At the Cayman Turtle Farm, which was set up to breed turtles in captivity for the table and also release adults into the ocean, I see many visitors taking photos of another prehistoric creature, the iguana.
Unfortunately, these common green iguanas are another invasive species, thought to have escaped from pet shops. Like the lionfish, they have thrived at the cost of local species, in this case the less aggressive blue iguana. The two species can co-exist but the pest-like prevalence of the green iguana does affect attitudes to its rarer distant relative. Found only on Grand Cayman, the blue iguana was considered extinct in the wild by 2005, hunted by cats, dogs and rats, and its habitat drastically reduced by the growth of the human population. At the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme, I discover a project that has brought them back from the brink.
I walk around a series of pens with warden Alberto Estevanovich who knows all the lizards by name and it is remarkable to see them come running when they hear his voice. Each has a number of colored beads on its crest that act as a code to identify it. He explains how blue iguanas become aggressive to each other within a month of hatching and have to be separated into individual cages to stop bullying by the larger ones. The smaller ones would soon be unable to feed and waste away. “That shows how solitary and territorial they are in the wild,” says Alberto. "They are fussy eaters and volunteers have to gather fresh leaves every day from indigenous plants to feed them." A banana in their diet encourages them to turn blue. “We do not give them bananas very often,” he says. “We prefer them not to get used to the sugar.”
The center has already released 800 blue iguanas into the wild, and with new births hopefully replacing those who die, or are killed by vehicles while warming themselves on roads, it is very close to its planned target of 1,000 animals living free. Even so, these native iguanas have to be carefully protected in reserves. “The green iguanas are native to Central and South America, where they evolved defenses against the predators that do not exist on the Caribbean Islands,” says Alberto. “Our blue iguanas lack those instincts and are still very vulnerable to domestic pets in suburban areas. We have to preserve our wild areas for them.”
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