Blue iguanas: Back from the brink but still under threat

The Blue Iguana Conservation organisation has launched a five-year ‘Strategic Species Action Plan’ to help conserve Grand Cayman’s most iconic reptile species, which it says could find itself back on the critically endangered list unless steps are taken immediately.

Grand Cayman is the only place in the world where these blue iguanas can be found. By 2001, Cayman’s blue iguana population was considered “functionally extinct”, with between 10 and 25 of the animals being found in the wild at that point. A dedicated breeding programme brought the population back from the brink and by 2018 there were more than 1,000 in the wild.

However, those who run Blue Iguana Conservation, formerly known as the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme, say the battle to ensure the long-term survival of the creatures is far from over, and that’s where the action plan comes in.

Blue Iguana Conservation project manager Luke Harding, in a statement issued by the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, said the five-year plan is based on “the expert evaluation of the best scientific knowledge available to date”.

One of the newest additions to the Blue Iguana Conservation programme. – Photo: Taneos Ramsay

The plan states, “Although a remarkable conservation milestone, successful captive breeding and release does not accurately reflect the ongoing situation regarding the wild populations within the protected areas. Through years of conducting population census surveys, there is strong evidence to show a lack of natural recruitment, even though successful breeding and hatching is recorded within all three protected areas.”

- Advertisement -

According to the plan, current indications suggest the restored population is unlikely to be able to sustain itself in the long term.

“This is most likely due to the same threats that drove the iguana population to functional extinction back in 2001 still being present today, namely urbanisation, yet in 2021, these pressures have increased alongside newly evolving threats such as a significant increase in invasive predators and the prospect of emerging diseases,” it noted.

This chart shows the threats facing the blue iguana population within the various protected areas on Grand Cayman. – Source: Blue Iguana Conservation

According to the mortality rate statistics included in the plan, at least 30 adult iguanas a year die in the wild.

Feral cats have been identified as the greatest threat to the blues, followed by emerging diseases, green iguanas, dogs, urbanisation and ongoing road infrastructure, according to the plan. Other so-called “indirect drivers” also pose threats, including “weak environmental governance, inconsistencies in legislation, inadequate financial and logistical resources for [blue iguana] conservation and lack of consideration of [blue iguana] habitat in land-use planning”.

Fred Burton, who founded the breeding programme three decades ago, said, “Let’s not make any mistake – we’ve got them from next to nothing to about 1,000 in the wild. We bought them time, but until we solve the main causes of their original decline, we can’t say we have saved them.”

The plan lays out as a main objective a focus to maintain and strengthen the protected areas of the island, including the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, which is described as a ‘Habitat Island’. Other protected areas include the Salina Reserve and the Colliers Wilderness Reserve in East End.

The plan also outlines other objectives, including on-island educational opportunities to increase community support and funding for Blue Iguana Conservation, which it says is “crucial to safeguard the vital support and celebration of this flagship species in the long term”.

The blue iguana population faces a variety of threats, including from feral cats, encroaching urban development and emerging diseases. – Photo: Taneos Ramsay

During the upcoming five-year period, Blue Iguana Conservation intends to utilise staff and volunteers to carry out monitoring of breeding blue iguanas in the wild, through radio-tracking, and take action to protect their nests from predators.

The plan was compiled as a result of collaboration between project partners both on and off the island, who attended two workshops, in 2019 and 2021, and brought together 30 years of research and knowledge.

In the statement, Premier Wayne Panton, said, “I am delighted to see such thoughtful strategy behind the future conservation of the blue iguanas. Let us all see this plan as a platform to reaffirm our dedication to this iconic species that is so symbolic of Cayman.”

Read the full five-year action plan here.

- Advertisement -

Support local journalism. Subscribe to the all-access pass for the Cayman Compass.

Subscribe now