Cayman's imperiled blue iguanas on the rebound
In this Friday, Aug. 3, 2012 photo, an adult Grand Cayman Blue Iguana nicknamed "Biter" is shown shedding its dead skin at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park on the island of Grand Cayman. Roughly 700 blue iguanas breed and roam free in protected woodlands on the eastern side of Grand Cayman in the western Caribbean that is the only place where the critically endangered animals are found in the wild.
Now, though, a breeding programme some see as a global model has worked better than any had hoped to dream for a species that numbered less than a dozen in the wild just a decade ago, preyed upon by escaped pets and struggling to survive in a habitat eroded by the advance of human settlement.
Roughly 700 blazing blue iguanas breed and roam free in protected woodlands on the eastern side of Grand Cayman, a 22-mile-long (35-kilometre-long) speck in the western Caribbean that is the only place where the critically endangered animals are found in the wild.
"The kind of results that we've gotten show that it's practical and realistic to say you can restore a population of iguanas from practically nothing, just so long as you can capture the genetic variety from the beginning," said Fred Burton, the unsalaried director of the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, a partnership linking the islands' National Trust to local and overseas agencies and groups.
In a corner of the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, the "founders," or genetically diverse, wild iguanas captured for the breeding programme, mate when the mood strikes in 40-foot-wide pens featuring the rocks, shrubs and trees of their natural habitat. One couple, dubbed "Mad Max" and "Biter," are free to roam outside the pens, scampering after ripened noni, a pungent, potato-sized fruit.
On a recent day at the 65-acre garden and woodland preserve, the adult iguanas were shedding skin, which resembles thin, dry paper, revealing a brilliant turquoise underneath. The primarily herbivorous creatures, which have crimson eyes, grow to roughly five feet (1.5 metres) long, weigh over 25 pounds and are at their bluest when they get excited.