The green iguana gold rush

All over Grand Cayman, the treetops are trembling.

In West Bay, a man stands on the back of a flatbed truck and casts a fishing pole into the foliage. In Savannah, a sniper methodically picks off targets with a .22-caliber air rifle. In George Town, hunters with homemade poles and nooses sweep through patches of urban woodland.

In a few short months, a citizen militia has been assembled to hunt and kill Cayman’s invasive green iguana population.

Enticed by a $5-a-head bounty, more than 300 men and women, armed with poles, machetes and air rifles, stalk the bush in search of the not-so-elusive prey. Already they have killed more than 100,000 reptiles, turning in an average of 7,000 carcasses every day to the newly established cull headquarters at the George Town landfill. The scope of the effort is unprecedented. By the time they are done, if the government’s project is successful, a million green iguanas will have been slain.

“This is historic,” says cull manager Karl Noble, a chartered accountant and property manager, whose diverse skill set enabled him to successfully bid on one of the more unusual contracts the Cayman Islands government has ever put out.

Part of Mr. Noble’s job is to oversee a grim audit of the daily death toll as a steady stream of trucks pulls up at the landfill site. On any given day, between 80 and 100 groups of cullers arrive to register and dispose of their kills.

Three weeks in, the great green iguana cull has the air of an Old West gold rush. Prey are plentiful, as are the chances to make a quick buck.

Amateurs wielding homemade weapons they are still learning to use arrive with dead lizards by the bucketload. Seasoned professionals drop them off in trailers. On a single day last week, one hunter delivered 1,300 iguanas to the landfill site, the equivalent of a $6,500 payday.

Paychecks for the first week of the cull, handed out Friday, Nov. 16, totaled just over $240,000.

“Long after this is over, it is something we will be talking about for years to come,” said Mr. Noble.

“This has never been done before anywhere else in the world.”

The climbers

On the edge of a busy stretch of highway on the fringes of George Town, Dorn Hamilton squats on his haunches in the upper branches of a poinciana tree. With the balance of a gymnast, he edges along the narrow horizontal limb, feeling it bend, just perceptibly, under his weight. Stretching to full length, he reaches with a long wooden pole toward a small green iguana hidden in a web of thin branches in the upper reaches of the tree. Delicately, he nudges the noose around the animal’s neck and with a swift jerk of his pole, he yanks the unsuspecting creature from its position. On this occasion, the iguana slips the noose, bouncing to the grassy carpet beneath and careening away in a dazed dash for freedom.

The lizard’s efforts are futile. Hersel McField, a broad, cheerful man,who until now had not appeared to be watching with any great intensity, shuffles a few steps to his right and with the agility of a soccer goalkeeper, dives full length to smother the escaping animal before dispatching it on a nearby tree stump.

Mr. Hamilton and Mr. McField are part of a five-man crew of professional hunters, working for Wildlife Research and Control Services, a pest control service. For several hours on Thursday morning last week, they methodically swept through a small patch of forest off Crewe Road, moving from tree to tree, pulling iguanas from the branches with clinical efficiency.

It is hot, brutal work, but the men, who grew up on the Honduran island of Roatan, where iguanas are hunted for their meat, are used to it.

“Since 6 years old, I have been in the bush hunting them,” said Mr. Hamilton, jumping down from a palm tree.

“Not anyone can do it. You have to practice. It is a skill. You have to test the branches and see if they can take your weight.”

Source: Department of Environment

The forest floor is littered with cigarette stubs, discarded cans of 345 lager and other debris that has accumulated over the years. A neighborhood dog runs between the trees, gleefully joining the hunt.

It is in these small pockets of urban woodland that iguanas proliferate.

As the cull progresses and the numbers begin to dwindle, the hunt will get tougher. Already, the iguanas are starting to disappear from these easily accessible spots.

“Almost all the sites we have gone to, someone has already hunted,” Mr. McField said.

The Wildlife Research and Control Services crew are among a handful of professional outfits that were established prior to the cull. Pest control specialists that clear chickens and iguanas from residential developments, they are supported by back-up staff.

Administrator Charlene McLean’s job is to negotiate with landowners and property managers to get her crews access to the prime hunting spots.

“It is getting harder and harder due to the fact that there are 300 people out there culling,” she said.

“It just means we have to go deeper to hunt for the iguanas.”

‘Tree fishing’

Not everyone has the benefit of a support network.

Before the cull, Chuck and Patrick Whittaker hadn’t thought too much about killing iguanas. The cousins, both fishermen, have adapted their angling skills to make a little extra money in the slow winter season.

