Peter the blue iguana may rank among the most famous reptiles in the world right now.
After a highly publicised visit last week from the Prince of Wales, who greeted the rare, Caymanian reptile with a beaming smile and a ginger pat on the head, Peter is basking in his 15 minutes of fame.
From The Telegraph in London to Canada’s Toronto Sun, Peter and the prince captured headlines the world over.
For the 15-year-old iguana, who calls the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park home, the March 28 royal encounter was not his first time in the spotlight.
The visit did, however, bestow its own prestige upon the reptile, now known affectionately among Blue Iguana Recovery Programme staff as ‘Sir Peter’.
Operations Manager Nick Ebanks said Peter has also been featured in National Geographic and has been filmed by camera crews from the United States and Europe.
His uncharacteristically docile demeanour has made him a favourite among tour groups since the programme took him on after finding him as a hatchling in the wild in 2003. While blue iguanas can be quite territorial, even fighting other iguanas to the death to protect their turf, Peter seems to enjoy human attention.
“We noticed he was pretty easy to handle. He was docile. He actually liked being handled for some reason. So we kept him around,” Ebanks said.
“We put him inside in one of the pens and when we’d take the tours around, he’d always be there.”
While painting and preparing the botanic park grounds for the royal visit, Ebanks said Peter acted much in the way one would expect from a family dog – insisting on being petted and returning for more.
“Even working, painting for the royal visit, he was jumping up my leg, trying to climb up me and get pets. As soon as you pet him, he leaves you alone for five minutes. Then he comes back and he wants more,” Ebanks said.
One of Peter’s handlers, Alberto Estevanovich, has described the animal as the park’s “rock star”.
During the royal visit, Estevanovich was able to teach Prince Charles about the revival of the species in Grand Cayman, the only place in the world where the species lives and where an estimated 900 to 1,100 now survive.
Bringing the endangered species back from near extinction has been a major focus of the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme’s breeding efforts.
Over the past year, Ebanks said the programme has released a record number of the iguanas to the wild. He estimated more than 100 of the animals were released over the last year to year and a half.
In July, the National Trust for the Cayman Islands announced the milestone release of its 1,000th blue iguana, named Renegade, to the wild.
The blue iguana was considered functionally extinct in the wild as recently as 2005 but dedicated breeding efforts seem to have turned the tide for the endemic species, threatened by urban development and the introduction of predators such as dogs and cats.
With the planned release of 10 more blue iguanas to Colliers Wilderness Reserve this month, the programme will wind down its release efforts for a time. After the release of the final group, there will be no iguanas left in the programme that have reached the appropriate age for release.
Ebanks said that will mean researchers can focus their efforts on analysing their captive animals and monitoring the wild population, which only lives in limited areas that include Colliers and Salinas Reserve in East End.
As for the blue colour that so interested the Prince of Wales, Ebanks said that is for show. When working to attract a mate, the blue colour can indicate aptness for breeding and good health. Males tend to have more extensive blue colouring than females.
The blue colour also helps the iguanas with heat regulation. Ebanks explained that the colour fluctuates during the day, with the blue colour being strongest around midday and returning to a dark colour in the evening and mornings for heat regulation.