Discover why the Grand Cayman’s blue iguanas are truly one of a kind
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.
THE TEAM ARRIVES AT 5.30AM TO PREPARE THE IGUANAS’ FOOD, CUTTING IT INTO DIFFERENT SIZES FOR THE HATCHLINGS, JUVENILES AND ADULTS.
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.
A LOVE FOR LIZARDS
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
“IF IT BITES, DON’T PULL AWAY – THOSE TEETH WILL SHRED YOU. WAIT UNTIL IT LETS GO,” ALBERTO WARNS.
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.