Mon | May 25, 2020

New Safe Haven for Jamaican Iguanas - Jamaican iguanas get new home in Hellshire Hills

Published:Sunday | August 25, 2019 | 12:00 AMLatara Boodie - Gleaner Writer
Members of the NEPA team at the campsite.
Members of the iguana release team came from the UDC, NEPA, IIF, Hope Zoo and volunteers.
Hope Zoo representative Saddam Quarrie tries to calm down this iguana before it is finally released.
Dr Stesha Pasachnik gently holds an iguana.
This resident iguana feels very comfortable around humans at the campsite.
Marking the iguanas is crucial for tracking during the first few weeks of their release. Below: Samples of DNA were taking from the Iguana hatchlings for record-keeping.
Samples of DNA were taking from the Iguana hatchlings for record keeping.

The recovery of the Jamaican iguana (Cyclura collei) is considered one of the greatest success stories in conservation science. Presumed extinct since the 1940s, a tiny population was discovered in 1990 in the remote, tropical dry forest of the Hellshire Hills in southern Jamaica. For more than 20 years, local and international conservation groups have worked ardently to rebuild the population of this endemic species. Outlook recently went on an epic adventure to gain insight into what it takes to get this wildlife gem off the critically endangered list.

“Listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the Jamaican iguana population has been decimated by a combination of habitat loss and predation by invasive alien species,” said Dr Stesha Pasachnik, co-chair of the IUCN SSC Iguana Specialist Group. Agricultural and urban development, together with timber extraction for charcoal production, has degraded and fragmented the Jamaican iguana’s tropical dry forest habitat. Where the habitat is still in prime condition, dogs, feral cats, wild pigs, and the mongoose prevent the iguana’s exiistence, impacting the whole forest ecosystem. The tropical, dry forest home of the Hellshire Hills is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world, and among the most extensive in the Caribbean.

You might be wondering what is the purpose of having iguanas? Forest health depends on the iguana. It feeds on fruits and flowers and helps the germination of seeds and their dispersal, thereby benefiting many other species in the forest.

One needs to have an incredible passion for wildlife conservation before embarking on the journey to save the Jamaican iguana. Members of the Urban Development Corporations (UDC), National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), International Iguana Foundation (IIF), Hope Zoo, and enthusiastic volunteers, made up the small team that was prepared to face extreme elements in order to get the captive iguanas to their new home.

Prior to their release, every iguana was screened to ensure they met the criteria needed for release. More than 25 iguanas were screened for the August release, and only 14 were deemed fit for the Hellshire Hills. “We have been monitoring each iguana’s growth since they were hatchlings. The iguanas are weighed, measured, and examined by the zoo’s veterinarian for abnormalities and pests, such as mites,” said Pasachnik.

All Jamaican iguanas are a part of the head start programme which allow for the successful reintroduction of the species to their natural habitat. Some of the hatchlings have been with the zoo from as early as 2014.

After screening, the team set sail for a remote location within the Hellshire Hills, with the aid of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF). The choppy Caribbean Sea was no match for the JDF crew, as they expertly navigated the team and the Iguanas to the uninhabited Hellshire shores. After setting up camp on the beach, each member of the team was given a pair of iguanas which were carefully placed in a spacious backpack.

“The hike to the main campsite is approximately one hour,” said UDC’s environmental officer, Loriann Harris.

Hiking within the Hellshire Hills is no walk in the park. With determination and endurance, the team conquered the harsh limestone terrain during the midday sun with very few causalities.

“Water is your medicine,” laughed Pasachnik, as she exaggerated the importance of hiking with a minimum of three litres of water and good hiking boots.

The team experienced immense joy as they brought the iguanas to the various nesting sites for release. Watching the iguanas emerge from their protective cotton cases, wriggling gleefully at the smell of their long-awaited freedom, was a treat for the conservationists. With extreme care, each iguana was gently placed on the forest floor where they ran at top speed to explore their new terrain.

“Look at them sticking their tongues out. They do this to smell the new area,” explained Pasachnik. Hatchlings were then collected and processed for transportation to the zoo.

Jamaicans can be proud of the fact that their largest native land vertebrate is making a comeback. Before the reintroduction of subadult iguanas and the implementation of a mongoose trapping programme, juveniles and hatchlings were never seen. Still a highly conservation-dependent species, the Jamaican iguana has benefited from the Government’s commitment to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

“We still have a lot of work to do, but we are getting there,” said Loriann Harris.