Nick Ebanks, left, and Joseph Jamieson hold a blue iguana for its veterinary exam. - Photo: Spencer Fordin

The blue iguana population at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park cleared an important hurdle last week, when a visiting team of veterinarians and technicians performed its annual health check. The team, led by Dr. Paul Calle of the Wildlife Conservation Society, pronounced the colony healthy and cleared the way for another release of blue iguanas into the Salina Reserve.

Dr. Calle said Thursday that he has been helping provide veterinary support for the National Trust since 2001, and approximately 80 specimens from the Blue Iguana Recovery Program’s colony of 170 are mature and healthy enough to be released into the wild. Those releases – taken in groups of 10 – will occur this summer and one batch will mark the program’s 1,000th release into the wild.

Nick Ebanks, left, Joseph Jamieson and Dr. Paul Calle examine Cayman’s blue iguanas. – Photo: Spencer Fordin

“We are most concerned to make sure the animals are healthy and suitable for release,” Dr. Calle said. “We also examine animals that are not being released because we want to get an idea of the health of the overall population. We do complete blood counts and blood chemistry testing. We check for fecal parasites and fecal bacteria, and samples are collected to look at the genetic diversity of the iguana population.”

Methodically, specimen by specimen, the visiting team of specialists weighed and checked the vitals of every iguana in captivity. St. Matthew’s University allows the veterinarians to use its laboratory and clinical teaching facilities.

Dr. Calle, who is based at the Bronx Zoo in New York, said that the Wildlife Conservation Society participates in more than 500 conservation projects in 50 different countries, and he drew a parallel between the blue iguana and vulnerable species of turtles in Cambodia and Myanmar.

“The same type of program – breeding them, raising them and releasing them – has also been successful with those species in those other countries,” he said of lessons learned in species conservation. “Establishment of protected areas, enforcement of wildlife laws and regulations and this kind of breeding program where animals can be released back into the wild is why this animal is still here today.”

There has been no recurrence of the mysterious helicobacter outbreak that killed several blue iguanas over the last few years, and the specimens released into the wild will be quarantined for 10 days before bounding into the 646 acres of the Salina Reserve.

There, once they are released, the blue iguanas will resume competition with the invasive green iguana for its place on the map. Dr. Calle said the green iguana population has exploded over the last 20 years right as the blue iguana has been making its own rebound from near extinction. He said it is possible the two species will come into close contact over the coming years and decades.

“There are a number of possible impacts the green iguana can have on the blue iguana,” he said. “One is competition for food or for nesting sites. There has been a hybrid on one of the Sister Islands between a green iguana and a rock iguana, so hybridization of the two species would be a threat to the survival of the pure blue iguanas.

“And we don’t know where the helicobacter came from; we think it came from a non-native animal and certainly the green iguana would be one of the suspects, but not the only one. So far, we have not identified where the pathogenic helicobacter bacteria is hiding in between the times it affects the blue iguana.”

The Blue Iguana Recovery Program plans to release a few mature blue iguanas back into the Botanic Park this week, and Stuart Mailer, environmental programs manager for the National Trust, said the visiting veterinarians have provided a great service to Cayman.

“These guys have been coming here year after year for many years now, doing these annual health checks,” Mr. Mailer said.

“You can imagine what this would cost if we were paying commercial rates for qualified veterinarians to be on site for a week at a time. Yet these guys are doing it totally voluntarily and it’s a huge asset to the program.”

For Dr. Calle, who started coming here when the species was on the verge of extinction, it is extremely rewarding to see its healthy reintroduction to the wild.

The National Trust estimates that there are more than 1,000 healthy iguanas in the wild, and with the program on the verge of its 1,000th successful release, Dr. Calle is optimistic that the blue iguana can remain a success story.

“There aren’t a lot of really spectacular conservation success stories, but this is one of them,” he said. “Everyone’s who’s been involved here should be very proud and pleased with the success of the program. It’s really been an example to a lot of other Caribbean islands that have their own iguana species for what you can do when you properly run and manage this kind of conservation program.”