Dis­cover why the Grand Cay­man’s blue igua­nas are truly one of a kind

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Front Page - PHO­TOS BY LUKE MASSEY says Katie Stacey

An im­pos­ing, out­ra­geously blue body, far big­ger than any lizard ought to be. A know­ing red eye, set in a mo­saic of sky-blue scales. Peer­ing at me, calm, un­afraid. I had never seen any­thing re­motely like this in all my life – the words of con­ser­va­tion­ist Fred Bur­ton of his first en­counter with one of the world’s rarest igua­nas, the Cay­man blue.

This rare and un­likely crea­ture’s home is equally un­likely: the idyl­lic is­land of Grand Cay­man, where turquoise wa­ters lap cream­coloured beaches and Caribbean cul­ture meets high-fi­nance cor­po­ra­tions. In the

East End re­gion of this lit­tle is­land, there is a uniquely in­hos­pitable land­scape that just so hap­pens to be ideal iguana habi­tat.

Our mis­sion to pho­to­graph the Cay­man blue be­gins at the Salina Re­serve, a patch­work of around 2.5km2 of sedge and but­ton­wood swamp, dry shrub­land and for­est, which can only be ne­go­ti­ated on foot. There are no real trails to speak of, and the area’s hos­tile wilds have a rep­u­ta­tion for un­pre­pared ex­plor­ers un­der­es­ti­mat­ing their sur­round­ings and go­ing miss­ing. For­tu­nately, our guide is Paul Watler of the Na­tional Trust for the Cay­man Is­lands. Paul is armed with years of ex­pe­ri­ence and a GPS, both of which prove in­valu­able as we strike out across the ‘iron shore’, an epic 16 mil­lion-year-old reef that forms the ba­sis of our route.


From the ra­zor-sharp rocks and palm-frond­cov­ered pits that pep­per our path, to the maiden plum and manchi­neel trees that we have been warned could strip the skin from our bones (and which his­tor­i­cally were used by indige­nous peo­ples as a form of tor­ture), this place feels like a death­trap to us. But it pro­vides the per­fect oa­sis for the igua­nas. The Salina Re­serve of­fers a safe haven from hu­man de­vel­op­ment, road traf­fic and the in­tro­duced mam­malian preda­tors found else­where on Grand Cay­man. And though our trek into the re­serve is a treach­er­ous one un­der a beat­ing sun, we nev­er­the­less man­age to find a wild blue iguana – and it is just as Fred de­scribed.

The sen­sa­tional story of the blue iguana’s de­cline and re­cov­ery is one of con­ser­va­tion at its best. The ar­rival of hu­mans on Grand Cay­man – and with them dogs, cats, rats, snares, de­for­esta­tion, cars and the green iguana – seemed to spell al­most cer­tain ex­tinc­tion for this hand­some is­land en­demic. The green iguana was a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem. In its na­tive range of Cen­tral and South Amer­ica, the abun­dance of cat-like preda­tors and other mor­tal dan­gers had made the species much more street­wise than its rel­a­tively naïve Caribbean rel­a­tive, and it also had the abil­ity to lay more eggs. So its ap­pear­ance on the is­land quickly be­came a clas­sic in­va­sive species story.

En­ter Fred Bur­ton, who has lived on Grand Cay­man since 1979. When he stum­bled across a relic pop­u­la­tion of the unique blue igua­nas, he re­alised their plight; just a hand­ful re­mained in the wild. Thanks to Fred’s ded­i­ca­tion, the Cay­man Is­lands gov­ern­ment recog­nised it had to take ac­tion, and in 1990 launched a cap­tive­breed­ing res­cue pro­gramme. As Fred ex­plains: “This is the flag­ship-species phe­nom­e­non at work – the an­i­mal it­self is in­her­ently in­ter­est­ing. Blue igua­nas have charisma. They look so un­usual – re­ally eye-catch­ing in a pho­to­graph or film.”

But progress wasn’t all smooth. The first blue igua­nas that ar­rived from cap­tiv­ity in the USA turned out to be hy­brids. Then, when the re­place­ment cap­tive-breed­ing stock was fi­nally con­firmed to con­sist of pure breeds, the res­cuers hit an­other stum­bling block: the igua­nas weren’t sur­viv­ing af­ter be­ing re­leased. By ra­dio-track­ing them Fred and his fel­low con­ser­va­tion­ists learned that the species doesn’t dig its own bur­rows, but in­stead oc­cu­pies very spe­cific snug holes in rock. The rocky holes where the igua­nas were be­ing re­leased sim­ply weren’t the right size.

