With the clean-up after Tropical Storm Grace now complete at its facility, Blue Iguana Conservation is looking to continue its expansion, giving Grand Cayman’s iconic lizard a greater chance of flourishing.
Blue Iguana Conservation, previously known as the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme, based in the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, is building a new nursery for baby blue iguanas, as well as an education area and offices for support and veterinary staff.
Operations manager Luke Harding described the nursery as a “brand new, state-of-the-art facility to rear our hatchling iguanas, to give us more flexibility and create a more natural environment for them to thrive”.
In an interview last week with the Cayman Compass, Harding said a new education centre was also being developed as part of the upgrade, as well as “a new building to help with research, incubation, and offices for staff to work and provide better veterinary facilities”.
When Grace blew through Cayman last month, the storm left devastation in its wake, especially among the islands’ vegetation. Trees and bushes were knocked over across the island, including at the Botanic Park. The blue iguana facility, in the middle of the park, did not escape the destruction, but was not badly damaged.
Harding said the tropical storm “created a mess” and some flooding at the site, but that none of the iguanas were injured, and the facility “stood the test of the storm and is absolutely fine”.
Still at risk
The conservation programme has brought the blue iguana, which can only be found in Grand Cayman, back from the brink of extinction. Twenty years ago, it was estimated that just 25 blues remained in Cayman. Now, through the programme’s effort, there are an estimated 600-1,000 in the wild, according to Harding.
He noted, however, that it was very difficult to estimate the exact number of the animals. An estimated 1,000 have been released since the programme began, but that does not mean the population is growing, he said.
“We see roadkills,” he said. “We know there are challenges out there. One thing that’s become really evident through our research is there is no natural recruitment. What we know is happening is our animals we release here go to the wild, they breed and survive, but the wild babies don’t survive, mainly due to invasive predators, like feral cats.”
Feral cats are also threatening the native iguana population on the Sister Islands, according to the Department of Environment.
As well as cats, the blue iguanas are also facing threats from traffic, development, climate change and a variety of other issues, many of which are outlined in a recent five-year plan issued by Blue Iguana Conservation.
“The numbers are far, far higher [than they were 20 years ago] but in reality, we have a declining population that is conservation dependent. If we shut down now, within 10 years, the blue iguanas will be gone,” Harding said.
Social distancing at the outdoor site
He added that the centre, as an outdoor site, is an ideal option for visitors looking for a safe attraction, where social distancing can easily be observed.
“You’re out in nature here. This is a very safe location that you can come to, you can social distance, it’s out in the sun… There are lots of ways to come here and enjoy and make a difference. We need people to come back, so please come and visit us.”
While COVID and the closed borders have obviously impacted the number of people visiting the facility, Harding said this period has given people time to reflect on nature and the need for conservation.
“One thing that has come out of all this, I think, is the world is really starting to see the importance of the environment – our connection to the environment, our connections to animals, our connections to diseases. So, when we talk about the need to be happy and healthy, and protect blue iguanas from disease, I think the world is understanding that more than ever at the moment, because we’re all having to do that.”
Mister and Miss Blue Cayman pageants
While, pre-COVID, the non-profit relied mostly on cash from tours of the facility and donations, it has had to be innovative in trying to keep a high profile and to keep people engaged in its work.
Harding says it has done so by going online and upping the ante on its social media posts and campaigns.
One such campaign was its iguana beauty contests – The Mister and Miss Blue Cayman pageants. Voters following the online campaign chose their top three male and female iguanas. Lady Pink was crowned Miss Blue Cayman, while Rango was chosen as Mister Blue Cayman.
Also, earlier this year, the first International Blue Iguana Day was held, to celebrate the species.
Harding encouraged people to visit Blue Iguana Conservation’s Facebook pages, Instagram and Twitter and support the facility by liking and sharing posts.
As well as donating, there are several other ways to support the animals and the conservation programme, he said, such as signing up to become a ‘blue iguana gardener’ and growing plants that the iguanas like to eat and then delivering those to the park. People can also volunteer to be a ‘blue iguana guardian’, which involves learning how to look after the iguanas, working on data entry, or going into the reserves to check on them in the wild.
- Additional reporting by Compass journalist Norma Connolly