Blue Iguana Recovery Program

Wild Blue Iguanas plummeting towards extinction

Jul 16th, 2002 | By | Category: Blue in the News, Press releases

Dateline: July 16, 2002 ~ Grand Cayman

Contact Name: Fred Burton

July 16, 2002, Grand Cayman – The National Trust’s Blue Iguana Conservation Programme has just completed a new survey of wild Blue Iguanas, seeking to find out how many still survive. The last survey, carried out by the Trust in 1993, estimated that some 150 wild Blue Iguanas were living in the East interior of Grand Cayman.

Fossil evidence shows that Blue Iguanas once ranged throughout Grand Cayman, but by 1938 they were already mostly restricted to the Eastern districts, and had become extremely scarce. They are now rated as “critically endangered” in the international “Red Book” listings, native to the island of Grand Cayman, and nowhere else in the world.

The new survey began in December 2001, with most of the fieldwork taking place during the iguanas’ breeding season in May and June 2002. Visiting iguana specialists Quentin Bloxam, Joe Wasilewski, Alberto Jaramillo and Joel Friesch joined the programme’s volunteer director Fred Burton, in a total of 55 person-days covering 748 acres of iguana habitat, and an additional 12.4 miles of trails and transects through adjacent areas.

“In May, as we completed surveys of all the sites where iguanas were known in 1993, I began to get a really bad feeling about this” says Fred Burton. “Now we’ve completed the fieldwork and analyzed the results, and the conclusion is just shocking! The area occupied by wild iguanas has halved in the last 9 years, and even within the area which is still occupied, the iguanas are five times scarcer than they were. There are only between 10 and 25 Blue Iguanas still alive out there, and several of those are in hopeless situations where they stand no chance of breeding and could be killed any day.”

The main causes of this catastrophic decline are:
• gradual changes in land use, from traditional crop land to cattle pasture and residential land;
• road kills;
• injury to hatchlings by rats;
• loss of juveniles to feral and domestic cats; and
• loss of adults to the increasing number of dogs roaming free in the iguanas’ last habitats.

All these pressures are still weighing down on the last truly wild Blue Iguanas. Unless extraordinary measures can be taken very soon, they will be functionally extinct (unable to produce young which survive to breeding age) within the next five years at most – and probably sooner.

As the unmanaged wild population plunges towards extinction, the Trust’s long established captive breeding programme is fuelling a gradual increase in a managed population, released in the QE II Botanic Park. Between 20 and 34 captive-bred Blue Iguanas now live free in the Park, and this year they laid six nests. Meanwhile the captive breeding group continues to produce young. Thirty-one eggs are now under incubation, from both captive and free iguanas in the Park.

“In the long term, it’s clear that the future of the Blue Iguana as a wild animal, must now rest on managed populations in protected areas,” says Burton. “The programme’s success in the QE II Botanic Park shows this can be done, and done in a way that is very popular with both tourists and local visitors. But we will need to scale this up enormously: the Park can hold maybe 60 or so iguanas at most, but to take the Blue Iguana off the endangered species list, we should be aiming at restoring around 1,000 in the wild. There just isn’t enough suitable protected habitat available to do that right now.”

The Trust has been leading an effort to save the Grand Cayman Blue Iguana for the past 12 years. A groundswell of international support followed a meeting of the IUCN Iguana Specialist Group in Grand Cayman last November, and the results of this survey are an urgent call for the ambitious plans that were formulated in November to be realized as fast as possible. The Species Recovery Plan for the Grand Cayman Blue Iguana can be viewed on www.cyclura.com..

Ironically, the extreme plight of the Blue Iguana may yet be its salvation, as this giant blue reptile gradually becomes an international conservation symbol. With ongoing labour and deep commitment by all, saving the Blue Iguana may yet become a global success story for the Cayman Islands.

Blue Iguana Conservation Programme,
National Trust for the Cayman Islands

16th July, 2002

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