Saving a Blue Beauty: Two Zoo staff travel to Grand Cayman Island to help the blue iguana

Grand Cayman Island is the only place in the world where you’ll find the blue iguana in the wild. Craig Pelke, when he was on the staff of the Milwaukee County Zoo, and Stacy Whitaker, a small mammals zookeeper, traveled to the island to participate in the Blue Iguana Recovery Project.

Rock iguana research is just one of the iguana conservation programs that the Zoological Society of Milwaukee (ZSM) supports. The ZSM has been a long-time supporter of Caribbean rock iguanas. In 1995 the ZSM provided $14,000 to fund a head-start facility critical for the survival of the iguana species on Grand Cayman Island. The Milwaukee County Zoo has also been a longtime supporter of rock iguana conservation in the genus Cyclura. Since 2003, this support has increased with the addition of fieldwork studies of the Grand Cayman blue iguana and the Jamaican rock iguana. In 2000 the Milwaukee County Zoo received an International Conservation Award for contributions to iguana conservation.

Blue iguanas are one of the most endangered lizard species in the world. A 2003 census indicated that there might have been as few as 12 blue iguanas in the wild. Because of the efforts of several zoos, the population is now estimated to number more than 200. Once thought to be extinct in the wild, the Jamaican iguana is still very much in peril. In 2006 the number of known breeding females increased by 10%, from 17 to 19 females. 

Our Zoo has participated in the fieldwork for this collaborative effort, resulting in successful releases of captive-hatched, head-started iguanas back into the wilds of Grand Cayman and Jamaica.  Also, through observations and radio-tracking, data has been collected for the first time on the habits of these rare species from both head-started released iguanas and free-ranging wild individuals. More fieldwork is scheduled, and our Zoo will be sending additional staff to assist. They spend most of their time radio-tracking and nest monitoring these iguanas in some of the most inhospitable places on the Earth. (It is the nature of the topography that has kept these animals from extinction.) 

Most of the ZSM’s funding for this program has paid for the travel expenses and lodging for zookeepers who assist the recovery programs. Funds also were used to purchase much-needed materials and equipment for the project, such as GPS units and quality hand tools.

Update in April 2009: “A landmark decision by the Cayman Islands government has protected a large area of blue iguana habitat in the east interior of Grand Cayman,” reports the Blue Iguana Recovery Program Web site. “The timing is fortunate. After five years of large-scale blue iguana releases into the Salina Reserve, the restored population there is approaching the carrying capacity of the 85 acres of good blue iguana habitat that is available. Now the newly protected area offers almost 200 acres more space. At last we have a real opportunity to meet our ultimate target, to restore at least 1,000 blue iguanas to the wild…. We’re also poised to receive funding from the European Union, which will help us to manage the new protected area for the blue iguanas….” For more information, go to www.blueiguana.org/breakthrough.

Milwaukee County Zoo Project manager: Craig Berg, aquarium and reptile curator.

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Animal(s) being conserved/studied: Blue igauna
Alive issue: Fall 2006

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