Blue Iguana Recovery Program

Stepping into the new Blue Iguana Reserve

Jun 9th, 2010 | By | Category: Featured article

Some time has now passed since a little splash of publicity announced that the Cayman Islands had gained a new protected area. Since then there hasn’t been much news about the Blue Iguana Reserve – as we are calling it for now.

From the Cabinet decision, to negotiating the lease agreement, to signing the lease, has taken time, and admittedly the process hasn’t been material for compelling news. But the lease has now been signed, and registered, and the National Trust for the Cayman Islands is the lessee of 190 acres of Crown land in the East Interior of Grand Cayman, for the next 99 years at least. It’s a hugely significant step forward, both for conservation of the Grand Cayman Blue Iguana, and for its habitat – Grand Cayman’s unique xerophytic shrubland environment.

The Blue Iguana Reserve is closely intertwined with a European Union grant to the National Trust, which (among other things) will pay to build a visitor centre in or next to the protected area. We already have a design for the visitor centre, thanks to Trevor Baxter (Rutkowsi Baxter Houghton) and with ongoing assistance from the structural engineers, Halcrow Yolles. What we don’t know yet is exactly where in the Blue Iguana Reserve this will be sited, and that in turn depends on which suitable access route can be secured.

In the meantime, there’s a lot we need to know about the new protected area, and the only way to find out is to spend time out there. Blue Iguana Recovery Programme staff and volunteers are beginning to trace the boundaries of the Reserve, and are recording the natural features and vegetation at a series of pre-set points scattered throughout the area. This fieldwork will be backed by expertise at the Department of Environment, where specialist Jeremy Olynik will be combining the field reports with high resolution aerial photography to create a detailed habitat map.

Will we find ancient surviving Blue Iguanas out there? Unlikely, but still possible! Will we find soil basins where iguanas could nest? Where will there be natural fresh water we can draw on, to cut the need for field staff to carry huge weights of water every day? What and where are the notable natural features that we should consider when planning nature trails?

We hope as we explore we will soon be able to define some optimal areas to release young captive-reared Blue Iguanas. The first release is scheduled for July-August this year.

Most of the Blue Iguana Reserve is potential Blue Iguana habitat in one way or another. The area is dominated by dry shrubland, and lots of it is growing on the sharpest cliff rock. Add in dense stands of spiny “Corato” (Cayman’s unique Agave), Maiden Plum, Manchineel and Lady Hair, and you could be forgiven for thinking the land has been designed to repel humans.

But walking through slowly and safely on a trail, perhaps in the late afternoon sunshine, the beauty of the landscape is undeniable. Thanks to the low vegetation there are long vistas across the landscape, set off by groups of tall, slender Thatch Palms. Closer at hand the terrain looks like an elaborate rock garden, with an astonishingly diverse array of unusual plants, many of them unique to the Cayman Islands and to this specific habitat.

Apart from a small fragment in the QE II Botanic Park, this specific type of environment was almost completely absent from our protected area system, until now.

We envisage this special place will be accessible to all, once we have completed the access, visitor centre and nature trails. And wandering around it all, will be the next generations of young Blue Iguanas. The new Blue Iguana Reserve gives us space to bring this once near-extinct mascot of Grand Cayman back to a population which can sustain itself indefinitely, and a place where we can commune with them and their wild ancestral home.

This article by Fred Burton originally appeared in the Cayman Islands Department of Environment’s on-line journal, “Flicker”.

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