including a protected area policy, and attempt the control and eradication of invasive species. Implementation progress was reviewed in 2007, 2010 and 2016. 

The BVI Government is a signatory to the St George’s Declaration (SGD) of principles for Environmental Sustainability in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), 2001. Under Principle 13 (Protect and Conserve Biological Diversity) Strategy 40 covers activities aimed at avoiding or minimising introductions and escapes of alien or modified organisms with adverse impacts on other organisms, the environment or human health.

A Government Green paper on Climate Change was issued in July 2010. It includes references to invasive species and proposes the development of an invasive species reporting and early warning system and standard response protocol. It also mentions reduction of introduced bird egg predators such as cats, rodents and mongoose.

There is no national biosecurity policy. Invasive species management is with National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands (NPTVI) and the government’s Agriculture and Fisheries Department.

National biosecurity legislation does not give adequate protection. There are provisions for regulations concerning imports of animals and plants. Early detection and rapid response of invasive species isn’t covered, although powers exist with relation to the prevention of the spread of diseases in plants. No soil from a foreign territory is permitted in. Law and regulations exist (stop, search, seizure and arrest) to minimise intentional or accidental introduction of invasive species to the marine environment. Internal biosecurity is not covered.

Improvements were being made to existing legislation in 2020.

Invasive species and biosecurity

A total of 23+ non-native species (marine and terrestrial) was recorded for BVI by the RSPB Stocktake (Churchyard et al 2014).

Taxon

Total species

Non-native species

Invertebrates

1147

4

Vertebrates

558

19

Plants

1582

Not known

Problems with invasive non-native species

Whistling Pine (Casuarina equisetifolia) has become established on Anegada where it is now spreading naturally and could suppress native understory species. There are a number of introduced invertebrate pests of crops including papaya mealybug (Paracoccus marginatus) and hibiscus mealybug (Macronellicoccus hirsutus). The agave snout weevil (Scyphophorus acupunctatus) was first recorded in 2001 and is now devastating populations of native Agave plants with up to 90% of the plants dead in some areas. Red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) is present on Guana Island since 1996, and was recently accidentally introduced to Road Town, Tortola, in imported turf from Florida. Introduced mammals (eg goats, pigs) can cause habitat damage whilst cats, rats, mongoose, dogs and pigs are predators of native fauna such as iguanas or breeding birds (Varnham 2006).

Native agave attacked by the agave weevil (Scyphophorus acupunctatus)

Native agave attacked by the agave weevil (Scyphophorus acupunctatus)

In the marine environment invasive Lionfish (Pterois volitans) now occur in BVI waters and the Conservation & Fisheries Department have issued information about the species and there is a hotline for reporting sightings.

Priority invasive non-native species and actions

Feral dogs were eradicated from Anegada during 1994-1999. Goat eradication was initiated in 2013 on Great Tobago (104ha), an island known for its large colony of nesting magnificent frigatebirds, with other nesting seabird species (e.g. Brown Booby, Brown Pelican, Laughing Gull). Invasive goats are a threat to the seabird colonies by their destructive grazing of the remaining forest in which the birds nest. Rats were eradicated from Sandy Cay in 2002.

In 2010 a project on Lionfish was funded by Defra covering training of key personnel on identification, biology, capture and mitigation techniques and for educational and public awareness activities.

Biosecurity

In 2017 a biosecurity gap analysis (PDF) was completed. Overall, BVI was found to have reasonable biosecurity capacity. Officers has received training in pest risk analysis. One issue noted for border operations is the close proximity of the US Virgin Islands and frequent passage of private boats, which makes the potential for unlicensed importation of plant material and other invasive species difficult to control. There is also the issue of private islands in the BVI and the possibility of introduction of non-native species in that context with possible risk of spread to other islands.

BVI is unusual in being relatively strong in the field of marine species: contingency planning, surveillance, and rapid response capability.

In 2018 a pathway analysis (PDF) was completed. BVI has direct daily flights from a number of countries within the Caribbean region only: Antigua, Barbados, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia and St. Maarten. Private jets and charters can originate from both within and outside the region, with the majority coming from the USA.

Cargo arrives by both sea and air, directly from within the region (Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Thomas, St. Vincent & the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago), and also Florida and Guyana. Fresh produce is imported from Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia and St. Vincent & the Grenadines. Approximately seven cargo vessels a month arrive from within the region (St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Dominica). Since the hurricane this has risen from 5 a month, with two more vessels arriving on a monthly basis from Trinidad and Tobago and Dominica.

Ferries arrive from St. John and St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, and yachts from within the region and across the Atlantic.

Horizon scanning was carried out in 2019, identifying a total of 31 new invasive species of concern which have the potential to arrive within the next 5 – 10 years; read a report on the horizon scanning (PDF).  

Projects

BVI is part of the Caribbean Invasive Lionfish Response programme (external link), together with the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. This is run by the Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education Foundation (CORE). The programme was designed to assist with all facets of invasive species management, including educational materials, public awareness and classroom presentations, and an Invasive Species Response Network across the USVI, BVI and Puerto Rico. 

Drawing on commitments made under the Environment Charter, Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP), five OTEP funded projects (external link) were delivered in total between 2004 and 2012.

