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Students Help Iguanas

I recently returned from Dominica, where I continue to study the Lesser Antillean iguana. This is the third of a multi-year study of the iguana. My team has been working to garner critical natural history information that will be used to manage and conserve the species. Habitat destruction, hunting, introduction of exotic predators and competitors, and hybridization with common iguanas threaten Lesser Antillean iguanas with extinction across their range. Indeed, Lesser Antillean iguanas have already been extirpated from several islands. But help is on the way, thanks to local students!

In my experience, it is vital to establish a long-term presence in focal areas when conducting research with applied conservation purposes. Time measured in years, not months, is needed to build relationships and trust with local stakeholders including policy makers, wildlife officials, and the local population. My team has been proactive in building such relationships for years, but sometimes unexpected opportunities emerge.

I stay at a hotel on Dominica where one staff member is extremely involved in education. Over the course of my time on the island, we have talked extensively about involving the youth in the iguana project and also highlighting the need for environmental protection. One of our discussions turned to the problem of iguana deaths attributed to collisions with cars. Female Lesser Antillean iguanas migrate from the interior of the island to deposit their eggs on coastal slopes. During these migrations, many females are hit and killed by cars along roads (we are in the process of quantifying just how many die each year). Females that manage to make it to the coastal slopes to nest are impacted further by the dumping of garbage on road sides that eventually tumble down the slopes and bury nests.

To combat this problem, we teamed up with students from a secondary school on Dominica. The students visited one of my primary study sites for an iguana talk and brainstorming session about what can be done to reduce road collisions and stop the dumping if garbage along coastal slopes. We devised a plan to educate people using the primary road where iguanas are being struck by cars. One day in May, the students worked in groups on both ends of the road and stopped cars to distribute information fliers and educational bumper stickers. We also had signs made and posted them above the main nesting site. In the near future, students will start their own iguana blog and use it to educate their fellow islanders.

This is just one step in the long process of helping conserve the Lesser Antillean iguana on Dominica. I was extremely encouraged to see young people of the island so willing to help protect an animal that normally receives little attention. Hopefully we will build on that momentum.

Charles Knapp is a postdoctoral fellow with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.