Blue Iguana Recovery Program

Smitten with a scaly sweetheart at a Cayman Island iguana sanctuary

Mar 24th, 2009 | By | Category: Blues in the International Press

Feb 14, 2009

THE STAR – Toronto Edition
by: Carol Perehudoff


Carol Perehudoff shares a warm moment with Pedro, who was later savagely killed by vandals who raided the sanctuary.

Grand Cayman–Carefully, I stalked my prey, sidling up to the outdoor picnic tables where the species was known to forage for food. I was in luck. Several of the herd had gathered, flinging back suit jackets, opening takeout containers and juice bottles. Yes, the seating area behind this fast food restaurant in George Town was an excellent place to spot international bankers. Sheesh, I thought, clutching a salad. If I don’t start driving my rental car soon, this is as close to Grand Cayman wildlife as I’m going to get. Grand Cayman, the fifth-largest banking centre in the world, has other attractions besides fine beaches and glitz, but the best wilderness pockets are out of the way. Unfortunately, I was scared to drive on the left side of the road, so instead of exploring the island’s far reaches I’d been lolling around on 7-Mile Beach or taking the shuttle bus into George Town. If I wanted to see the blue iguanas, however, I had to get behind the wheel. Blue iguanas, the beauty queens of the reptile world, exist only on Grand Cayman. Capable of growing to more than a metre in length, they’re the most critically endangered iguanas in the world, threatened by deforestation. In 2001, there were fewer than 20 left. But, thanks to the Blue Iguana Recovery program, a captive breeding facility at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park supported by the island’s National Trust, their numbers have crawled up to 250. The next morning, I set off in my lilac Mitsubishi for the park, managing to encounter both rush hour traffic in George Town and the arrival of a cruise ship, with passengers streaming into the road. Finally, I was spit out at a roundabout and sailed down a glorious coastal stretch of Seaview Rd. dotted with lonely beaches and casuarina trees. At the park, I met John Marotta, an enthusiastic New Yorker who works as the warden of the recovery program. He told me that there are probably fewer than 20 blue iguanas left in the wild. “Maria is the last wild adult we caught,” he said. “We found her at Captain Willie’s farm on East End.” As we approached a series of large fenced-in pens, a blue mini-dinosaur came thumping towards me. I stepped behind John. “I think one has escaped.” “That’s Mad Max. He’s a free roamer. He likes to know what’s going on.” Mad Max showed no fear, giving me a closeup look at the sky-blue spikes down his spine and his big jowly head. I couldn’t help asking the obvious. “Why are they blue?” Marotta laughed. “That’s a question no one has answered.” As we toured the pens, Marotta introduced me to the various residents, each one varying in size, shape and hue. “This is Pedro.” Marotta pointed to a blue-grey iguana sunning himself on a rock. “He’s affectionate.” Pedro is such a softie that I was allowed to enter his pen. Crouching down, patting his scaly tough skin, I immediately fell in love. Sure, Mad Max had that bad-boy alpha-male vibe, but with Pedro, you could set up a home, take long walks on the beach, start a family of Smurfs … Pedro, however, was an exception. Generally, the iguanas are loners – except during breeding season between April and May, when the males turn their attention to females and turf wars and become even bluer. “Not the females, though,” said Marotta. “They’re darker and dingier because they don’t want to be harassed.” They must warm to the males sometimes, because the breeding program is successful. We passed cages of little blue iguanas in varying stages of growth. “After two years we release them,” Marotta said as we walked along the park’s Woodland Trail where released iguanas wander freely. “The big problem is getting the land. The National Trust owns the Salina Reserve’s 263 hectares, but only one third is viable living space. The rest is too swampy.” Back at the pens, a battle was brewing. Big Blue, another free roamer, had been eying Mad Max’s turf and the two were circling each other. “This might be the final showdown,” John whispered. But no. After a tense standoff, Big Blue retreated behind a fence while Mad Max strutted around in triumph. Renting a car was worth it, I thought. The best of Grand Cayman may involve a bit of a drive, but bankers can’t be nearly as exciting as this. Since my trip to Grand Cayman, seven blue iguanas at the Recovery Centre were killed by unknown persons. The crime was discovered by volunteers early one morning. The iguanas appeared to have massive internal injuries, as if they had been stamped on violently and repeatedly. Sadly, the body of Pedro is missing, but entrails on the trail outside his pen are a grim sign of his fate. Carol Perehudoff’s trip was subsidized by the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism.

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