The National Trust for the Cayman Islands has made a long awaited purchase of land in Little Cayman where many of the island’s endangered rock iguanas nest.
The purchase of land at Preston Bay near Pirates Point Resort on the southwestern end of the smaller of the two Sister Islands, will offer enhanced protection to the species. As many as 65 females have been known to lay their eggs along the property.
The trust paid $800,000 for the 2.77 acres of land. A US$312,000 (CI$255,842) grant from the Robert C. Dart Foundation based in Mason, Michigan in the United States answered the final call for funding that made the purchase possible, said Carla Reid, chairwoman of the National Trust.
“It was a very expensive piece of land. It’s prime real estate,” said Ms Reid, adding that the overseas owner of the land had taken it off the market a year ago to give the trust time to come up with the money to meet the landowner’s price.
The purchase means the land will be used in perpetuity for iguana and turtle nesting.
Despite more than $40 million sitting in an Environmental Protection Fund, set up in 1997 to acquire land for conservation purposes and other environmental projects, the National Trust has to raise money from private sources to purchase property to protect local species. The government uses the money in the fund, collected from tourists visiting the Cayman Islands, to help meet its cash reserves quota.
The Preston Bay property is regarded as Little Cayman’s main communal nesting site for Sister Islands rock iguanas, at which about 40 per cent of the known iguana nesting activity on the island occurs, according to the National Trust.
The area is a popular snorkelling site and is also a nesting grounds for sea turtles.
Access to the sea for the snorkellers and swimmers will continue and the National Trust plans to build a boardwalk and erect interpretive and educational signage in the area next year.
“We are trying to be proactive to make sure that the Sister Islands’ rock iguanas do not go the same way as the blue iguanas on Grand Cayman did. Ultimately, a captive breeding facility is always a lot more expensive than what we are doing,” Ms Reid said.
The native blue iguana population in Grand Cayman was at the brink of extinction a decade ago, with fewer than 15 animals left in the wild in 2003, before a breeding programme was established at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park in the District of East End. “In conjunction with the Department of Environment, we are working to ensure that the Sister Islands rock iguana numbers in the wild at the moment are maintained so we don’t have to mount a recovery programme like the one on Grand Cayman. One of the first things to do to ensure that the numbers are maintained is to protect some habitat,” Ms Reid said.
The next step will be to conserve land in which iguanas forage, she said.
“Funding for the purchase began with the Little Cayman district committee, who established the Little Cayman Land Fund and we thank all those who contributed to the fund in 2011 and 2012, especially Gladys Howard, who worked tirelessly on this project,” Ms Reid said. “Thanks also to Janet Walker who spearheads the trust’s general Land Reserve Fund, and to all those who contributed to it in 2012, who raised over $100,000 towards this purchase.”
As well as funding from the Dart foundation, the trust also received overseas support in the form of annual research and nesting surveys by the Durrell Conservation Trust of Jersey and a grant of US$25,000 from the Edmund F. and Virginia B. Ball Foundation of Muncie, Indiana.
Ms Reid said Dart Cayman put the trust in contact with the foundation in Michigan.
“Funds donated by US citizens and foundations were made tax deductible through our partnership with the International Reptile Conservation Fund and we are extremely grateful to John and Sandy Binns whose assistance has been invaluable,” Ms Reid said.
Donations and support from the local community, as well as from regular visitors to the island also made the land purchase possible.
Little Cayman District Committee Chair Betty Bua-Smith said: “Thanks to all who have worked so hard to make this dream come true. This is such a huge accomplishment and a very proud day for us.”
There are an estimated 2,000 rock iguanas on Little Cayman.
A species management plan for the Sister Islands rock iguana, drawn up in 2011, addressed how to maintain self-sustained wild populations of the indigenous iguanas throughout Little Cayman and maintain a stable population in managed areas of Cayman Brac. Among an array of proposals aimed at protecting rock iguanas on both islands are recommendations to purchase land to conserve key iguana nesting sites, of which the Preston Bay site is the biggest.
Encroaching development, vehicular traffic travelling faster along newly paved roads and an increase in the number of feral cats in Little Cayman are threatening the rock iguana population.