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The Jamaican Iguana Will Soon Have a Permanent Home on Goat Islands

By Devin Murphy on May 5th, 2020   duration

A hatchling Jamaican Iguana. Photo by Robin Moore, Global Wildlife Conservation
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Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) changed its name to Re:wild in 2021

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Jamaican Iguana has escaped and recovered from near extinction. Its newest chapter promises to be its most hopeful yet. Scientists are working to release iguanas on Goat Islands, which were declared a wildlife sanctuary in 2017. Greater Goat Island could become a predator-free haven for Jamaican Iguanas and other endangered species within the next few years.

Rediscovery and Recovery

The Jamaican Iguana is a large bluish-gray lizard with red eyes. It is one of nearly a dozen rock iguana species found in the Caribbean, but it is endemic to Jamaica. For thousands of years, the iguanas and other reptiles were the largest land animals in Jamaica. When humans introduced non-native mammals to the island in the late 1800s, it marked the beginning of the swift decline of the Jamaican Iguana until it disappeared in the early 1950s.

Scientists thought the Jamaican Iguana was extinct for 40 years until it was unexpectedly rediscovered in the Hellshire Hills on Jamaica’s mainland in 1990.

Wild adult Jamaican iguana. Wild adult Jamaican iguana. (Photo by Robin Moore)

Ever since, the Jamaican Iguana Recovery Group, a team of local and international stakeholders has worked to save the iguana, but all of their efforts were nearly dashed five years ago. The Jamaican government made a secretive deal with a Chinese company to build a transshipment hub in Portland Bight, which includes Goat Islands--the only place with enough habitat for a healthy and thriving population of Jamaican Iguanas. The port would have razed Goat Islands, making it uninhabitable for the Jamaican Iguana and many other species.

Just when all hope seemed lost, the iguana got a new chance at survival. After an outcry from the local community and many others vested in protecting the biodiversity of Goat Islands, like the International Iguana FoundationJamaica Environment Trust and IUCN Iguana Specialist Group, the Jamaican government announced that they would not build the port in the ecologically sensitive area, and in 2017 Goat Islands was officially declared a wildlife sanctuary.

A wetland area beside the Hellshire Hills, a unique ecosystem in Jamaica. (Photo by Robin Moore, Global Wildlife Conservation)

“So, to have that dream now, back alive and on the table, I think everyone is feeling very positive about the future of the iguana, whereas in 2015 that definitely was not the case,” says Robin Moore, director of communications for Global Wildlife Conservation and a long-time supporter of the Jamaican Iguana Recovery Program.

Before any iguanas are released to the wildlife sanctuary, scientists have to make sure Goat Islands is hospitable and transition away from releasing iguanas in the Hellshire Hills on the mainland.

Jumpstarting Recovery

Each summer from July to August, a team of conservationists from the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) head to the Hellshire Hills, to look for clutches of buried Jamaican Iguana eggs. After they search out the nests, they surround them with a 2-to-3-foot-high mesh barrier. And then they wait.

The barrier keeps out the Indian Mongoose, an invasive species brought to Jamaica during the late 19th century to help control pests, like rats. Without any natural predators, the Mongoose quickly overran the mainland, becoming an invasive species. Their prey of choice is Jamaican Iguana eggs. They dig up the nests and eat the eggs before they hatch. Even if a clutch of iguanas escapes the voracious appetites of the mongoose, the iguanas are too small to defend themselves against mongooses until they are nearly 10 years old or weigh more than 1 kilo. And to make matters worse, the Indian Mongoose is not the only invasive predator the iguanas have to contend with, there’s also feral cats, dogs and pigs.

Hatchling Jamaican Iguanas emerging from a nest. (Photo by Robin Moore, Global Wildlife Conservation)

To give the Jamaican Iguana hatchlings a fighting chance, experts from the NEPA in Jamaica, University of the West Indies (UWI), Fort Worth Zoo, San Diego Zoo and Hope Zoo Preservation Fund, catch them in the temporary pens they build around their nests.

