Return to Cayman – Encounters with the blue iguana

One of the elements of the conference were that the local Cayman Island guys wanted to show off their conservation successes, of which Cayman had many.  Although many of the Caribbean Islands had iguanas, Cayman had an endemic one that was so beautiful called the Blue Iguana.  Fred Burton and his team had worked hard to bring this animal back from near extinction.  At the back of the botanic gardens, which itself was a beautiful place, was a set of compounds from which a breeding programme had been established.  It is always difficult establishing how many animals there are.  Many are shy creatures and hide away in the dense bush, and you may not see individuals that you can recognise clearly unless you have some way of tagging them.  You might see other evidence though; burrows, footprints, the most obvious might be the scat, or the faeces of the animals.  Problem then comes is how you work out how many animals are represented by this kind of evidence.

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Despite these challenges, the current population of iguanas is estimated around 750, including both the captive population and that in the wild.  Now this does not seem like a huge number, but considering there were only a dozen at the turn of the century, and Cayman’s habitat is constantly under threat from development for its 60,000 human inhabitants, it is not a bad track record.

When you see a blue iguana, you can appreciate how wonderful it is to have saved it.  I like iguanas anyway   – they have the most striking skin, armoury and colour patternation.  I remember when I lived in the Virgin Islands, I used to grab brunch in a bar in Red Hook Bay, St Thomas – usually as I was waiting for a ferry back to Tortola.  It was called Molly Malones and the deck out the back was shaded by a grove of mangrove trees .  You could look up in any of these and find an iguana lolling around on the branches.  They were on the roads everywhere in the USVI – some got mashed up but others would aggressively lurch their heads as you as they went by – you had to fear for your tyres.

In Cayman, add that stubborn attitude and  the curious exterior with a sheen of blueness across it, and you have the most beautiful creature to watch.  As well as the ones in the pen, there were many roaming free in the Botanic Gardens. We had arrived to attend the conference’s opening ceremony and as it was still before noon, several were out on the grass warming themselves up for the day.  One came wandering in to the marquee that was laid out for the meeting – possibly to decide what the smell of buffet he had detected had to offer.

The presence of nearly a hundred people in the tent did nothing to discourage him.  He stomped determinedly across the grass, paused to re-orientate himself as to the source of the smells, and moved steadfastly forward.  It gave us all a chance to see the remarkable pattern of scales, over his wattles, down his forelegs, and the deeply veined cloak with the small comb like ridge of spikes down his spine that he wore.

As far as you can go -The Millennium Forest

The area now known as the “Coastal Zone” was until recently referred to as the Crown Wastelands.  The environment close to the coast was the most fragile – salt laden winds precluded fast growing plants and there were hardly any trees in this area, just a few stunted examples cowering in any nook in the hillsides.  A series of delicate ecosystems found their niches in different places, and  I shall mention a few later.

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The Crown Wastelands

When people came to St Helena, though, they started to exploit the resources and did not see the consequences.  They wiped out the endemic plantations in the uplands but at least the new vegetation was healthy and productive.  But letting goats loose on the lowlands meant that they devastated so much of this area.  Rebecca had negotiated hard to establish a forest on some of this land where historically the gumwoods might have grown, but the goats had cleared all the other understory, causing devastating soil erosion in the east of the island in particular and the gumwoods must have declined as a result.

So thousands of seedlings carefully propagated over in the Scotland district had been brought over to the site in the east and planted out as naturally as possible.  It was called the Millennium Forest and when I visited there was an area close to the car park that was already starting to mature.  The trees were only shoulder height at best but they were healthy looking trees.  Beyond this area there were smaller plants and there was a continuous programme to extend the trees further into the wastelands.

It was an ambitious plan and had caused some criticism that it was doomed to failure.  But although embryonic, the evidence was there that a sustainable forest was being grown.  In amongst the more mature trees that had been in place for ten years, little saplings were struggling to establish… self seeded.