Saving the World’s Most Endangered Lizards

rock_iguanaNew Collaboration for Caribbean Island Iguana Conservation

The most endangered group of lizards in the world, Caribbean island rock iguanas, are beginning 2014 with a new coalition of conservation champions resolved to implement bold actions to help save these imperiled species. Governments, academics, nongovernment organizations and private stakeholders will collaborate on more than 20 projects focused on alleviating threats to iguanas, changing public perceptions and ensuring long-term financial, government and public support for iguana conservation.

With one Caribbean island iguana species already extinct and eight of the remaining 11 listed as critically endangered or endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, this region-wide effort comes at a critical time for the survival of these species.

“Collaboration is key in this endeavor,” according to Brent Murry, science coordinator for the Caribbean Landscape Conservation Cooperative and representative for the new effort. “The threats to these unique animals are immense and beyond any one organization or agency. A region-wide effort allows each country and organization to tap into regional expertise and resources in order to implement the local solutions iguanas so greatly need.”

Projects range from identifying essential habitat for these lizards’ survival, reducing threats from invasive species and supporting on-the-ground law enforcement efforts to promoting regional art contests. These projects and numerous others stemmed from a workshop held in Puerto Rico this past December that brought together 61 participants from 16 nations, including a representative for Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group and a private land owner in the British Virgin Islands. Workshop participants identified the most critical issues for iguana conservation and developed action plans and timelines for projects considered to be of highest priority.

“This workshop was the first regional initiative that has brought together species experts with critical public and private stakeholders,” said Carmen R. Guerrero-Pérez, secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and workshop host. “The bar was raised, and now we are committed to implement the agreed-upon recovery actions locally as well as through international collaboration with other countries.”

“December’s workshop was the catalyst for conservation actions that will have an enormous impact on iguanas across the region,” said Bryan Arroyo, assistant director of international affairs with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The Service will be an active participant in developing and implementing these projects and supporting Caribbean governments and partners as they endeavor to save a piece of their natural heritage.”

“A key outcome of the workshop was a renewed commitment to coordinated, on-the-ground efforts that will directly benefit iguana conservation, including ‘headstarting,’ restoration and protection of iguana habitats and reintroduction efforts to enhance population recovery,” said Allison Alberts, chief conservation and research officer for San Diego Zoo Global and co-sponsor of the workshop.

Iguana conservation has a proven record of success, and partners are confident these projects will have a lasting impact. In 2002, the Grand Cayman blue iguana numbered fewer than 25 individuals. Today, there are more than 750 blue iguanas on Grand Cayman thanks to a conservation strategy that includes habitat protection, captive breeding and release, research, monitoring and education. The Jamaican iguana — thought to be extinct as recently as the late 1980s — now numbers over 300 individuals as a result of intensive conservation efforts. But even these successes remain at risk when they run up against competing demands for land and resources. Commercial development threatens to wipe out the remaining habitat of the Jamaican iguana. Without vigilant conservation attention, success one day can turn to failure the next.

“Many of these conservation projects comprise tangible on-the-ground actions that will make a real and lasting difference in the protection of Caribbean iguana populations and their habitats,” said Kirsty Swinnerton, Caribbean program manager for Island Conservation. “We are excited to be part of this extraordinary effort to save these flagship species and to lend our expertise and resources in removing invasive species that threaten the survival of these iconic animals.”

Iguanas are the largest native vertebrates left on many of the Caribbean islands. As seed dispersers, they are vital to the ecosystem and help to maintain healthy native plant communities. Several iguana species exist as single populations with no more than a few hundred individuals. Invasive, introduced mammalian predators such as feral cats and dogs, as well as pigs and goats, are the greatest threat to many iguana species and their habitats. Other significant threats include habitat destruction by charcoal production and land development, collection for the pet trade, hunting, vehicular mortality, and competition and interbreeding with the introduced, invasive common green iguana.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS AT 619-685-3291.

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