Champion of the rock iguanas

When she's not manning the helm at the Little Cayman Museum, Tanja Laaser is out protecting the island's rock iguanas. - Photo: Mark Muckenfuss

Tanja Laaser doesn’t have a cape or a spandex outfit, but when the green iguana hotline rings on Little Cayman, she answers the call.

With a snare and a net, she jumps into her role as the island’s iguana protector – indigenous rock iguanas, that is – and goes out to hunt down the invasive offender, making short work of the green menace.

Laaser, 30, an intern with the Department of the Environment, is the sole person currently keeping track of the rock iguana population on the island and runs point on protecting them.

In addition to ridding the island of any of their green cousins, she, usually with a volunteer helper, captures and tags the rock iguanas, monitors nesting sites, puts up markers to alert local drivers about where the reptiles have been hit by cars, and gives weekly lectures about the animals to educate tourists as well as local residents.

“Why iguanas?” she says of her dedication the animals. “Because they’re cool.”

Fred Burton, the DoE’s terrestrial resources unit manager, said Laaser has become key to protecting the local lizards.

“It’s extremely helpful,” Burton said of Laaser’s work. “She’s doing way more than her internship would cover because she’s got a passion for it.”

A native of Tuttlingen, Germany, Laaser said she always loved animals as a kid. Her family kept ponies, chickens and rabbits, as well as dogs and cats. There are lizards in that part of Germany, but they are rare. Nevertheless, Laaser was more fascinated by creatures with scales than with fur.

“I always begged my mom to get a snake, but I never got one,” she said.

After earning a master’s degree in biology from the University of Tuebingen in early 2015, Laaser bounced between Brazil, Little Cayman and Germany before settling in Little Cayman at the end of 2016. All the while she was studying or working with reptiles.

In Brazil, she studied reptiles in the field. In Germany, she worked in a python breeding station, throwing ball pythons over her shoulders so she could clean their cages.

“This was when I was bit by an anaconda,” she says with a smile. Not in Brazil. “I didn’t even see one in Brazil.”

A road sign on Cayman Brac warns motorists to be on the lookout for rock iguanas. – Photo: Reshma Ragoonath

In Little Cayman, she was assisting Jeanette B. ‘Jen’ Moss, of the University of Mississippi, with a population study of the rock iguanas.

When she got the chance, she came back to Little Cayman, as a bartender. She planned to work in one of the resorts and help Moss when the researcher returned to continue her study the next summer. Since then, Moss completed her Little Cayman work, but Laaser has continued to gather data.

She picked up the internship with the DoE and also is the sole docent for the Little Cayman Museum.

One of her key tasks for the DoE doesn’t involve rock iguanas at all.

Whenever a barge arrives on the island to drop off a shipment of goods, Laaser, and conservation officer Mike Guderian, the DoE’s only full-time employee on the island, are there checking for any hitchhiking green iguanas.

“The reason we don’t have so many green iguanas is because of Mikey,” Laaser said. “He’s really the reason they never really had a chance to get established here.”

The green iguanas are good at hiding in wheel wells and other out-of-the-way places, she said. But the duo occasionally finds some. She also knows some slip through, but estimates there are fewer than 100 on the island.

“We saw what happened to the blue iguanas on Grand Cayman,” she said. “If I can prevent that from happening here, I want to.”

The population of green iguanas on Grand Cayman exploded, while the native blue iguanas remain a highly threatened species. In the past year, more than one million of the green lizards have been killed and removed from the environment as part of a DoE programme.

The hope is that the blue iguanas will thrive in the absence of so many of the greens. “It’s important to recognise that one iguana is not like another iguana,” Laaser said. “Green iguanas harm the ecology on so many levels, while the rock iguanas help the ecology in so many ways.”

Greens can devastate the local flora by munching on the leafy parts, while the rock iguanas eat more fruits and help as seed distributors throughout the island.

Without the rock iguanas, she said, the island’s terrestrial ecosystem would likely collapse.
And, she said, it’s important to know more about the native lizards.

“Everything we learn here is new,” she said. “We don’t know much about them. We don’t even know how old they can get. Eventually, we will know more about their survival rates, more about the dispersal of individuals.”

That’s why she’s willing to wrestle with the big adult iguanas in order to tag and chip them, even though it can be dangerous.

“A big male can [bite] your finger off,” she said.

Burton said there are probably about 2,000 rock iguanas on the Sister Islands. He suspects the population may be declining, but doesn’t know why. Feral cats and what he calls “population traps”, where too many animals congregate in one area, are contributing factors, he said, but more information is needed.

As an agency, Burton said, “We’re not looking after them very well. Tanja is doing a lot of basic research work largely on her own. Any information we can get is definitely valuable.”

Laaser said the iguanas even contribute to tourism.

“People come here to see the iguanas,” she said. “The tourists love them and that also helps the island.”

If she left Little Cayman, she said, she would feel like she was abandoning the animals she loves.

“I’m really, really lucky that I can do what I do here,” she said, “and do what I love.”