In 1990, Edwin Duffus, a pig hunter, walked into the Hope Zoo in Kingston, Jamaica and handed over a large lizard his dog had retrieved while hunting in Hellshire Hills.
His day in the woods would change the destiny of an entire species — the lizard was a Jamaican iguana that since 1948 had been thought extinct.
Although the iguana didn’t survive its injuries — dogs are one of their biggest predators — Mr Duffus was able to tell the staff exactly where he’d found it, and a subsequent expedition discovered two nesting sites and a small family of iguanas.
The discovery sent ripples of delight through the zoology world.
“This is like bringing dinosaurs back; this is like Jurassic Park,” says Hope Zoo General Curator, Milton Rieback.
The Jamaican iguana, (Cyclura colliei) a stocky reptile with brown, grey and aquamarine colouring and a distinct cowl of loose skin, is one of 27 reptile species endemic to Jamaica.
It had long been considered the missing link in an incredible biodiversity chain that sustains the country’s dry forests.
“They eat fruits and vegetables, and when they poop, the seeds germinate and grow faster, so they add to the biodiversity of the forest. It is for this reason the iguanas were considered Jamaica’s first farmers,” said Loy Taylor Bloomfield of the Hope Zoo Preservation Foundation.
Studded with cacti, shrubs and deciduous trees adapted to low rainfall, the Hellshire Hills, south of Kingston, are among the last primary, undisturbed dry forest in the Caribbean. And although they cover only four percent of the island, they are key to Jamaica’s ecology, helping to maintain the limestone aquifers, an important source of groundwater on the south coast.
Jamaican iguanas once thrived there. But they fell prey to hunters, predators, and habitat destruction.
In 2012 the UNDP-implemented Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme (GEF SGP) began supporting the Iguana Head Start Initiative. By then the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had placed the iguana on its Red List of Threatened Species, where it remains as critically endangered.
GEF SGP funds filled an important gap in the Iguana Head Start programme — supporting the iguanas’ diet, as well as the diagnostic and medical work of the zoo’s Preservation Foundation.
The animals are born in the wild, then taken as hatchlings to the zoo.
“When new animals come to the zoo they are quarantined and tested for diseases. We keep them separated for a while until everything checks out, then we put them in their cages — three or five per cage — and we feed them on a specialized diet. They are mostly vegetarians. They love greens, so they eat very healthy; they eat stuff like callaloo, cabbage, and kale,” says Mr Rieback.
The objective is to get them to a healthy one kilogram so they can return to their natural homes. This can take between four to seven years, depending on the animal’s personality.
There are 400 iguanas at the zoo, and their support team is delighted that they were able to release 69 of them last year.
“This is the best health evaluation we have had,” Mr Rieback says. “This is record breaking. Never in history have we released as many.”
The zoo plans to continue to increase the numbers of iguanas it releases into the Hellshire Hills, because not all have survived due to predatory mongoose, feral cats and dogs, and humans. The long term goal is to prepare nearby islands as a pristine natural habitat where the iguanas can live safely and eventually be removed from the IUCN Red List.
Mr Reiback says despite their amazing comeback and their gentle intelligent personalities, the iguanas still have a PR problem. “Jamaicans don’t understand what they have. They see it as just another lizard.”
He hopes that Jamaicans will stop harming them and realize that the iguanas’ represent much more than “just another lizard”.
“This is possibly one of the most important conservation programmes on the planet. You are looking at an animal that was extinct. We are looking at a re-discovery, at a second chance,” he says.
This story was originally published by UNDP.