From their nests, the hatchlings are whisked away to the Hope Zoo in Kingston, on the mainland, where they are placed in a head start program. The lizards are about the size of a pinky finger when they hatch, and they spend five to six years at the zoo before returning to the Hellshire Hills.

The head start program is a delicate balance of helping the hatchling iguanas grow and keeping them wild. Keepers don’t spend much time with the iguanas, which makes them wary of humans--a beneficial trait for surviving in the wild.

The Hope Zoo has also been able to decrease the amount of time the iguanas need to spend living in human care. The iguanas can return to the wild after five or six years, thanks to tweaks and improvements the zoo has made to their husbandry program. In the early day of the head start program, the iguanas would usually have to stay at the zoo for eight to 10 years.

Jamaican Iguanas Hatchling Jamaican Iguanas. (Photo by: Robin Moore, Global Wildlife Conservation)

And studies by the Jamaican Iguana Recovery Group have shown that the head start program is making a difference.

“They’ve been doing some telemetry studies, and several years ago they had already proven that the head-start iguanas are in fact not only surviving, but they are actually reproducing in the wild, which is like the ultimate goal because obviously you can head start any species, but…if you’re just releasing them into the wild and they’re not reproducing…there’s no point to the whole program and initiative,” says Joseph Brown, general curator of Hope Zoo Preservation Foundation. “So, it’s exciting…they survive very well and now they are back to reproducing and helping the wild population grow.”

A New Home

As the head start program has become more successful, it has been able to take in more and more iguanas. Last year 100 hatchlings were brought to the Hope Zoo from the Hellshire Hills, the most ever.

Four hundred sixty-eight Jamaican Iguanas have been released back to the Hellshire Hills during the past three decades, but it’s starting to get crowded. As important as the area is to the survival of the iguana, a predator-free haven on Goat Islands would offer that added security for the future of the species.

Early morning in Old Harbour Bay, Jamaica, home to a community that would have suffered the impacts of the planned transshipment port. (Photo by Robin Moore, Global Wildlife Conservation)

“[T]hat’s why the Goat Islands project is so critical, because long-term, that’s absolutely essential for this population to thrive..” says Brown. “If the species stands a chance, they have to have this reintroduction site of Goat Islands.”

Though it is effective, the head start program is intensive and expensive. Greater Goat Island would be a cost-effective and long-term solution. If the invasive predators on the island were eradicated, the iguanas wouldn’t need help from humans. They would have a fighting chance at hatching and growing to adulthood on their own.

Damion Whyte, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of the West Indies, has been studying the invasive predators on Greater Goat Island for almost two years. He uses camera traps to monitor Indian Mongoose and feral cats and learn about them.

“In terms of the mongoose, we’re learning stuff about their behavior, like their activity, what time through the day they are active,” says Whyte.

He has also been surveying the vegetation on the island to try and determine if it would meet the iguanas’ needs. His research will help reintroduction efforts.

“I will continue on with some of my research,” says Whyte. “I think it would be pretty interesting because you can’t just put animals out there and leave them like that. You have to know if they’re fitting in, if it’s accessible, you still have the chance of invasives coming back.”

But the day when invasive predators have been eradicated from Greater Goat Island, making it safe to release Jamaican Iguanas is on the horizon. With COVID-19 temporarily halting some research and release efforts, the timeline is a little uncertain, but the first iguanas could be released on Greater Goat Island within the next few years. And everyone involved with the recovery effort is anxiously waiting for that first release.

“I would be so happy the first day I get a chance to see the first iguana going back on to Goat Island,” says Whyte of the future.

About the author

Devin Murphy

Devin Murphy is Re:wilds’s senior communications specialist and helps Re:wild and its partners tell stories about the work they do to protect wildlife and wildlands around the planet. Her favorite stories about conservation include fascinating and little-known species and the dedicated humans protecting them.

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