Through trial and er­ror the con­ser­va­tion­ists es­tab­lished the cor­rect hole di­men­sions and de­vel­oped a re­lease strat­egy that worked. Since 2006, they have also pro­vided cus­tom-made ‘lizard lairs’ – ar­ti­fi­cial re­treats of clay and con­crete. Af­ter their re­lease, the igua­nas cen­tre their ter­ri­to­ries on their new re­treats, and when­ever an oc­cu­pant out­grows its pre­cious home, a younger iguana moves in and takes over. To­day, around 800 blue igua­nas are be­lieved to live wild on Grand Cay­man.

The pro­gramme’s goal is to have 1,000 wild blue igua­nas, and so the cap­tive-breed­ing cen­tre re­mains vi­tally im­por­tant. It is run by two war­dens and a hand­ful of vol­un­teers. We meet one of the war­dens, Al­berto Este­vanovic, who de­spite be­ing born in Costa Rica sees him­self as a true Cay­ma­nian. His pas­sion for his adopted is­land and its sky-blue lizards is in­fec­tious.


Al­berto started by work­ing as a food and drink man­ager for the is­land’s ho­tels and restau­rants, but soon be­came bored, quit­ting the job to pur­sue his love of wildlife. “I’ve been work­ing at the iguana breed­ing cen­tre for eight years now,” he says. “And be­lieve me, I love what I’m do­ing here. I just love these an­i­mals.” As Al­berto shows us around the sanc­tu­ary, it is re­mark­able to see the blue igua­nas’ re­ac­tion to the sound of his voice. While some run to­wards him, oth­ers ac­knowl­edge his ar­rival with just a tilt of their head, but either way it’s clear that they know him.


Cur­rently Al­berto and his crew care for 185 blue igua­nas at the cen­tre. The team ar­rives each day at around 5.30am to pre­pare the igua­nas’ food, la­bo­ri­ously cut­ting it into dif­fer­ent sizes for the hatchlings, ju­ve­niles and big adults. They then wait un­til it is light and the igua­nas have started to emerge, when they pro­vide the food and wa­ter. “And then we take off and col­lect food for the next day. Ev­ery day we do it. This is very im­por­tant,” Al­berto says.

“We take a lit­tle break now and then – we go and have a cof­fee – and then we come back here and we do some gar­den­ing, cage-clean­ing, that sort of thing,” Al­berto ex­plains. “We have a very good group of lo­cal vol­un­teers – we op­er­ate this place with very few peo­ple. Like I al­ways say, ‘Too many hands and it doesn’t work.’”

Judg­ing by the scars on his arms, how­ever, the igua­nas aren’t al­ways so wel­com­ing. Al­berto has been bit­ten on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions: “I have


a cou­ple of cuts, bro­ken fin­gers, toes, bites… but it’s part of my job,” he shrugs.

When one of the ju­ve­niles some­how es­capes into its neigh­bour’s cage, Al­berto deftly catches the lizard and thrusts it into my hands. “If it bites, don’t pull away – those teeth will shred you. Wait un­til it lets go,” he warns us as he walks away.

The iguana is in­cred­i­bly strong de­spite its small size. As its long, mus­cu­lar body wrig­gles in my hand, its jaws open to dis­play those finely ser­rated teeth Al­berto had just cau­tioned me about. I must ad­mit I feel much more com­fort­able watch­ing the igua­nas from afar, sun­bathing on rocks or munch­ing hap­pily on fruits and leaves hand-picked by Al­berto and his ded­i­cated team.

And as for the fu­ture of these iconic, vi­brant blue rep­tiles? “Well, the res­cue pro­gramme is still young. But it is go­ing very well. Now we can kind of brag about it,” Al­berto says proudly, his eyes twin­kling. “Ev­ery­thing is done here with just a few peo­ple – and it’s work­ing.”

Igua­nas at the cap­tive­breed­ing cen­tre are tagged with glass beads so they can be iden­ti­fied from a dis­tance. Al­berto holds a male blue iguana. The species can grow up to 1.5m long and weigh 11kg.

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CLOCK­WISE FROM ABOVE: blue igua­nas play an im­por­tant role in the ecosys­tem as pol­li­na­tors; dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son the scales of males turn bluer; the species has a dor­sal crest of short spines; ju­ve­nile cages at the breed­ing cen­tre.

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