Blue iguanas released into Botanic Park

Karen Ford primes a juvenile blue iguana for its new life as a free-roamer around the Botanic Park. - Photo: Christopher Fletcher

It’s a struggle to get a blue iguana into the bag, but it’s surprisingly easy to let one go.

Nick Ebanks, operations manager for the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, knelt in the grass on Thursday, blood running down his wrist. He opened the bag, slowly and gingerly, and released his neck hold on a blue iguana, allowing the reptile to dart into the foliage and take stock of its environment.

Twelve blue iguanas were released back into the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park on Thursday, doubling the park’s resident population and signaling the end of a long journey.

These iguanas were taken from their respective perches in the park following a spate of dog attacks in 2015 and caged to protect them from predators and from helicobacter bacteria. But on Thursday, with the bacteria contained and new fencing protecting them from encroaching dogs, they were deemed safe enough to be returned to their native territory.

“In many ways, this is a very happy day,” said Stuart Mailer, environmental programs manager for the National Trust for the Cayman Islands. “It’s such a wonderful experience for visitors to be able to come and see the animals roaming around in the wild. It’s one of the major draws for the Botanic Park, and a great loss for them when we had to put them into protective custody.

“I’m very glad we’ve arrived at the day where we think it’s safe enough to release them into the park.”

The 12 iguanas were all released into separate ranges of the Botanic Park on Thursday, and they will be given time and space to naturally sort out their own territory. Mr. Ebanks drew the difficult task of taking the iguanas from captivity and placing them in a white bag for transfer to the park.

As he held one down Thursday, taking special care to control the head, he got scratched by the whirling claws of an animal fighting to protect itself. There’s irony there, because Mr. Ebanks and his peers at the Blue Iguana Recovery Program have toiled night and day to revive the endemic Grand Cayman species.

Karen Ford of the Blue Iguana Recovery Program helps ease a captive iguana back into the park. – Photo: Christopher Fletcher

That has meant feeding the caged animals and checking them to make sure they are healthy and free of the invasive helicobacter, which killed off several iguanas a couple of years ago. And it means microchipping and beading the iguanas so they can be identified after their release to the park or the wild.

“Yesterday, we took out 10 to quarantine for the release to the reserve. So that’s 22 fewer mouths we have to feed and 22 fewer iguanas we look at every day,” said Mr. Ebanks. “The fewer we have here, the more we can focus on the wild population and making sure they’re OK. It’s a little bit of a balancing act. We can keep them under watch here, but they don’t have as much stimulation or exercise.”

The latest threats have come from marauding dogs around the Botanic Park, and extensive fencing has been erected to keep the animals from making their way into the park. There’s still quite a bit of fencing left to do, but the gaps have been defended with dog traps to keep the iguana’s habitat secure.

As it is, Mr. Ebanks said he has not seen a dog in the park for about a year, and the fences have been secured with wire mesh bottoms and rocks to keep the dogs from digging underneath. But the hope is that a better fence will eliminate the dog incursions and eliminate one threat from the iguanas’ lives.

“The perimeter fence is really not a perimeter fence right now,” said Mr. Ebanks. “It starts all the way in the corner by the dump area, then it comes around to the front and loops around in the back, but there’s an area in the back that is still open. There’s currently an application for a grant to get a bigger, better, more improved fence that would basically upgrade it so we not only have dog protection but also protection against green iguanas coming in. We’ll try to make it a little more secure than it is.”

In several instances, the specimens released to the Botanic Park Thursday did not move with much urgency. They darted out of the bag and took a few steps into the brush, but then sat there and slowly settled into their new lives. These iguanas, said Mr. Ebanks, will have little or no problems taking care of themselves.

“When they’re hungry, they’re going to go out and look for food,” said Mr. Ebanks of the released iguanas. “When we have ones that escape, in a couple of days, you start seeing patches out of the grass. They’re out there eating by themselves. They’re wild animals, at the end of the day. They’re just like me and you. We wouldn’t starve. We’d find something. They know how to survive out in the bush.”

A few interested tourists made their way around the Botanic Park on Thursday morning, oblivious to the contents of the white bags carried by Mr. Ebanks and his peers. But soon, with all 12 specimens released back to their native environment, the park’s customers will have their main attraction back.

“We’re delighted that this has happened today. We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” said Patrick Thompson, director of Cayman’s Tourism Attraction Board. “We’ve been getting a few bad reviews on TripAdvisor, but now that the iguanas are out, people will see them more and we’ll be getting some good reviews.… We can say to the public: Expect great things to come.”

If you value our service, if you have turned to us in the past few days or weeks for verified, factual updates, if you have watched our live streaming of press conferences or sent an article to a friend... please consider a donation. Quality local journalism was at risk before the coronavirus crisis. It is now deeply threatened. Even a small amount can go a long way to sustaining our mission of informing the public. We need our readers’ financial support now more than ever.