For the last few years, the 3rd of May has been a sad and angry day for me. This is a quick anniversary piece about a conservation tragedy that occurred on Grand Cayman 4 years ago, one that I find very few people are aware of.
Cyclura lewisi, the Blue Iguana, is a species of lizard endemic to the island of Grand Cayman. They exist nowhere else. They are fairly large lizards, they can live up to around 70 years of age, and they’re regarded as a national symbol of the Cayman Islands. It was under tragic circumstances that the species was thrown into the news four years ago.
A little info about the beautiful Blue Iguanas; they are vegetarians, mostly eating flowers and fruit. They like dry, open areas, and aren’t as well equipped defensively as the Green Iguanas (a separate species). In the past, the Blue Iguanas were classed as a subspecies of the Cuban Iguana, but they are now classed as a unique species after studies of their genetics. Their colours range from brown all the way to a bright blue that can be very striking.
The fossil record indicates that this animal used to thrive before the European colonizations. However, their numbers since then have declined to a critical level. In 2003, it was estimated that there were between five and fifteen specimens left in the wild. Not much hope was seen for this wonderful species and it seemed that their time had come. Predictions for the complete extinction of the Blue Iguana varied but it was generally estimated that they would be extinct between 2008 and 2015. It’s always sad to see a branch on the tree of life come to an abrupt stop, especially when the main cause of the decline and loss is habitat destruction by humans.
When these reports came out, the Blue Iguana was immediately placed on the IUCN Red List as “Critically Endangered”. In 2005 the species was classed as “functionally extinct”. It was around this time that the species started getting more press, including articles on the BBC News website. The Blue Iguana had become one of the most endangered species on the planet. They were on the edge of extinction. However, during these surveys, the government was already working on a project to try and help save their national symbol.
The government realized as early as 1988 that the species would soon be in trouble and could possibly go extinct, and they would lose their national symbol, so they began to plan a conservation program as early as possible. In 1990, The National Trust for the Cayman Islands started a very ambitious project: to breed captive Blue Iguanas and try to reestablish a healthy population in the wild. So while surveys were discovering the wild population was essentially screwed, there were projects taking place to keep a captive population going. Although far from saved, the project has been going really well. Two subpopulations were released into the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park and the Salina Reserve, consisting of 125 individual iguanas in total. The population at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park had been breeding since 2001, and in 2006 some eggs were found to show breeding had started at the Salina Reserve too. There was a big release in 2007 bringing the population to 300, and last year another huge release to make the total 650! The longterm goal for the project is to hit 1000. So from 2003 there were between 5 to 15 individuals left in the wild, and just four years later, we have 650. This is conservation work at its best. Compared to the predictions of impending extinction within the next few years, things generally couldn’t have been going any better. But on this day back in May 2008, not long after the big release to make the total 300, a tragedy struck the entire project that left the locals, the breeders, and most of the world’s conservationists in complete shock and disgust.
At one of the breeding sites for the National Trust’s Blue Iguana Recovery Program, six of these rare animals were murdered on the 3rd of May 2008. The bodies of the iguanas were mostly left behind, and no obvious theft had taken place except for a few seemingly random body parts. They were murdered for what appears to be no reason at all. They were killed on Saturday night and found by workers shortly after 9am on Sunday morning. The iguanas were found in different conditions, but all had suffered extreme internal injuries and displayed evidence of being stomped on repeatedly. Some were also dismembered. Three were killed in their breeding pens, two were dragged outside and killed, and another has never been found, but evidence was discovered outside his pen indicating that he was likely killed there before being taken/hidden. Medical personnel and the police arrived immediately and began forensic work. A total of four males were found dead. Two females, Sara and Jessica, were also attacked during the night. Sara was killed along with the males, but Jessica was still alive when the workers discovered her. She had been thrown from one pen to another and was in pain and shock when discovered. To make matters even worse, both females were pregnant. Dr. Wakelin arrived in the morning and worked to stabilize Jessica. He worked non-stop, doing everything he could, working straight into the night, but Jessica sadly passed away.
The locals found out quickly, and two days later there was a press release from the Blue Iguana Recovery Program appealing for any information about the criminals who broke into the facility and repeatedly attacked these animals with no foreseeable motive. The news quickly spread around the globe and reptile enthusiasts and conservationists everywhere were hit hard by the shocking news. Many online forums and magazines arranged opportunities for their members to donate to the Recovery Program to give some support through that difficult time? It wouldn’t bring them back, but people wanted to show their support for the conservation efforts and their disapproval and sympathy of the attack. Days later, it was discovered that some more iguanas had been injured but not as severely, hence the delayed discovery, including Billie and Archie who have actually survived the whole ordeal. Sadly, a seventh iguana did die later from the attack just when people were starting to come to terms with what had happened. It was a huge set back, especially with the pregnant females, and to this day nobody has been charged, but the Recovery Program is continuing to do the best job they can getting the wild population of these animals back to a healthy level. The video below is from 2012, when eight blue iguanas were released into the Salina Reserve.
If you’re interested in learning more about Cyclura lewisi, or the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, or wish to make a donation, you can find their website at http://www.blueiguana.ky.