In the shallow waters surrounding the island of Bonaire, reefs of virtually every species of hard and soft coral found in the Caribbean are living and growing. Home to more than 340 species of fish, the reef is one of the healthiest in the Caribbean.
The island’s beaches are nesting grounds for four species of endangered sea turtle. Red mangroves provide safe haven for frigate birds, herons, flamingos, terns, pelicans, and endangered ospreys. Lac, a semi-enclosed bay with sea grass beds, is a nursery for reef fish and a foraging ground for endangered queen conch and green turtles. Cushion stars and conch can still be found among the sea grasses, as well as fields of pulsating upside down jellyfish ‘Cassiopeia’. Inland, Washington Slagbaai National Park is the oldest and largest natural sanctuary in the Dutch Caribbean, providing a safe habitat for endemic Yellow-shouldered Amazon Parrots, iguanas, and many migratory birds from North America.
However, rapid coastal development, climate change, invasive species, and overharvesting of resources are among the threats to the health of the reefs and the vitality of the island’s diverse ecosystems.
Bonaire is not alone. The islands of the Dutch Caribbean — Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, St. Maarten, Saba and St. Eustatius — are remote, tiny, and often overlooked, but their natural heritage is rich and complex. The islands are a biodiversity hotspot with more than 200 species and subspecies found nowhere else in the world.
Protecting this paradise is the goal of the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA), a partnership organization made up of the islands’ protected area managers. DCNA works to ensure the islands preserve their unique natural world through focused management. Effective conservation requires exceptional management, and exceptional management requires objective, reliable data that can be used to measure progress and make critical decisions.
“A Geographic Information System (GIS) is one tool that will contribute to us achieving our mission of safeguarding nature in the Dutch Caribbean,” said Nathaniel Miller, DCNA’s Conservation Projects Assistant.
Adding to the conservation toolbox
In addition to working to build a trust fund that will sustain at least one land and one marine park on each Dutch Caribbean island, DCNA is developing a regional approach to conservation and has embarked on multiyear initiatives to standardize management plans, evaluate conservation success, and monitor biodiversity and key habitats.
Through ESRI’s Grant Assistance Program, each protected area management organization on each island and DCNA are benefiting from ArcInfo GIS licenses.
“DCNA is working to help the protected area managers use GIS and ArcInfo software to collect data on environmental threats, key species, vegetation, visitor resources, and other information that will aid in all aspects of management,” said Kalli De Meyer, Executive Director. “Partnering with the ESRI office based in Curacao and with support from Vogelbescherming Nederland (BirdLife International Partner), DCNA is training protected area staff not only on how to use and understand GIS, but also how to apply these skills to their day-to-day work.” Assessments of protected area management over the last three years have shown gaps between protected area needs and how resources are allocated.
“One of our first GIS goals,” Miller said, “is to enable park management staff to map their protected area threats and resources and then overlay where and how they are expending their resources. This data visualization will give us a fresh perspective on the biodiversity we are protecting and allow us to be more efficient in the work we are doing to ensure its vitality.“
Building professional conservation practices
On Bonaire, STINAPA Bonaire, the protected areas management organization, is using ArcInfo to map protected area resources and management inventory, such as boat moorings in the world famous Bonaire National Marine Park. DCNA is piloting a project to make the Washington Slagbaai National Park GIS capable, enhancing the conservationists’ ability to monitor bird and bat species.
Fernando Simal, the head of STINAPA’s Nature Management Department, is monitoring terrestrial and sea birds to better understand their populations, distribution, and life cycles. He plans to map the island’s karst limestone caves — crucial habitat for several bat species.
“Monitoring birds and bats not only gives us insight to the particular species, but also transcends to the overall health of our natural habitat on Bonaire,” Simal said. “GIS has allowed us to improve the way this data is collected, stored, and presented to the public.
“For example,” he continued, “if certain birds are no longer nesting in mangroves because mangroves are disappearing, we need to be able to scientifically prove and present this. That is where GIS comes in.“
Other islands also are reaping the rewards of this powerful partnership. John de Freitas, a researcher and manager of CARMABI, Curacao, has used ArcInfo to map vegetation on the Dutch Caribbean islands, an essential base map for conservationists because the populations of various species often correlate with changes in vegetation. Some species thrive in the islands’ unique habitats, such as the cloud forest of Saba, and nowhere else in the world, making it critical to understand these habitats and what impacts them. With GIS conservation, managers can review vegetation maps to determine trends.
Aruba, a small island with a remarkably varied habitat, is home to species such as the Cascabel, the rarest rattlesnake in the world, and the endemic leaf-toed gecko. Parke Arikok protects 17% of Aruba’s terrestrial area.
Diego Marquez, the Ecology and Education Manager at Fundacion Parke Nacional Arikok in Aruba, is using ArcInfo to monitor bird species such as the Choco, an endemic burrowing owl. The park also is using GIS to map and understand trends of the invasive boa constrictor, a severe threat to the island’s biodiversity.
Enabling a common vision
“The idea at the heart of DCNA is to stand together to protect these bountiful, yet fragile and threatened ecosystems,” Miller said. “GIS will help us develop a central hub of data and maps useful not only to conservation managers, but also to the general public and decision makers across the region. A map displaying rapid species population or habitat loss really hits home for many people who may not otherwise recognize these trends, and the hard data allows conservationists and politicians to make more informed decisions.”
De Freitas crystallized this sentiment at the end of a recent GIS workshop, saying, “GIS just brings us to a higher level of possibilities.”