National Trust for the Cayman Islands Executive Director Christina Pineda called for an end to speculation over blue iguana illnesses Friday, clarifying that researchers do not know the cause of 14 untimely deaths of the endangered species.
While no iguanas have fallen ill during the past six months to a year, Ms. Pineda said the mysterious ailment has kept researchers too busy to make the issue public, since it first struck in May 2015.
“We only lost 14 in the midst of what could have been catastrophic.… This could have been much worse, guys. I don’t think we realize that” Ms. Pineda said, praising staff members for their quick response time.
“Honestly, at the time, we were so busy trying to save these iguanas, we didn’t think to put pen to paper, like, ‘oh, let’s tell everybody.’ No, we wanted to save these guys first and find out what the heck was happening. So that’s the biggest clarification. Sometimes scientists are busy in the field doing the work.”
Ms. Pineda clarified that while news reports on the issue have been accurate, she took issue with the speculative nature of public debate and a recent editorial column on the issue.
Seventeen blue iguanas have fallen ill in total, showing signs of lethargy, lack of appetite, weak hindquarters, collapse and sudden death.
Whatever the cause of the deaths may be, environmental field officer Karen Ford said the illness is not highly contagious. Otherwise, it would have killed many more iguanas.
She said quarantine measures implemented at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, where all of the illnesses have been detected, have been highly successful in protecting the iguana population.
The Blue Iguana Recovery Program estimates there are around 200 wild and captive iguanas in the park, in addition to around 1,000 in the wild at Colliers and Salinas.
Bacterial link under investigation
While the National Trust implored the press time and again Friday not the speculate on the cause of illness, staff identified a reptilian strain of Helicobacter bacteria as a possible cause.
“The first investigation that we’re looking into is whether green iguanas carry it or not. Obviously, they might not carry it,” Ms. Ford said.
“It’s just a hypothesis because the green iguanas are still new to the island and the green iguanas are making their way from West Bay, and now they’re up in East End. So the interaction between the blues and the greens is more full on now. That’s why we’re speculating they’re green iguanas because their relationship is becoming more intimate.”
Around half of the dead blue iguanas tested positive for Helicobacter. No other signs of disease were detected by researchers.
“It took a while to figure out what was going on. It took partnerships with the Wildlife Conservation Society, St. Matthews University and their partners as well to figure out that it was the Helicobacter bacteria,” Ms. Ford said.
Speed of testing has been limited by the facilities available in the Cayman Islands. All tested iguanas must be sent off the islands for examination.
Around 50 green iguanas have already been culled in the botanic park for testing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Researchers aim to test at least 100 green iguanas for the Helicobacter study.
Iguanas affected early on were not tested for the bacteria because workers were not yet aware of its possible presence.
National Trust acting environmental programs manager Stuart Mailer said it is an overstatement at this point to attribute the deaths to the bacteria.
“It’s the main suspect right now. It has been detected in a number but not all of the dead iguanas. Other possibilities should not be ruled out,” he said.
Ms. Ford said while dogs pose a threat to iguanas at the park, they are not the carriers of this Helicobacter strain, which only affects reptiles.
She did think there could be a link between the bacteria and heavy rains, however.
“It seems to be that whenever we do find a sick iguana, it’s been during or after heavy rainfall, which in that case, it might just be that in rains, iguanas are not in the sun.
“They are not high energy producing at that time. They’re taking it easy, which would give the Helicobacter or whatever is making the iguanas sick a better chance to infect them at that time. So that’s why we think there might be a link between the rains and the Helicobacter,” she said.
Blue iguanas hatched in 2014 and 2015 were released from captivity into the park in August. Since these iguanas grew up in an environment with the bacteria, Ms. Ford did not think they would be at risk of falling ill in the wild.
“They were exposed from day one. So there is no difference if we have them in captivity or not,” she said.
“Tourists are enjoying them now. They are seeing them run around. Natural instincts kick in within a matter of days, so they are able to thrive on their own.”
While the National Trust team described blue iguana recovery efforts highly successful, Ms. Pineda said the species will always need support.
“This is an ongoing project. It will always be ongoing. The blue iguanas will always have to have some sort of management. That’s why we need the continued funding because the threats will never go away. The threats are just increasing. There are always going to be vet bills. There are always going to be these things we have to deal with,” she said.
“We really need support more than anything, rather than criticism.”
She said recent confusion over fundraising was sparked by the impatience of project partner, the International Reptile Conservation Society.
Fundraising for the blue iguana research began this year in Florida, before the issue had been made public in the Cayman Islands. Ms. Pineda said there has been more support for the effort by donors in Florida than Cayman.
“[The campaign] was supposed to be in tandem. But they were chomping at the bit to get their press release out first. We were supposed to release our press release here first and anyway, they had donors who wanted to give money and they couldn’t hold back anymore. They had more ready donors than we did here, so we gave them the go-ahead to release it there,” Ms. Pineda said.
“We do have a wide, international support base. If they want to give money, who are we to say, ‘no, wait’?”
Mr. Mailer added, “Unlike the dog situation, we didn’t know what was going on and there wasn’t much we thought would be achieved by going public with it.”
The Helicobacter research was estimated in a project proposal to cost US$3,800. The ICRF announced in July that this funding had been secured through fundraising in May 2017 at IguanaFest in Topeekeegee Yugnee Park, Florida.
A fundraising campaign was launched in Cayman in September. Ms. Pineda said these funds will go toward ongoing blue iguana needs.
Throughout September, donations can also be made through the #blueiguanarecovery challenge by shopping at Beyond Basics Medical Spa, Touch of Thai, The Salon La Femme and Renaissance Salon & Spa.