Today we celebrate the first International Blue Iguana Day, considered the rarest iguana on the planet, and not because of its stinking color but because in 2001, there were fewer than 25 specimens left in Grand Cayman, its home island. Today we celebrate its spectacular recovery as a milestone of conservation optimism while looking cautiously at its protection. At the end of the day, Grand Cayman has a reputation for losing its most famous reptiles.
When Christopher Columbus set foot on the island in 1503, he decided to name it Turtle Island because of the large number of turtles that lived in its waters. These turtles offered a source of food for the pirates of the Caribbean for the following decades. Even the infamous pirate Blackbeard frequented the island to stock up. The high resistance of the turtles turned them into fresh food easy to keep alive in the ship's hold when they traveled. The turtles soon disappeared from the island, and the name became obsolete. They had to find a new name and it was decided to opt for the following most common animals: the crocodiles. Thus, the island was baptized with the current name in honor of these massive reptiles. Interestingly, crocodiles became extinct on the island shortly after. Some thought the name was a curse for the species, so the name wasn't changed anymore, just in case.
Grand Cayman has a reputation for losing its most famous reptiles
With an area of200 Km2, Grand Cayman is a small island; however, its size does not prevent it from being a finance giant. Over 100,000 companies and 600 banks are registered here, mostly due to the tax benefits offered; this means there are 500 companies per square Km on the island! But, Grand Cayman is not only a paradise for companies looking for low taxes but also a tourist paradise. More than two million tourists visit this place looking for world-class diving in its crystal-clear waters and relaxing on its paradise beaches.
Of course, the island's rapid economic and tourist development had a massive impact on many species, including the blue iguanas, that required an unprecedented rescue intervention to save them from extinction. "We started with less than 25 individuals in 2001when the project officially began, to releasing the 1,000th specimen in 2018," says Luke Harding, Operations Manager of the Blue Iguana Conservation, the organization responsible for the preservation of this species in Grand Cayman.
Although the number of iguanas released has been extraordinary, there is strong evidence to show a lack of natural recruitment within the wild population. This is partly because the same threats that drove the iguana population to functional extinction back in 2001 are still present today. Yet, in 2021, these pressures have increased alongside newly evolving threats such as growing populations of invasive predators and a new emerging disease. Luke claims that the species will be conservation-dependent for the foreseeable future, so their support remains crucial to maintain.
the same threats that drove the iguana population to functional extinction back in 2001 are still present today
A recent study confirmed an exponential increase in sea turtle nests in the Cayman Islands since 2008. These turtles, along with the stingrays, are an excellent attraction for international nature-seeking tourists.
This tourism also offers positive opportunities for the conservation of iguanas. The Blue Iguana Conservation has a captive breeding and conservation facility that is open to tourists and residents alike, where they can visit, view the iguanas, learn about the conservation efforts and hear the remarkable history of the project. It is also the only way for most people to see a blue iguana as wild sightings are still extremely rare.
Even though reptiles do not often rank highly within public perception of beautiful taxa, the striking color of these iguanas helps to turn the heads of even the most fearful reptile critic. Moreover, Luke tells me that the most interesting thing about these animals is their charismatic personality. A wide variety of behaviors make them pleasant for anyone to observe. "One of the project's objectives over the next five years is to further reinforce the blue iguana as a flagship species on Grand Cayman," Luke concludes. In any case, let's hope that the island is never named "Blue Iguana Island" for the sake of its conservation.