Blue Iguana Recovery Program

Blue Iguana Project prepares for hatchlings and release

Sep 8th, 2004 | By | Category: Blues in the Local Press

Fred Burton, Director of the
Blue Iguana Recovery Programme
by Brian Buckley, Cayman Net News

As a result of years of committed effort by the National Trust‚s Blue Iguana Recovery Programme (BIRP), 80 baby Grand Cayman Blue Iguanas are now hatching in protected areas in Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Park. While the BIRP seeks to reach an annual rate of 100 hatchlings, this month’s hatching of 80 represents nothing short of a miraculous accomplishment. In equally impressive news, final preparations are underway to release 25 two-year old Blue Iguanas into the National Trust’s Salina Reserve, in north-eastern Grand Cayman. The iguanas will be radio tracked after release, to monitor their survival and behaviour as they taste freedom for the first time. In the spring of 2002 The National Trust’s Blue Iguana Recovery Programme updated an estimate of the wild blue iguana population in Grand Cayman. The grim estimate of 150 to 200 blue iguanas calculated in 1993 turned into a crisis situation when the 2002 count revealed only between 10 and 25 blue iguanas in the wild. “As a result of that count in 2002, the Cayman Blue Iguana was crowned the most endangered iguana on earth,” said Fred Burton, Director of the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme. “It was a tough way to get attention, but it was at the point where we all understood we had a crisis and had to get more serious,” Mr Burton added. The Grand Cayman Blue Iguana is unique to the island of Grand Cayman and does not exist anywhere else on earth. “Recent genetic studies indicate that it has a three-million year ancestry. If the blue iguana were to go extinct here, it would then be extinct globally,” explained Mr Burton.

Through the years the BIRP has worked under the auspices of the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, while simultaneously receiving tremendous international support and cooperation. Organisations such as the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the International Iguana Foundation, the International Reptile Conservation Fund, the Iguana Specialist Group, the IUCN World Conservation Union, and the International Iguana Foundation have all contributed to the recent successes of the programme. “In fact the IUCN World Conservation Union helped us to craft an effective blue iguana species recovery plan back in 2001. The first thing that we did as a result of their support was the dreadful 2002 count of 10 to 25 iguanas,” Mr Burton said. Mr Burton, who fist came to the Island in 1979 to work with the Mosquito Research Control Unit (MRCU), first encountered blue iguanas in the backyard of Ira Thompson in George Town. Mr Thompson had been part of a 1938 Oxford Science Expedition, where he hooked up with visiting students from Oxford who were looking into the blue iguanas.

At the time the MRCU had a Natural Resources Unit (NRU) and in 1988 the NRU invited the academic Roger Avery from the UK to assess the state of the blue iguana. He spent two weeks in the bush in East End and I got to spend a little time with him. Mr Avery reported back to the government that the blue iguana was in a critical state. Around this same time the National Trust For the Cayman Islands was forming and interests started fusing. By 1990 the Trust began work on blue iguanas. Through cooperation with a reptile collector in Florida, the National Trust received a breeding pair of Blue Iguanas.

As a result of this endeavour, Mr Burton was included in the programme. “It really was like jumping in the deep end. The breeding pair mated and produced eggs in that first year,” said Mr Burton. As with the fortuitous coincidence of Mr Avery‚s visit and the Trust‚s formation, fortune again rained upon the blue iguanas when a man from the National Zoo in Washington, DC happened to be on the Island during this first pair‚s mating. Mr Burton said he received invaluable advice at the time from him. From his early work Mr Burton quickly realised that in order to have long-term success in the blue iguana project, what had to be understood was why the blue iguana was in trouble in the first place. With that understanding a well-thought scientific response could be crafted.

Gradually it was learned that iguanas in Turks & Caicos and Jamaica were also facing serious trouble. The initial recovery efforts in Grand Cayman yielded 6 to 12 baby blue iguanas a year. “In the last couple of years we‚ve been turning a corner. Last year we hatched off 84 iguanas. We think one of the reasons for our recent success was a switch we made in the diet and in the space we give the iguanas. We bumped up the wild plant food and provided more space for them,” Mr Burton said. Last month the programme received a welcome boost from thirteen international volunteers who joined forces with local participants and a local contractor to expand and restore the Captive Breeding and Head-Starting Facility in the QE II Botanic Park. “Together we were able to build 102 4‚x4‚ cages in two weeks. This is important because once the babies are out three to four weeks, they become territorially aggressive and need their own cage,” said Mr Burton.

This is also major step toward meeting their vision of 100 hatchlings a year. The programme now faces two critical challenges. First, it now operates with a sole staff member and the tasks of feeding and looking after all the blue iguanas has become overwhelming. Mr Burton feels this work can ultimately sell itself as an integral part of the tourism product, but for now, monies are insufficient to hire a second staff member. Second, the issue facing all endangered species is the need to make sure the reasons for its decline are corrected. “With the blue iguana we know the reasons. Dogs, cats, fast cars, and increased development of the Island all have a negative impact,” Mr Burton said.

The Botanical Park will soon reach its limit of around 30 blue iguanas and the release of the 25 iguanas into the relative safety of Salina Reserve helps only so much. “We can‚t rely on the Salina Reserve and the Botanic Park alone to take the Grand Cayman Blue Iguana off the endangered species list,” said Mr Burton. This month will also see the completion of a 20-minute film “Too Blue To Lose” on the Blue Iguana to be sold internationally and be used in schools in the Cayman Islands to promote science education through study of this indigenous, unique, and endangered species. “This is something absolutely unique to Grand Cayman and is part of the nation’s heritage,” Mr Burton concluded. Those with ideas for support can reach Mr Burton at 345-947-6050.

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