Land needed to save Blues

Additional land must be found in the eastern districts if the Grand Cayman Blue Iguana is to survive.

The third phase of a strategic plan to save the unique and endangered iguana has been formulated by The Blue Iguana Recovery Programme, which is a partnership of local and international conservation groups that share a commitment to ensure the reptile’s survival.

The updated plan needs Government action to secure Crown land.

‘We have a proposal with the Government to protect some Crown land in the east interior and establish a new protected area,’ explained Director of the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme Fred Burton at a press conference on Friday.

‘We’re at a pivotal stage of the programme now. We are poised to quickly restore a viable population of the Blues in the wild, but will be totally stuck unless we can secure some more protected shrubland habitat. We have over 100 hatchings this year that will be ready for release by 2010 and we must be ready for that or else they will have nowhere to go,’ he said.

The project has been a programme of the National Trust of the Cayman Islands from the beginning with support of the Department of Environment, QEII Botanic Park and internationally recognised scientific bodies, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (Jersey, UK), International Reptile Conservation Foundation (California) and San Diego Zoo.

The renewed Species Recovery Plan ranges from education and awareness through captive breeding, and iguana releases, to establishment and management of protected areas. Many aspects depend on the new protected-area proposal, including an EU-funded project to build a visitors centre and shrubland education centre there, forming a major new nature tourism attraction in East End.

‘Ultimately we think we need somewhere between 300 to 500 acres. If we can get a Crown core to reserve then we have a new grant for the building of a visitors centre and we also have some money in that grant for land purchase and we take this as the basis to fundraise for additional money to buy adjacent private land to bring it to where it needs to be,’ said Mr. Burton.

The grant is about 750,000 euros (CI$785,488) over five years.

But time is of the essence, explained newly elected Chairman of the National Trust Roger Corbin: ‘As with any grant, there is a time during which it has to be picked up and that time is running so we need to try and persuade government to make a decision’.

Mr. Burton believes the land that exists out there now is not going to be there much longer. ‘The kind of trend of development in the eastern districts is exponential,’ he said, adding, ‘This needs to happen soon, otherwise we’re not going to do it.’

Director of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie said, ‘Having been involved in this programme from the beginning it is very clear to me now that we are at a watershed – either the Blue Iguana and its extraordinary and unique habitat will be saved for future generations, or we all lose in the long run.

‘I am optimistic that public attitudes can be reflected in national policy, and that our proposals to secure an area in the East interior for conservation, are wise, realistic and strong in the public interest.’

Mr. Burton explained that the whole process of saving the iguanas began in 2001.

‘The target we set in 2001 is realistically coming within reach and I feel very strongly now that we’re at one of those watershed points where if things go right in the next two or three years we’re going to be on the down side of the hill. We’re going to be racing to the finish where we can say we actually saved a species. It would be an extraordinary accomplishment if we get there.

‘There aren’t many countries in the world that can talk about bringing back a species from extinction to the point where it is secure, certainly not many countries the size of the Cayman Islands. It would bring a huge amount of international attention,’ he said.

In 2002 it was estimated there were between 10 and 25 free roaming Blue Iguanas left in the world, as this is a species unique to Grand Cayman.

Thanks to the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme there are now roughly 250 young blue iguanas in protected areas: a small number in the Botanic Park and quite a large number in the Salina Reserve in the northeast of the island.

But this is still way too few to be viable, Mr. Burton explained. ‘You need to have a population of a certain size before it is genetically stable.’

If they can get to 1,000 Blues in the wild and they are breeding, have habitat to support them and the population is sustaining itself then they will be back at a stable state, said Mr. Burton.

He believes the Salina Reserve can probably support a maximum of 400, which will be reached in the next couple of years.

The new land needed is dry shrub land habitat where other unique species thrive. There are two potentially suitable pieces to choose from.

‘There are unique plants of all kinds out there found nowhere else in the world . . . Maybe we can use the thrust to save the Blue Iguana to save these other things as well and achieve something much bigger that we couldn’t really achieve any other way,’ said Mr. Burton.

The proposal has been put to Government.

Ms Petrie said the Government understands what the needs of the programme are in terms of the areas of land being looking at.

‘They have given us a commitment in terms of the EU grant. We needed to provide some type of assurance to the grantor that the Government was committed to establishing a protected area and they said that they would try to ensure that happened, so they’ve given us that level of commitment,’ she said.

Two major local financial sponsors of the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme, Greenlight Re and Walkers were briefed on the plan while consulting engineering firm Halcrow Yolles is ready to help construct the visitors centre in the proposed new protected area.