RE­BIRTH OF THE BLUES

Col­or­ful Cay­man igua­nas re­bound­ing, sav­ing a species, work still ahead

RSWLiving - - Contents - BY GLENN V. OSTLE

Col­or­ful Cay­man igua­nas re­bound­ing, sav­ing a species, work still ahead

An on­go­ing ef­fort on the part of a ded­i­cated group of peo­ple on Grand Cay­man has brought the is­land’s res­i­dent blue iguana―one of the most en­dan­gered igua­nas in the world―back from the brink of ex­tinc­tion. En­coun­ter­ing a blue iguana can be in­tim­i­dat­ing. This gi­ant, dragon-like lizard (Cy­clura lewisi)―which can grow to over 5 feet in length, weigh more than 25 pounds and live as long as a hu­man―is the largest na­tive land an­i­mal on the Caribbean is­land of Grand Cay­man. Once roam­ing freely in large num­bers across the is­land, years of habi­tat con­ver­sion, hunt­ing, in­tro­duc­tion of non-na­tive species and road kill have all taken a toll.

By 2002, fewer than 20 blue igua­nas were left in the wild, and by 2005 they were re­garded as the most en­dan­gered iguana in the world. To­day, through the ef­forts of a ded­i­cated group and pro­tected set-asides, more than 1,000 roam their Caribbean par­adise.

The plight of the blue iguana was first iden­ti­fied by Fred Bur­ton, on Grand Cay­man in the 1970s do­ing mos­quito re­search. He be­came cu­ri­ous about the large rep­tiles and be­gan a pro­gram to col­lect eggs and start breed­ing the crea­tures us­ing in­cu­ba­tors. Re­cov­ery ef­forts to­day are han­dled by the Blue Iguana Re­cov­ery Pro­gram, op­er­at­ing un­der aus­pices of the Na­tional Trust for the Cay­man Is­lands. Sav­ing the blue iguana has re­quired a wide-rang­ing con­ser­va­tion ef­fort that in­cludes habi­tat pro­tec­tion, cap­tive breed­ing and re­lease, re­search and mon­i­tor­ing and ed­u­ca­tion.

Cap­tive breed­ing be­gan in earnest in 1990 at the Queen El­iz­a­beth II Botanic Park (QE II) on Grand Cay­man’s East End. The ob­jec­tive was to gen­er­ate and re­lease large num­bers of ge­net­i­cally di­verse hatch­lings that can sur­vive in the wild and re­pro­duce nat­u­rally. The orig­i­nal cap­tive breed­ing fa­cil­ity was built in 1995-96. Four­teen breed­ing and hold­ing pens were added, along with an en­closed area with 102 cages for sec­ondyear ju­ve­niles. To­day, the fa­cil­ity op­er­ates at full ca­pac­ity, each year re­leas­ing 40 to 60 into pro­tected ar­eas. Some 160 blue igua­nas re­side at the QE II and an es­ti­mated 900 more prowl the nearby Sali­nas Re­serve.

Blue iguana well-be­ing falls mainly to two war­dens: Karen Ford

and 73-year-old Al­berto Este­vanovich. “To me it is not like a job, but rather some­thing I en­joy do­ing,” says Este­vanovich. “Some­times we even go in to work on our days off.”

The two war­dens mea­sure and weigh the igua­nas, per­form a health screen­ing, check their DNA and place mi­crochips un­der their skin. They also pho­to­graph their backs and necks and ap­ply col­ored beads to vis­ually iden­tify them. In­ter­est­ingly, the blue igua­nas are nor­mally gray but turn blue when they want to be no­ticed. “Diet is very im­por­tant,” says Este­vanovich, ex­plain­ing that the blue igua­nas are fed plants and berries en­demic to the Cay­man Is­lands, in­clud­ing fa­vorites such as pa­paya, Ganges rose, yel­low root and In­dian mul­berry. “Igua­nas will eat all day if you let them,” he says.

Blue igua­nas face a num­ber of phys­i­cal threats that in­clude at­tacks by free-roam­ing dogs, feral and semi-do­mes­tic cats, and rats. “The dog killing sit­u­a­tion has al­ways been there, but lately has got­ten quite bad,” Este­vanovich says. “Now the dogs are hunt­ing them for sport and re­cently killed 15 an­i­mals,” prompt­ing the con­fine­ment of igua­nas in pro­tected ar­eas, he adds.

An­other threat is the ex­plod­ing pop­u­la­tion of green igua­nas be­gin­ning about 10 years ago. Says Karen Ford: “Blues have a very unique DNA which is to­tally dif­fer­ent than that of the green or com­mon iguana.”

“I never saw a green iguana here in the ‘70s,” adds Este­vanovich. “Af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ivan rav­aged the is­land in 2004, con­tain­ers of plants and grass for re­plant­ing were brought from Cen­tral Amer­ica, which prob­a­bly con­tained a lot of green iguana hatch­lings.”

Ef­forts to save blue igua­nas have been im­pres­sive and have sur­passed ex­pec­ta­tions. As a re­sult, there is now a ques­tion about the di­rec­tion of fu­ture con­ser­va­tion ef­forts. “We only planned to help save the shrink­ing pop­u­la­tions,” says Este­vanovich. “Now that has been largely ac­com­plished, we are ask­ing our­selves, ‘What should we do next?’”

For more in­for­ma­tion about Grand Cay­man’s blue igua­nas, go to blueiguana.ky.

Ef­forts to save blue igua­nas have been im­pres­sive and have sur­passed ex­pec­ta­tions.

Queen El­iz­a­beth II Botanic Park war­den Al­berto Este­vanovich ( be­low) has helped in restor­ing Grand Cay­man's blue iguana pop­u­la­tion.

Karen Ford (at left in mid­dle photo) and Al­berto Este­vanovich are war­dens at the QE II Botanic Park, which in­cludes the Kirk­land Nixon Vis­i­tors Cen­tre (be­low).

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