“We just started, so we are figuring it out as we go along,” said Patrick, who pounded two aluminum poles together and fashioned a noose, like a lobster snare, to wrest iguanas from the tree tops.

“It is slow season for fishing because it is Christmas time, so now we are tree fishing,” he said.

For the cousins, it is a chance to make a little extra money at a time when rough seas often keep the fishing boats in port.

More used to targeting wahoo and tuna, they had to learn quickly how to fish in the tree tops.

“You spend a while not catching them and you learn, you adjust your snare, and then you try again. We are learning every day,” Patrick said.

The cousins adapted quickly and are hitting their target of 75 iguanas every day. The only downside is the iguanas are adapting too.

“If I go to the same spot two times in a week, they recognize the car and they run,” Patrick said.

“If I park up the street and walk, they don’t move. They are fast learners, they are smart.”

Mr. Noble, the cull manager, says many cullers have observed the same phenomenon.

“The word is out,” he said.

“They have quickly identified that ‘the humans are coming to get us.’”

He expects the average daily cull numbers to come down as this process continues and some of the less committed hunters lose enthusiasm for the hunt.

But with an estimated 1.3 million of the invasive lizards out there, he believes that for those that stick with it, there is money to be made.

The farmer

Not everyone is in it for the money.

Nearly a decade ago, Hamlin Stephenson retired to his small farm after a long career in the construction industry. On a small three-acre lot, he raises an assortment of fruits and vegetables that he sells to Kirk Market, Foster’s Food Fair and the Brasserie restaurant, and directly from his own stall at the farmer’s market.

It was a blissful retirement until the iguanas arrived in Lower Valley, like an invading force of camouflaged infantrymen belly-crawling through the pumpkin patch.

First it was the pumpkins, then the cucumbers, then the sweet potatoes and the spinach. Pretty soon, only the okra and tomatoes were left untouched.

Now, at 71, Mr. Stephenson combs his allotments every day, picking off the invaders with a rifle.

“I got the gun about six years ago,” he said.

“I couldn’t survive with the destruction they were causing.”

When the government put out the call for people to assist with an island-wide cull, he was happy to step up. In a trial cull in 2016, he and a friend killed 1,600 iguanas in a week.

This time he is working on his own, culling anywhere between 30 and 135 iguanas a day, depending on the location. He appreciates the money, but for him the cull is about protecting his farm.

“Yes, the $5 helps but it is really about getting them out of the way,” he said.

“It honestly doesn’t even cover what I am losing on the produce. It is impossible to survive as a farmer with these iguanas; they destroy everything and as soon as you shoot them, more come back.

“They can go in there and clean up a sweet potato field just as soon as you plant.”

Though he clears his fields every day, he says he always finds new iguanas creeping in from neighboring properties.

“Often I don’t even see them. I spend a lot of time out there in the sun just looking for a sign of something moving.”

The environmentalists

Government is pinning its hopes on the belief that a concerted nationwide cull will be more than just a giant game of “whack-a-mole.” By the end of next year, assuming all goes to plan, $9 million will have been invested in ridding the country of the invasive species. Even the most optimistic projections suggest that will not be enough.

So far, the cull numbers indicate that the project is ahead of its target to hit one million iguanas within a year. Even that herculean effort would leave an estimated 300,000 iguanas in the wild. Surveys suggest the population has doubled annually over the past several years. If the cull stops, there is no reason to believe that pattern wouldn’t repeat itself.

Fred Burton, the Department of Environment’s terrestrial resources manager, acknowledges that the cull will likely have to continue for a number of years, with incentives adjusted to account for the increasing difficulty of the hunt.

Exactly how and when green iguanas arrived in Grand Cayman is an open question. Some came through the pet trade, others were stowaways on boats from countries where they are endemic. Over time, a nascent population took hold in Grand Cayman, and with an absence of predators, numbers began to expand. That process reached a critical tipping point in recent years. Amid threats to farms and to the habitats of native animals, including the endangered blue iguana, the Department of Environment felt compelled to act.

Tim Austin, deputy director of the department, acknowledges that working toward the eradication of a species is an unusual and sometimes uncomfortable challenge for staff and researchers, many of whom are motivated by a love of the natural world. But, he said, the threat posed by the unchecked population explosion was too serious to ignore.

“Most people in our department understand the bigger picture. The native fauna must take priority,” he said.

“No one want to see cruelty to animals or unnecessary suffering but the truth is they shouldn’t be here and most of us have come to terms with that.”