Grand Cayman Blue Iguana Beating the Odds

Indigenous to the Grand Cayman Island, blue iguanas were headed for extinction less than a decade ago.  In 2002, surveys of the lizard found less than two dozen left on the island.  The one time abundant reptile dwindled to a threatened species status.  Through persistent conservation efforts, the lizard is once again thriving in the wild.

Grand Cayman blue iguanas (scientific name is Cyclura lewisi) are “the largest native species of its namesake island.”  This regal lizard is a giant in its own right, growing more than five feet long, weighing around 25 pounds and having a lifespan of 60 years.  Previously, blue iguanas could be found roaming the island’s coastal regions or the inland dry shrub areas.  With red eyes and blue skin tones that intensify throughout breeding season, the reptile is a unique species.  But, expanding roads and farmlands brought danger into the iguana’s habitat.

Expansion of roads placed traffic and iguanas in the same vicinity, sadly killing many iguanas as they sunned themselves on the pavement.  Likewise, growth of farmlands placed dogs and cats in the same environment as the lizards.  Feral cats caused mass destruction to the blue iguana population, eating young lizards and lizard eggs in droves.  Though the loss was catastrophic, conservationists are using their knowledge to better protect iguanas.

Fred Burton, Director of the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, is one of the driving forces behind the flourishing success of the powerful reptile.  In 2002, Burton and colleagues meet on Grand Cayman to discuss iguana conservation efforts throughout the Caribbean.  While there, Burton convinced the group to create a protection plan for the island’s native lizard.  Burton and team set about surveying the land, finding startling results of the decline of the blue iguana.  More disconcerting, was surveyed lizards were far apart, making breeding virtually impossible. 

Since initial surveys, the Blue Iguana Recovery Program developed a successful conservation campaign.  The organization determined the only way to bring blue iguanas back from near extinction, was captive breeding.  Through trial and error, the team learned iguanas benefit most when released back into the wild at around 2 years of age.  By 2, the reptile is large enough to defend itself from feral cats and other predators.  But, before released into their habitat, the lizard goes through extensive health screenings.  During screenings, blood and fecal samples are studied to determine if the iguana is healthy enough to be released.         

Once healthy status is determined, iguanas are tagged before being released into a 625-acre nature reserve called Salina Reserve.  The reserve is a rich mixture of sedge and buttonwood swamps, dry shrub land and forest area.  The combination makes an ideal release place for the iguanas.  Through the Blue Iguana Recovery Program efforts, a weeklong health assessment which ended July 3, surveyed around 500 blue iguanas.  Burton stated within a few years the organization hopes to reach their goal of 1,000 blue iguanas in protected, wild areas.  He goes on to state they will continue monitoring the reptiles “to make sure they are reproducing in the numbers needed to maintain the wild population.”

Burton and company recently received their first natural breeding victory.  A female released last year, Juanita and a male iguana named Zarco, created a nest together comprised of at least eight eggs.

Conservationists believe blue iguanas will be easier to protect, because now everyone on the Grand Cayman Island is aware of the lizard’s presence.  Burton said the iguanas are becoming a mascot of sorts for the island, with shops to cruise ships named after the iconic reptile.         

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