Four years ago, Cayman’s blue iguanas were considered extinct in the wild. Now, an intensive breeding programme means there are about 300 of the endangered reptiles roaming free.
And it’s not just in Cayman where the breeding is going on. This month, four blue iguanas hatched at San Diego Zoo in California, and another four hatched in the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas.
However, the most impressive number of hatchlings have been seen here in Cayman where 128 baby iguanas were hatched this summer.
The director of the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme, Fred Burton, estimates there are now 570 blue iguanas, either in captivity or roaming wild, in Cayman.
In fact, there are now so many in captivity, awaiting release, that the National Trust’s Blue Iguana conservation facility in the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park is running out of room for them. ‘It’s almost as though we have more iguanas than we can handle. It’s good to be able to say that,’ he said.
Of the iguanas that have been bred in recent years, 270 have been released into the Salina Reserve – an inland area in the north-eastern part of the island – and another 30 are expected to be released there this year. At the Botanical Park, where many visitors go to see the iguanas, there are about 30 roaming the grounds.
A third protected area of 200 acres of shrub land has been earmarked in the eastern interior for the iguanas and once this becomes available, the unexpected, though somewhat welcome, overcrowding in the breeding facility at the Botanical Park will be resolved.
‘If we move fast enough, we hope we can do a big release next year before the next batch of iguanas arrive,’ Mr. Burton said.
The overseas breeding programmes have acted as a back-up to Cayman’s breeding facility, but Mr. Burton said that, with the growing population in Cayman, it is unlikely those American-born iguanas will ever bask in the Caribbean sun.
‘What we don’t want to do is inadvertently bring any zoo-borne diseases to the population in Cayman. It would be a risky proposition,’ he said.
There are a reported 13 blue iguana breeding sites, mostly in zoos, in the United States.
The exported iguanas and their offspring were kept as pets before finding their ways into zoos, which began breeding and conservation programmes. In the late 1990s, Cayman sent more iguanas to these zoos to broaden the gene pool after it was discovered that the US-bred iguanas were the progeny of just one pair of iguanas.
‘We sent a few captive-bred iguanas there to diversify the genetics of the population. They would have had no value as a back-up population,’ Mr. Burton said.
The overseas programmes serve as a ‘safety net in case things go horribly wrong at any point’, said Mr. Burton.
But he is optimistic that they will not be called into action anytime soon. ‘Right now, it’s looking more and more like this is a species we’re not going to lose after all.’
He said the number of iguanas born overseas this year is more than has been seen in previous years. ‘It’s very difficult to breed these iguanas in temperate zoos… It’s much easier to do it here where we have a climate in which they belong instinctively,’ he said.
‘The fact that they are having some success is quite exciting in a way. However, the relevance of what they are doing is becoming less as we get further ahead on restoring the iguanas into the wild.’