August 01, 2013
Lucky for the iguanas they have a champion: Chuck Knapp with Chicago's John G. Shedd Aquarium has spent nearly 20 years working with iguanas in the Bahamas, including conservation efforts, research, and education. Knapp is also the co-chair on the IUCN Iguana Specialist Group.
Recently Knapp spoke with mongabay.com about what drew him to the iguanas of the Bahamas and what needs to be done to ensure the iguanas still have a kingdom to call their own.
INTERVIEW WITH CHUCK KNAPP
Found only on the Exuma Islands, the Exuma rock iguana (Cyclura cychlura figgensi) subspecies is listed as Critically Endangered. Photo by: ©Shedd Aquarium/Chuck Knapp.
Mongabay: What's your background?
Chuck Knapp: BS in Zoology from Southern Illinois University, MSci in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation from the University of Florida, and Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation from the University of Florida.
I have always been passionate about fish and always wanted to work at Shedd Aquarium. I participated in Shedd’s High School Marine Biology program and volunteered before getting a job as an aquarist.
Mongabay: How did you become interested in reptiles, particularly iguanas?
Chuck Knapp: I have always been fascinated by fish and it was only after I was responsible for the iguana exhibit at Shedd Aquarium that I became obsessed with iguanas. It's hard to describe the reasons why these animals have such a hold on me. After just three days of caring for the iguanas, I wanted to contribute to their survival through research, education, and advancing conservation policy.
Mongabay: Can you give us an overview of how the northern Bahamian rock iguanas are faring?
Chuck Knapp with iguana. Photo by: ©Shedd Aquarium/Chuck Knapp.
The third north Bahamian subspecies is considered Endangered by the IUCN and inhabits Andros Island, which is the largest island in the Bahamas and firth largest in the Caribbean region. Andros is inhabited by people, and therefore these animals face a unique suite of threats relative to the rest of the archipelago. On Andros, historic logging pressure destroyed large tracts of iguana habitat, and the logging roads opened the previously remote interior pine forests to hunters and feral animals. Pigs were released on the island for sport hunting, and now the feral hogs decimate iguana nests. Feral cats and dogs roam the island interior and hunt iguanas. The iguanas are still taken for food by local islanders. Thankfully, in 2009 the Bahamas National Trust expanded West Andros National Park to encompass critical iguana habitat and populations in part because of Shedd's research.
Mongabay: Tourism actually poses one of the major threats to these iguanas. Will you tell us why?
Chuck Knapp: To be sure, a well-regulated tourism industry can benefit wildlife by providing economic benefits to local stakeholders, offering incentives to protect species and habitats, and increasing educational opportunities. However, an increasingly popular tourism-related activity is the deliberate feeding of wildlife with minimal understanding of potential health impacts. Food provisioning by tourists, especially with unnatural and inappropriate food items, can potentially decrease fitness by providing low quality or even detrimental dietary additions. North Bahamian rock iguanas, for example, are vegetarians, but tourists often offer them bread and meat. However, the issue of tourism and wildlife feeding is complex, especially in countries heavily dependent on tourism revenues, since the short-term socioeconomic benefits are immediate whereas the potential long-term negative ecological consequences are uncertain.
Iguanas mass on a beach where they are fed by tourists on Leaf Cay, a practice that could have impacts on their survival. These are Allen Cays iguana (Cyclura cychlura inornata) and are listed as Endangered. Photo by: ©Shedd Aquarium/Chuck Knapp.
Tourism companies throughout the Bahamas and Caribbean are increasingly marketing the feeding of endangered rock iguanas as part of their activity packages. In the Exuma Islands, the number of visits to iguana-inhabited cays, with associated feeding, have increased from approximately 20 persons per day in the 1980s to currently as many as 150 per day on cays visited by tourism operators using fast powerboats from Nassau. The economic successes of these tour operators have prompted others to bring hundreds of tourists per week to visit and feed iguanas inhabiting other cays. At the same time, visits by individual tourists are also on the rise. Daily island visits have caused behavioral changes and unnaturally high densities at primary landing beaches where iguanas are fed. To advance responsible and sustainable management of wildlife tourism involving iguanas, Shedd scientists, along with our colleagues and Bahamian partners, investigated the physiological responses of iguanas in the Exumas faced with both human-visitation and associated artificial food provisioning. Our study suggests that food provisioning is impacting the health of iguanas and could potentially have severe consequences for such a long-lived animal.
Mongabay: Does hunting remain a threat still?
Chuck Knapp: Though hunting appears to be declining, it still remains a threat on some islands. Additionally, because certain iguana populations are desensitized to humans, they are easily approached and have been taken as food by unscrupulous tourists.
Mongabay: What role do these iguanas play in the ecosystem?
Chuck Knapp: The iguanas are the largest native herbivores on islands where they occur and play a vital ecological role by regulating plant communities in the dry forests and scrub habitats that they inhabit. They serve as seed dispersers and modify vegetation structure via repetitive cropping. Their imperiled status threatens the biotic integrity of these communities and other species that occupy these habitats.
Mongabay: What needs to be done to protect and increase these subspecies of iguanas?
Chuck Knapp: The Bahamian government has been proactive in setting aside protected areas for iguanas. We need to increase enforcement of existing wildlife protection laws and establish new tourism regulations to ensure that populations remain safe over time.
Mongabay: Most people associate the Bahamas with beach vacations. Should that view change to include imperiled wildlife?
Bahamas National Trust staff assistants with iguana. Photo by: ©Shedd Aquarium/Chuck Knapp.
Mongabay: How can people help the northern Bahamian rock iguana?
Chuck Knapp: People can help the iguana on a variety of levels. The most immersive opportunity is to participate in Shedd Aquarium’s citizen science program and help monitor remote iguana populations (email: [email protected]). Each year members of the public join Shedd scientists aboard our research vessel, the Coral Reef II, and assist with hands-on research and monitoring. This is a unique opportunity to participate in authentic research and travel to remote and beautiful locations. Nearly two decades of research conducted with the assistance of citizen scientists has directly increased our understanding of Bahamian rock iguanas and contributed to their conservation.
If people are pet owners, they should ensure that any new pets (including iguanas) are bred responsibly, not taken illegally from the wild. Finally, people can visit the websites of conservation organizations such as Shedd Aquarium, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)- Iguana Specialist Group, and the International Iguana Foundation to learn more and donate to iguana conservation efforts.
An Exuma rock iguana (Cyclura cychlura figgensi), considered Critically Endangered. Photo by: ©Shedd Aquarium/Chuck Knapp.
Citizen science team on Andros Island with a Andros rock iguana (Cyclura cychlura cychlura), listed as Endangered. Photo by: ©Shedd Aquarium/Chuck Knapp.
Iguana hanging out with scientific equipment. Photo by: ©Shedd Aquarium/Chuck Knapp.
Tourists feed Endangered Allen Cays iguana (Cyclura cychlura inornata). Photo by: ©Shedd Aquarium/Chuck Knapp.
Aerial view of Andros Island, an archipelago home to the Endangered Andros rock iguana. Photo by: ©Shedd Aquarium/Chuck Knapp.
|AUTHOR: Jeremy Hance joined Mongabay full-time in 2009. He currently serves as senior writer and editor. He has also authored a book.|
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