Jamaican rock iguana. Photo by Peter Harlow
The following blog post was written by Dr. Stesha Pasachnik, a Conservation Biologist at the Fort Worth Zoo who helps lead work supported by the International Iguana Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Critically Endangered Animals Conservation Fund.
Jamaica is considered a hotspot within a hotspot of biodiversity, as it has the greatest number of endemic birds and plants of any Caribbean island, and numerous unique reptiles, amphibians, insects and bats. Endemic means the species is found only in one region, in this case, only in Jamaica.
The Jamaican rock iguana, Cyclura collei, is among those endemic species. Although these iguanas once thrived along much of the island’s southern dry forest habitat, they were considered extinct by the 1940s, due to habitat conversion and the introduction of the Indian mongoose, known to have caused the extinction of at least two other lizards on Jamaica.
Indian mongoose. Photo by Carla Kishinami/Creative Commons License
But maybe they weren’t extinct after all.
The 1970s brought hope when JD Woodley was conducting an assessment in the Hellshire Hills and a pig hunter showed him a dead iguana. Woodley shared this information but the conservation community could not yet comprehend its importance and little action was taken. It was not until two decades later, when the idea of biodiversity conservation was revolutionizing the field of ecology, that a second discovery would change the course for this species.
Once again a pig hunter, Edwin Duffus, encountered an iguana in the Hellshire Hills, when his dog returned with it. Duffus brought it to the Hope Zoo in Kingston and they contacted local herpetologist, Peter Vogel. This time the community was ready and soon mobilized to save the species. The Jamaica Iguana Research and Conservation Group (now the Jamaican Iguana Recovery Group [JIRG]) was created as a collaborative effort, between many local and international organizations, to establish a stable population of iguanas within Hellshire Hills and investigate reintroduction sites. Had it not been for the quick response from many groups and champion on-the-ground leaders (Peter Vogel, Byron Wilson and Rick van Veen – University of the West Indies [UWI]), this species would likely be extinct.
For nearly 30 years, the JIRG worked to build a stable population in the Hellshire Hills through intensive surveys, invasive-species control, and a head-start and release program at the Hope Zoo. This perseverance resulted in increasing the number of nesting females seven-fold and releasing more than 300 hatchlings into Hellshire Hills. In 2013, after years of negotiations, the National Environmental Planning Agency (NEPA), formally took on oversight of the project, making it one of their only species-focused conservation projects. While a current population estimate is not available, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in a 2010 assessment provided an estimate of 100-200 mature individuals. The Jamaican rock iguana is an IUCN red-listed critically endangered species.
Threatening that success, in 2013 the Jamaican government backed a development plan for a port facility that would destroy the current habitat of the iguana in Hellshire Hills and prime reintroduction sites on the Goat Islands.
In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined the JIRG’s international campaign to stop this development by backing the International Iguana Foundation (IIF), a longstanding JIRG partner organization, in an effort to explore potential reintroduction sites.
Dr. Pasachnik and ranger Kenroy Williams release a Jamaican rock iguana after collecting data on its size and shape. Photo by Peter Harlow
In July 2016, I was hired as a Conservation Biologist by the Fort Worth Zoo, which provides the office for the IIF, to oversee the aforementioned Service supported work. I have been involved in iguana research and conservation for more than 15 years, and have worked throughout Central America and the Caribbean. The opportunity to work on this iconic project was an honor. I traveled to Jamaica September through October 2016, coinciding with the hatching season of the iguanas. The goals of the trip were to meet the relevant stakeholders, observe the hatching period management, and begin to assess a potential reintroduction site. Coincidently, the JIRG had recently been contacted by Noel Levy, a founding member of the Jackson Bay Gun Club. This was a connection that may just change the course of history for these iguanas once again.
Noel’s gun club manages half of the Portland Ridge peninsula - a dry forest, similar to Hellshire Hills, and long thought of as a potential site to establish a secondary population of Jamaican Iguanas. Noel had heard there was interest in introducing iguanas to Portland Ridge and he wanted to make it happen!
Portland Ridge is a potential reintroduction site for Jamaican rock iguanas. Photo by Stesha Pasachnik
Noel talked of preserving nature for future generations, turning the gun club into a reserve and using iguanas as the flagship for the project. In collaboration with Damion Whyte (UWI PhD student), Noel and I embarked on a plan to assess the area, looking for nesting and retreat sites, and preferred dietary plants for the iguanas. This site would increase the range of the iguanas greatly, expanding it into an independent area
The good news kept coming. In October, the prime minister of Jamaica announced that the port development would not be approved. Jamaica had taken a stand for the environment. Stopping this development was a hard-fought battle; however, we must stay vigilant as development pressure is a constant concern in Jamaica. Many organizations are now exploring how to turn the area into a reserve for iguanas and other endemic wildlife.
The future remains uncertain as it often is in conservation, but one thing that is clear is our need for a continued united front. The most impressive observation I made during this first trip was the sheer number of organizations involved in the protection of these iguanas and their habitat. We will continue to work in unity to ensure a hopeful future for all the species that coexist within Jamaica.
Read more recent articles about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s work in the Caribbean: