All News & Blogs
A young blue iguana climbs in a breeding area at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park on Grand Cayman.
DAVID McFADDEN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Visit the Photo Place
BY DAVID McFADDEN
QUEEN ELIZABETH II BOTANIC PARK, Cayman Islands--The blue iguana has lived on the rocky shores of Grand Cayman for at least a couple of million years, preening like a miniature turquoise dragon as it soaked in the sun or sheltered inside crevices.
Yet having survived everything from tropical hurricanes to ice ages, it was driven to near-extinction by dogs, cats and cars.
Now, though, a breeding program 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 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.
'FOUNDERS' ARE KEY
In a corner of the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, the "founders," or genetically diverse, wild iguanas captured for the breeding program, mate when the mood strikes in 40-foot-wide pens featuring the rocks, shrubs and trees of their natural habitat. One couple, "Mad Max" and "Biter," are free to roam outside the pens, scampering after ripened noni, a pungent 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. The primarily herbivorous creatures, which have crimson eyes, grow to roughly five feet long, weigh over 25 pounds and are at their bluest when they get excited.
Near the breeding pens, wood-and-wire cages hold the founders' young descendants, outfitted with transponder tags embedded beneath their skin.