Rebirth of the Blues: Colorful Cayman iguanas rebounding, saving a species, work still ahead
Jun 26, 2017 10:10PM
Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park warden Alberto Estevanovich has helped in restoring Grand Cayman's blue iguana population. Photo by Glenn V. Ostle.
Encountering a blue iguana can be intimidating.
This giant, dragon-like lizard (Cyclura lewisi)―which can grow to over 5 feet in length, weigh more than 25 pounds and live as long as a human―is the largest native land animal on the Caribbean island of Grand Cayman. Once roaming free in large numbers across the island, years of habitat conversion, hunting, introduction of non-native species and road kills has taken its toll.
By 2002, fewer than 20 blue iguanas were left in the wild, and by 2005 they were regarded as the most endangered iguana in the world. Today, through the efforts of a dedicated group and protected set-asides, more than 1,000 roam their Caribbean paradise.
The plight of the blue iguana was first identified by Fred Burton, on Grand Cayman in the 1970s doing mosquito research. He became curious about the large reptiles and began a program to collect eggs and start breeding the creatures using incubators. Recovery efforts today are handled by the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, operating under auspices of the National Trust for the Cayman Islands. Saving the blue iguana has required a wide-ranging conservation effort that includes habitat protection, captive breeding and release, research and monitoring and education.
Captive breeding began in earnest in 1990 at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park (QE II) on Grand Cayman’s East End. The objective was to generate and release large numbers of genetically diverse hatchlings that can survive in the wild and reproduce naturally. The original captive breeding facility was built in 1995-96. Fourteen breeding and holding pens were added, along with an enclosed area with 102 cages for second-year juveniles. Today, the facility operates at full capacity, each year releasing 40 to 60 into protected areas. Some 160 blue iguanas today reside at the QE II and an estimated 900 more prowl the nearby Salinas Reserve.
Blue iguana well-being falls mainly to two wardens: Karen Ford and 73-year-old Alberto Estevanovich. “To me it is not like a job, but rather something I enjoy doing,” says Estevanovich. “Sometimes we even go in to work on our days off.”
The two wardens measure and weigh the iguanas, perform a health screening, check their DNA, and place microchips under their skin. They also photograph their backs and necks and apply colored beads to visually identify them. Interestingly, the blue iguanas are normally gray but turn blue when they want to be noticed. “Diet is very important,” says Estevanovich, explaining that the blue iguanas are fed plants and berries endemic to the Cayman Islands, including favorites such as papaya, Ganges rose, yellow root and Indian mulberry. “Iguanas will eat all day if you let them,” he says.
Blue iguanas face a number of physical threats that include attacks by free-roaming dogs, feral and semi-domestic cats, and rats. “The dog killing situation has always been there, but lately has gotten quite bad,” Estevanovich says. “Now the dogs are hunting them for sport and recently killed 15 animals,” prompting the confinement of iguanas in protected areas, he adds.
Another threat is the exploding population of green iguanas beginning about 10 years ago. Says Karen Ford: “Blues have a very unique DNA which is totally different than that of the green or common iguana.”
“I never saw a green iguana here in the ‘70s,” adds Estevanovich. “After Hurricane Ivan ravaged the island in 2004, containers of plants and grass for replanting were brought from Central America, which probably contained a lot of green iguana hatchlings.”
Efforts to save blue iguanas have been impressive and have surpassed expectations. As a result, there is now a question about the direction of future conservation efforts. “We only planned to help save the shrinking populations,” says Estevanovich. “Now that has been largely accomplished, we are asking ourselves, ‘what should we do next?’”
For more information about Grand Cayman’s blue iguanas, go to blueiguana.ky.
Written by Glenn Ostle, a freelance photojournalist and frequent contributor to TOTI Media living in Charlotte, North Carolina.