Blue iguanas ready to move to the east

Some of Grand Cayman’s blue iguanas
are getting ready to move to their new home in a protected reserve in East End.

The first batch of 95 iguanas is expected
to be transported to the new site next month.

But before the large, scaly animals
can take up abode in the 190-acre reserve, staff and volunteers of the Blue
Iguana Recovery Programme must trek through the wilds of the East End interior
and set up camp to prepare the site for the new arrivals.

“There will be a small field team
heading out there on Saturday or Sunday, and first thing Monday morning, the
airlift will come out. They’ll set up camp. We’ll probably have one person
living out there continuously putting retreats in the places they have to go
and getting to work on very narrow, low-impact foot trails,” said Fred Burton,
director of the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme.

Retreats are large wooden boxes
that offer shelter to newly released iguana.

Supplies for the camp will be
transported to the site by helicopter. Since there is nowhere for the chopper
to land, the material in the helicopter will be lowered in a net and unloaded
by those on the ground. The cargo will include 95 retreats, weighing 35lbs
each. Most of the released iguanas will be about two years old, having been
raised in captivity in the breeding area at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic

“The retreat boxes will provide
temporary homes to persuade the iguanas to stay where we let them go,” Mr.
Burton said.

Other materials that will be
airlifted to the site, which will be known as the Blue Iguana Reserve, include
camping supplies, composting toilets and enough food for a month.

Mr. Burton said he expected the
helicopter will need to take four or five loads, each weighing 1,500lbs.

Because there is currently no
access road in the area, the iguanas will be transported, on foot, by staff and
volunteers to the site next month.

“We will have them in canvas bags,
old pillowcases and anything else like that we can get together in numbers, and
will rest them carefully in backpacks. A team of four will walk them in, and
stay out there over the next two nights and days to complete the release and
make sure everything is well,” Mr. Burton said.

There are also plans to release a
smaller group of iguanas in the Salina Reserve.

The Grand Cayman Blue Iguana was
considered extinct in the wild five years ago. Today, there is an estimated 359
iguanas living in the wild, including 309 in the Salina Reserve and 50 in the
Botanic Park and its surrounds. There are 279 in captivity and another 35 in
zoos in the United States.

“The numbers will shift in August
with the releases, and also the start of this year’s big egg hatch,” said Mr.
Burton, who received an MBE from the Queen in 2007 for his work in the
conservation of an endangered species.

The government leased the East End
site to the National Trust earlier this year for at least 99 years.

Mr. Burton said that a visitors
centre in or next to the protected area would be built, along with an access
road and walking trails.

Vets from the Wildlife Conservation
Society will examine the iguanas this month to determine whether they are ready
to be released. “They will make sure they are set and healthy and not taking
anything nasty into the wild,” Mr. Burton said.

Trekking to the new site, which has
terrain that is suitable for iguanas but inhospitable for humans, is no easy
task. It is a long way from any roads and is dominated by dry shrub land, much
of it growing on sharp cliff rock, with dense stands of spiny Corato – Cayman’s
unique agave – Maiden Plum, Manchineel and Lady Hair.

“I’ve been out there a few times.
I’ve slept in the rough. I walked from the east end of the island across to the
other side. It took me so long, I had to sleep overnight out there,” said Mr.
Burton, who intends to join the staff and volunteers taking the first iguanas
to the site next month.