Bringing Back the Blue Iguana

August 5, 2011

WCS veterinarian Dr. Paul Calle recently traveled to Grand Cayman to conduct health examinations on a group of captive-bred blue iguanas before their release into the wild. Through an emergency response effort led by the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, Calle and his colleagues have helped this critically endangered species rebound from near-extinction.

Not all of Grand Cayman’s bathing beauties took a cruise ship or a plane to get to the island’s sun-soaked beaches. Some have been there all along. Take a 5-foot-long turquoise lizard, known to relatively few of the island’s visitors and nearly extinct just a decade ago. Thanks to a little help from conservationists, the Grand Cayman blue iguana, as it’s known, is making a comeback.

Though blue iguanas once ranged over most of the island’s coastal areas and dry shrublands, by 2002, their entire population hovered between 10 and 25 individuals. Habitat destruction, car-related mortality, and predation by dogs and cats all contributed to this decline. A consortium of local and international partners stepped in to create the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, and went on to breed, care for, and release more than 500 reptiles into the wild, giving this critically endangered species a genuine chance for recovery.

“For the past several years, we’ve succeeded in adding hundreds of animals to the wild population, all of which receive a health screening before release,” said Dr. Paul Calle, Director of Zoological Health for WCS’s Bronx Zoo.

Calle traveled to Grand Cayman in June with WCS veterinary colleagues Kate McClave and Patricia Toledo to conduct the latest round of health examinations. WCS has been contributing health expertise to the blue iguana rescue effort for the past decade, beginning with a veterinary visit in 2001 by Dr. Bonnie Raphael.

Today, the team is optimistic about the species’ future. Fred Burton, director of the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, said, “We expect to reach our goal of 1,000 iguanas in managed protected areas in the wild in a few years. After that, we will monitor the iguanas to make sure they are reproducing in the numbers needed to maintain the wild population. If we get positive results, we will have succeeded.”

Recovery efforts to save the Grand Cayman blue iguana have mostly centered on the Salina Reserve, a 625-acre nature reserve located on the island’s east side. After they hatch and live for two to three years in a captive breeding facility, each iguana receives a complete health assessment before release. Veterinarians take blood and fecal samples for analysis in a nearby lab at St. Matthews Veterinary School, and weigh and tag each reptile. The iguanas are released once the lab results are reviewed and their good health is verified.

This year, the recovery program is releasing iguanas into a new protected area, the Colliers Wilderness Reserve, established last year and managed by the National Trust for the Cayman Islands.

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