Fred Burton, the man responsible for bringing Cayman’s blue iguanas back from the verge of extinction, was honoured Saturday at the first annual International Blue Iguana Day.
At the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, where the Blue Iguana Conservation Centre is based, Governor Martyn Roper cut a ribbon – aptly a blue-coloured one – to officially launch the day.
In 2002, only 10-25 blue iguanas remained in the wild; in 2018 the facility released its 1,000th iguana into one of the National Trust reserves.
Before unveiling a plaque recognising Burton’s work over the decades, Operations Manager Luke Harding said, “I don’t think it’s right that anybody visits this facility and doesn’t understand who set this up and who is pivotal still to this day for conserving the blue iguanas.”
Burton spoke about the early days of the conservation programme, when it was run on volunteer efforts, which were a “life-changing experience” for him.
Eventually the captive breeding and release programme of Cayman’s blue iguanas was institutionalised, and it now has a full-time paid staff of five, who Burton said continued to do outstanding work.
Burton moved on from the conservation programme in 2016, and is now manager of the Department of Environment’s Terrestrial Resources Unit.
While acknowledging that the work done by him and the team at the Blue Iguana Conservation Centre had helped restore the local population of the once critically endangered blue iguana, Burton cautioned, “Let’s not make any mistake – we’ve got them from next to nothing to almost 1,000 in the wild; we bought them time, we did not save them.
“The problems are still there, the same problems that nearly drove them to extinction are still operating; they are operating worse than they were 10 to 20 years ago. We have issues that really strike to the sustainability of iguanas in the wild. An enormous amount of work still needs to be done, so please keep supporting the Blue Iguana Conservation team.”
The first International Blue Iguana Day was marked in Cayman by an open day at the Botanic Park, in which members of the public were invited to feed the iguanas, view the facility, take part in face painting and meet the ‘Iguana Scientist’.
At the morning ceremony, Roper said he had followed the Blue Iguana Conservation Centre’s efforts closely over his two-and-a-half years in Cayman, and said one of the highlights of his time here was visiting the park with Prince Charles in 2019.
During that visit, he said, he and the prince met Peter, one of the blue iguana residents of the facility, and that encounter had made a major impression on Prince Charles.
“Peter started shaking around his papaya… and the papaya went all over [Prince Charles’] shoes, and I don’t think those royal shoes were used again.
“He was absolutely enthralled by his visit here… he was really impressed with what you do, as am I,” he said.