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Wild Blue Iguanas plummeting towards extinction
By Bina Mani, Caymanian Compass, July 17, 2002
This healthy Blue Iguana, who turns blue in the right warmth, is one of a disappearing species that might soon no longer be seen in the wild on Grand Cayman unless active conservation efforts are put into motion now. The Blue Iguana species found nowhere else in the world faces a dire future, more than ever before.
One of Caymans national treasures the Grand Cayman Blue Iguana is rapidly racing towards extinction. The latest study by the National Trust over large tracts of known iguana habitat in the Eastern districts has uncovered the "shocking" fact that only between 10-25 exist in the wild. It was generally believed some 150 animals live in the wild in Grand Cayman. There has been a definite drop in numbers of animals in the wild in the last nine years.
The only salvation for the species itself, at present, appears to be the Trusts ongoing captive breeding iguana programme. While thousands of iguanas from Honduras are running wild in the Western part of Grand Cayman and breeding rapidly, they should not be confused with Grand Caymans indigenous species the Grand Cayman Blue which is rapidly dwindling, points out Mr. Fred Burton, the volunteer director of the Trusts Blue Iguana Conservation Programme. If iguana sightings are in plenty, they are most likely to be the iguanas from Honduras, he stresses.
The Trust programme has just completed a new survey of the animals living in the wild in an effort to find out how many still survive, a press release outlines. 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 re-stricted to the Eastern dis-tricts 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 no-where else in the world, the release states. The new survey began in December 2001, with most of the fieldwork tak-ing place during the iguanas breeding season in May and June 2002. Visit-ing iguana specialists, Messrs. Quentin Bloxam, Joe Wasilewski, Alberto Jaramillo and Joel Friesch, joined Mr. 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, the release states.
"In May, as we com-pleted surveys of all the sites where iguanas were known in 1993, I began to get a really bad feeling about this," Mr. Burton says. "Now weve completed the fieldwork and analysed the results, the conclusion is just shocking. The area occupied by wild iguanas has halved in the last nine years, and even within the area which is still occupied, the iguanas are five times scarcer than then. 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 include 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, the release says.
The Trust believes the wild Blue Iguanas, unless extraordinary measures can be taken very soon, will be functionally extinct (un-able 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 Trusts long established captive breed-ing programme is fuelling a gradual increase in a managed population, released in the QE II Botanic Park, the release outlines.
Between 20 and 34 captive-bred Blue Iguanas now live free in the Park, and this year they are six nests, the Trust reports. 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, the report states.
"In the long term, its clear that the future of the Blue Iguana as a wild ani-mal must now rest on managed populations in protected areas," avers Mr. Burton. "The programmes success in the QE II Bo-tanic 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 isnt 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 fol-lowed a meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Iguana Specialist Group in Grand Cayman in November 2001. The re-sults of this survey are an urgent call for the ambitious plans that were formulated in November to be realised as fast as possible, the release states.
"Ironically, the extreme plight of the Blue Iguana may yet be its salvation, as this giant blue reptile gradually becomes an in-ternational 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," the release concludes.
The Species Recovery Plan for the Grand Cayman Blue Iguana is one of the postings on www.cyclura.com, it adds. As outlined in the report, what Cayman needs to figure out is a way to set up a new protected area in the east end of the island that is big enough to sup-port 1,000 animals. Not determined yet is the size of the area, its exact loca-tion and the price tag for it. Once such an area is set up, it has to be managed it has to have a secure fence, eradication of feral species in the area. On the other hand, it has a tremendous ecotourism potential.
Mr. Burton reveals that discussions are very actively underway with the Department of Environment to consider the poten-tial for the release of less than 100 Blue Iguanas in the proposed Barkers National Park. He acknowledges that, as in the case of the Condor project in California, it may become necessary to bring in all the animals in the wild into safe keeping and into the captive breeding programme. He points out that with managed populations in possibly three dif-ferent areas, there will be need to boost up the captive breeding on a large scale to be able to restock those areas and the breeding stock has to be increased.