Blue Iguana Recovery Program

Blue iguana attack on Cayman Islands had silver lining

Jul 29th, 2008 | By | Category: Blues in the International Press


Blue iguana attack on Cayman Islands had silver lining

By Diana McAdam
Last Updated: 1:30PM BST 29 Jul 2008

Earlier this year, the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme on Grand Cayman in the Caribbean made international headlines for all the wrong reasons.

On the morning of Sunday May 4, volunteer keepers at the fenced-in facility, which is on the site of the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, found that four of the adult giant blue lizards had been butchered, two others had been left for dead and another was missing.

At least two of the dead females had been preparing to lay precious eggs. The seven animals represented one-third of the adult breeding iguanas cared for at the captive facility.

The critically endangered creatures – which resemble miniature turquoise dragons, can grow up to 6ft long and, in the wild, are believed to live for more than 60 years – are unique to Grand Cayman.

“It’s ugly and deeply shocking,” said the programme’s director Fred Burton at the time of the attack. “These were some of our most high-profile and loved captive iguanas.”

One of the dead, named Pedro, who was described by senior iguana warden John Marotta as “the bluest of the blues”, and was the animal that was introduced to Prince Edward, a keen supporter of the programme, on his 2007 tour of the islands.

When I visited the conservation centre in June, the sense of loss was still palpable.

“We believe that someone broke into the facility with a dog but the animals died of massive trauma, not of dog attack,” said Marotta, who is a chef by profession but has been working at the facility for three years.

“The silver lining to the dark cloud of the attack on the animals is that it has created a lot of national and international interest in the breeding programme. Now, most of the adults have been sponsored and we are fielding queries everyday.”

According to Marotta, blue iguanas, which are by nature vegetarian, inhabited the island for around 3m years with no natural predators.

However, the past 60 years alone have seen the introduction of rats, cats and dogs – not to mention a massive increase in both the human population and the number of cars on the island (iguanas like to sunbathe on tarmac roads and are frequently run over).

Add the fragmentation of their natural habitat due to land development and it is not surprising that the numbers have reached a critical level.

“Historically, they would live in the bush and would bury their eggs where the bush meets the beach – right where the roads were built on the island,” explained Marotta.

These are solitary animals by design. A roaming male would have a territory of about 30 acres, a female only one or two. The breeding season – which is when their blue colour is at its most intense – generally last from the end of February to beginning of May, and the eggs take 10 weeks to hatch. Here, we make sure that we know where the females have laid so that we can dig the eggs up and incubate them.”

It is difficult to describe exactly how extraordinary these beasts are in the flesh. It really like walking with dinosaurs. They vary in colour from grey to a vivid blue, have remarkable black feet and red eyes.

According to Burton, as well as being highly intelligent, blue iguanas possess acute hearing and colour vision, have highly evolved senses of taste and smell, and enjoy complicated social lives. They are, by nature, rampantly promiscuous.

Their closest relative is the brown iguana (Cyclura nubile caymanensis), which live on Grand Cayman’s sister islands, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, and is in turn a sub-species evolved from the Cuban iguana (Cyclura nubile).

At present, the facility contains 104 caged blue iguanas of varying ages and 40 adults of breeding age.

Pairs are selectively mated, as the aim is to keep the gene pool as broad as possible. A healthy female can lay anything up to 24 eggs – although the average is closer to 10 – and the programme currently has a 90 per cent rate of successful hatchings.

“Ultimately, we want at least 1,000 free-roaming animals in the wild,” Marotta said.

At that point they will go from critically endangered to endangered, and the wild populations in the Botanic Park and the Salina Reserve will be self-sustaining.

“What we really need is a third site – at least 500 acres of viable property for them to roam on.

The breeding programme is successful – we are hatching 150 eggs every year. Now our biggest problem is where we are going to put the hatchlings when they are released.”

As well as the National Trust of the Cayman Islands and the International Reptile Conservation Foundation, one of the programme’s main supporters is the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, which is based on Jersey, and whose mission is to save wild animals from extinction.

It is incredible to think that in 1991, when Fred Burton established the recovery programme, there were estimated to be less than 25 blue iguanas left in the wild. Today, thanks entirely to his team and the programme’s success, these unique creatures really do have a future.

Blue Iguanas at a glance:

* The Grand Cayman blue iguana is the most endangered iguana in the world. There are only 10-25 left in the wild
* They can live for more than 60 years
* They eat flowers and fruit, and need shelter for living and soil to dig their nests in
* They have thick scaly skin, strong teeth and jaws and powerful digging claws
* They lie in the sun to get warm and increase their energy levels. As they get warmer they change from grey to blue.
* The blue colour also intensifies during the mating season

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