Habitat conservation in the British Virgin Islands with Nancy Pascoe
The beautiful British Virgin Islands (BVI) are a chain of more than fifty volcanic islands between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The country is home to a huge variety of rare plant and wildlife species. Nancy Pascoe, Deputy Director for Science, Research and Environmental Policy at the National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands (NPTVI), works to conserve this special landscape.
Living on a small island, you have to get creative, so Nancy’s role is as varied as the conservation sector itself. I speak to Nancy when she is in the midst of writing a cabinet paper stating a case for raising entry fees in one of the 21 national parks under NPTVI’s jurisdiction.
On her desk, she has GIS software to map threatened plant species and a schedule for staff working to conserve the critically endangered Anegada rock iguana (Cyclura pinguis). The next day could involve a boat trip to map coastal habitats or a hike to an endangered bird colony.
The British Virgin Islands were hit by two devastating category five hurricanes in 2017 that wiped out a lot of habitats and buildings, including Nancy’s home. Since then, attitudes towards conserving this special environment have evolved.
“Climate change is real. And people here know it because that was a direct result of climate change,” Nancy says. Mangroves provide essential defences against hurricanes, and Nancy’s team now work with property developers to prevent these critical habitats from being cleared for boat jetties.
“You never stop learning, and it never stops surprising us as to what new things we find”
In the British Virgin Islands, the relationship between the environment and tourism seems complex: the two can both help and hinder each other, and it’s hard work to maintain an equilibrium that is beneficial to both.
Nancy’s job includes talking to governmental departments about the economic benefits of conserving the land. “There is no tourism product unless you protect the environment,” she says, “because they’re coming here to see the environment.”
Tourism dollars also provide essential funding for conservation work. When the islands’ borders closed due to Covid-19, Nancy met with colleagues the world over to share sustainable financing ideas. For instance, the National Parks Trust grants film and photography permits, charging companies who want to use the space for commercial gain.
“Everybody uses the national parks for their benefit. We try and manage what people’s activities are and charge a fee so that we can keep maintaining the sites and regulate what’s going on. We also get a lot of cruise ship visitors, so I’ve written carrying capacity studies for our parks to regulate how many people can go at one time.”
“The world is connected to you on a computer, so get involved”
The National Parks Trust has partnered with NGOs around the world on projects to conserve this special place, including the RSPB, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, The Nature Conservancy, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), and several universities.
Nancy and her team are continually open to learning new skills. “I studied geography at college. But it’s not like I studied biology, so I have learned on the go. You get a bird book, you spend time with experts… and then you spend time doing it yourself.”
In 2003 Nancy took over the national coordination of the US Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count in the BVI. Similarly, Dr Charles Shepherd from Warwick University trained the team on marine habitat surveys, and the team now continues this important work. “You never stop learning, and it never stops surprising us as to what new things we find.”
“There’s a lot more happening out there that you maybe don’t know about. But now, with social media, you can find out”
If you want to work in conservation, Nancy’s advice is to get experience in as many skills as you can and to think local. “There’s a lot more happening out there that you maybe don’t know about. But now, with social media, you can find out.”
Attend public meetings, offer your time voluntarily to organisations and, if you’re studying, “ask your professors if they’re doing any research projects that you could get involved in.” The digital world gives us more ways to connect than ever before, and building a network can be really empowering.
Nancy’s daughter is a part of the global Girl Up programme, which promotes activism and involvement. “A lot of the time they meet online. It means you’re not in your little town, cut off from the rest of the world. The world is connected to you on a computer, so get involved.”
Anyone can become a citizen scientist. Capturing images of plants, insects and wildlife, and uploading them to social media helps the National Parks Trust: “It’s a great resource for us because it helps us identify if there are any new species appearing.”
Creating resources for identification and education is another string to Nancy’s bow. The Environmental Atlas of the British Virgin Islands was published in 2021 after twenty years of work. It was a labour of love. “Schoolchildren would call the office and say, ‘I’m doing a project on mangroves, what information do you have?’ We would get enquiries all the time, and we wanted to put everything in one place.”
Full of beautiful images, the book was a collaboration between local and international experts. “It gives people an insight into how special the environment in the BVI is. It makes me really proud.”
“There is always a way to integrate the environment into your career choice”
After growing up in the BVI, Nancy went to secondary school in the UK and chose to study for her geography degree at Royal Holloway, University of London. “They had a really good centre for Developing Areas research, and I liked the fact that their professors did some work in the Caribbean. I thought, ‘I can relate to that’.”
After gaining a Master’s degree in Developing Areas, Nancy went back to the BVI to gain work experience. “I actually applied for the programme coordinator position at the NPTVI twice – the first time I didn’t get the job. I didn’t have any experience at the time. I was fresh out of college.”
But she didn’t give up – she took a short-term consultancy role related to the marine protected areas of the BVI. When the programme coordinator role came up again two years later, this time she was successful.
Her advice for those looking to change careers into conservation is to play to your strengths. The natural switch for a teacher would be to work in environmental education, or a planner might focus on sustainable planning. “I know someone who was a dive operator, and then she trained to be a marine biologist.”
She emphasises that everybody can have a positive effect on the environment: “A lot of the law firms here do community service projects. You’ve got to get everybody involved because we can’t do it by ourselves. There is always a way to integrate the environment into your career choice.”
Living and working in such a beautiful place comes with some enviable career highlights. “I can safely say that I’ve climbed to the top of every hill… reached the highest point on every island in the BVI.”
She sat and had tea with Sir Richard Branson on Mosquito Island for a turtle symposium. I get the impression that Nancy would score highly on a staff satisfaction survey.
“I feel really fortunate that I’ve had these opportunities and it’s through my job. When you do a job in conservation you do it because you really love it. It’s not always the highest-paying job, but you spend your life at work.
“My advice to somebody young looking into careers is that you have to enjoy what you do. You can’t just do it for the money. And I think most people who go into conservation really care about it, and that’s why it ends up being your lifelong career — because it gets so ingrained in you.”
Learn more at www.bvinpt.org.
Like the NPTVI on Facebook.
Watch Nancy’s Ted Talk Conserving in the Virgin Islands is like peeling an onion.
Find more on the partnership with RGB, Kew at Tropical Important Plant Areas (TIPAs) in the British Virgin Islands (BVI).
See The Environmental Atlas of the British Virgin Islands The BVI Beacon.
Visit Girl Up.
Author profile | Sophie Blackman
Sophie Blackman is a book editor and writer who is passionate about doing something every day to help the environment. She currently works on books about gardening and natural history. She has also volunteered for the Surrey Wildlife Trust.
Main image: Nancy Pascoe assessing a population of threatened plants at Leverick Bay, Virgin Gorda, in 2021. © NPTVI.