BVI has received a number of Darwin Initiative funded projects, listed below. For more information read the project reports (external link):

  • Upgrade and revision of reef survey resource (DPLUS004)
  • Seed conservation in the Caribbean UKOTs (DPLUS006)
  • Using seabirds to inform Caribbean marine planning (DPLUS007)
  • Conserving plant diversity and establishing ecosystem based approaches to the management of forest ecosystems in the British Virgin Islands (DPLUS012)
  • British Virgin Islands MPA and hydrographic survey capacity building (DPLUS026)
  • Building systems and capacity to monitor and conserve BVI's flora (DPLUS030)
  • BVI seabird recovery planning programme (DPLUS035)
  • Consolidating local capacity for sustainable restoration in BVI Protected Areas (DPLUS043)
  • Regional collaboration to achieve sustainable Caribbean fisheries management (DPLUS067)
  • Improving small island resilience and self-sufficiency in habitat monitoring and management (DPLUS073)
  • Mapping for evidence based policy, recovery and environmental resilience. (DPLUS081)
  • Identifying and conserving resilient habitats in the British Virgin Islands (DPLUS084)
  • Post-disaster Restoration of Mangroves (PROM) (DPLUS085)
  • Regional-scale marine conservation through multi-territory tracking of frigatebirds (DPLUS097)


In 2017 Fera delivered a workshop to staff from the Department of Agriculture, NPTVI and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, covering an introduction to biosecurity, recognition of the main groups of plant pests, and emerging threats to plant health in the BVI. Fera and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (Kew) also visited BVI to undertake survey work and develop a methodology to assess the impact on the native agave Agave missionum of the introduced agave snout weevil.

The project ‘Tackling invasive non-native species in the UK Overseas Territories’ was implemented between 2016 and 2020 to strengthen biosecurity in the OTs, funded by the UK government Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). BVI benefitted from a number of activities to strengthen its biosecurity, including: pathway analysis, horizon scanning, pathway action planning, access to online learning, and technical support. Following hurricanes Irma and Maria, specific advice was provided on mitigating the biosecurity risks inherent in the recovery programme. Read further details.

BVI was involved in the CSSF project ‘Natural Capital in the Caribbean and South Atlantic Overseas Territories’ from 2016 to 2019, and delivered to four OTs in the Caribbean by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). The programme of work involves mapping and valuing the participating OTs natural capital assets through integrating ecological data, satellite data, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and economic assessments. Read project details and reports (external link).

Useful information

Information for visitors

Before travelling please ensure all items are clean, free from organic materials such as mud, faeces, seeds and invertebrates:

  • Check your footwear, outdoor clothing and day packs to make sure they are clean and free from weed seeds, mud, invertebrates and plant material. If possible we recommend that you travel with new outdoor clothing and equipment. Shake out or vacuum all the compartments and pockets before you pack.
  • If you have been camping, check that your tent and other equipment is clean, dry and free of dirt and invertebrates such as ants and spiders. Shake it out before you pack it up for travel and ensure no soil remains on tent pegs.
  • If you have been hiking, visiting a wilderness area, farm or zoo, make sure your footwear and clothes are clean and free from seeds, mud and faeces. Check boot soles for mud between the treads, Velcro fastenings for seeds and plant material, and shake out or vacuum pockets to remove any dirt and plant material.
  • If you are carrying golf, fishing or other sports and outdoor equipment with you, make sure they are clean, dry and free from dirt and any live creatures.

Find an application form for the importation of an animal or live plant (external link).

Contacts

Government of BVI
Department of Agriculture and Fisheries
Paraquita Bay
Tortola,
Virgin Islands (British) VG1120
Email: agriculturebvi@gov.vg, fisheries@gov.vg
Tel: +1 284 468-6123/6124

National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands
National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands (NPTVI)
#16 Mill Mall,
Road Town,
Tortola,
Virgin Islands (British) VG1110
Tel: +1 284-345-3650

Documents

Barnsley, S., Cary, E., Pienkowski, M. and Wensink, C.(Eds) (2016). Review of performance by 2016 of UK Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies in implementing the 2001 Environment Charters or their equivalents and moving towards the Aichi Targets and Sustainable Development Targets. UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum, April 2016.

Churchyard, T., Eaton, M., Hall, J., Millett, J., Farr, A., Cuthbert, R. and Stringer, C. (2014). The UK’s wildlife overseas: a stocktake of nature in our Overseas Territories. Sandy, UK: RSPB.

Edgar, P. (2010). The Amphibians and reptiles of the UK Overseas Territories, Crown Dependencies and Sovereign Base Areas: Species Inventory and Overview of Conservation and Research Priorities. Bournemouth, UK: Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.

Proctor, D. and Fleming, L. V., eds. (1999). Biodiversity: the UK Overseas Territories. Peterborough, UK: JNCC.

Sanders, S. M., ed. (2006). Important Bird Areas in the United Kingdom Overseas Territories. Sandy, UK: RSPB.

Varnham, K. (2006). Non-native species in UK Overseas Territories: a review. Peterborough, UK: JNCC Report No. 372.