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Saving the Blues: Zookeeper’s Mission in Grand Cayman

Last month, zookeeper Tom Wilkinson jetted off to Grand Cayman Island to assist with the Blue Iguana Conservation Programme: a National Trust-run project to reintroduce and sustainably conserve the wild population of blue iguanas to help ensure the species’ long-term survival.

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5 Quick Facts About Blue Iguanas
  1. Blue iguanas are native to the island of Grand Cayman in the Caribbean.
  2. They are the largest native species of iguana in the Caribbean, with adult males reaching lengths of up to 1.5m (5′) and weighing up to 13.6 kg (30lbs).
  3. As their name suggests, blue iguanas have a striking blue-grey colouration caused by a layer of microscopic prisms in their skin that reflects sunlight.
  4. These iguanas are herbivores – their diet consists mainly of leaves, flowers, and fruits.
  5. Blue iguanas have a lifespan of around 20-25 years in the wild, and up to 40 years in captivity.

 

A Conservation Success Story

Once numbering in the tens of thousands, the population of blue iguanas has undergone a substantial decline. By 2002, there were between 10 and 25 individuals left in the wild, leading to the species being listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. However, as a direct result of conservation action, the population is now increasing. The blue iguana was downgraded to endangered on the IUCN Red List in 2012, and by 2018 the Blue Iguana Conservation Programme had successfully reintroduced 1,000 individuals.

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Tom has been involved in this programme for four years and is responsible for conducting survey work in the remaining areas where the iguana lives: namely the Salina Reserve and the Colliers Wilderness Reserve. During his 12-day stay, Tom spent most of his time surveying the wild populations of iguanas by trekking through what he described as the ‘treacherous, unforgiving, but incredibly beautiful forests of Grand Cayman’.

Aside from monitoring wild iguanas, the team also focus on captive breeding and ‘head-starting’ for release into the wild, which helps to increase the population of these amazing creatures and gives them a higher chance of survival. Tom’s expertise comes in very handy as someone that’s experienced in caring for captive reptiles at Paignton Zoo.

A Bright but Uncertain Future

Since his return to the UK, we’ve been catching up with Tom about his findings:

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“We had great detection rates throughout the survey, which showed a positive increase and retention of the population in Salina Reserve, but the lack of sightings of young iguanas show barriers for successful wild births. The signs of cat activity in the area show the very real threats that these iguanas still face, highlighting the importance of the work that the Blue Iguana Conservation Programme carries out.”

He continued: “The future is bright but not guaranteed for blue iguanas, and we must continue the fight to keep this species in its rightful place: Grand Cayman.”  

In summary, Tom said: “Once again, I have had an incredible time sharing skills and knowledge with worldwide industry experts and contributing my skills and expertise as part of the field team. This collaboration with the Blue Iguana Conservation Programme clearly demonstrates the impact that zoos such as Paignton and their staff can have on the frontline of conservation efforts and I am extremely proud to have been involved over the last four years. I hope that it can inspire other keepers in the industry to push to use their skills and knowledge to make a difference.”

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The Blue Iguana Conservation Programme is a fantastic example of the importance of captive breeding combined with field work and community engagement to secure the future of threatened species. At Wild Planet Trust, we’re proud to have team members like Tom, who support projects that align with our mission of helping halt species decline.

If you would like to help support the Blue Iguana Conservation Programme, there are a few things you can do:

1. Follow their social media accounts:

2. Adopt an iguana

3. Make a donation

 

Every little bit helps them make a huge difference in protecting these incredible animals.

Photos courtesy of Blue Iguana Conservation