A young blue iguana awaiting a health assessment. Photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher/Wildlife Conservation Society.
The blue iguana (Cyclura lewisi) was once king of the Caribbean Island, Grand Cayman. Weighting in at 25 pounds, measuring over 5 feet, and living for over sixty years, nothing could touch this regal lizard. But then the unthinkable happened: cars, cats, and dogs, along with habitat destruction, dethroned Grand Cayman’s reptilian overlord. The lizard went from an abundant population that roamed the island freely to practically assured extinction. In 2002, researchers estimated that two dozen—at best—survived in the wild. Despite the bleak number, conservationists started a last ditch effort to save the species. With help from local and international NGOs, the effort, dubbed the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, has achieved a rarity in conservation. Within nine years it has raised the population of blue iguanas by twenty times: today 500 wild blue iguanas roam Salina Reserve.
How did they do it?
Blue iguanas are raised in captive breeding until they are two years old—big enough to keep feral cats at bay, which were decimating juvenile iguanas. Once they hit two, they are released in the 625 acres of Salina Reserve. Populations are then monitored.
“For the past several years, we’ve succeeded in adding hundreds of animals to the wild population, all of which receive a health screening before release,” explains Dr. Paul Calle, Director of Zoological Health for Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)’s Bronx Zoo, who has aided in screening iguanas ready for release.
The program has been such a success that conservationists have started releasing blue iguanas in a new protected area, the Colliers Wilderness Reserve. This month the program has had confirmation of the first blue iguana breeding in the area.
The current goal is to reach 1,000 blue iguanas. Given the success to date that goal may be met quickly.
“We expect to reach our goal of 1,000 iguanas in managed protected areas in the wild in a few years. After that, we will monitor the iguanas to make sure they are reproducing in the numbers needed to maintain the wild population. If we get positive results, we will have succeeded,” Fred Burton, director of the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, said in a press release.
Aside from WCS the program has received support from the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the International Reptile Conservation Foundation.
An adult blue iguana. Photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher/Wildlife Conservation Society.
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