It has been called one of the world’s great conservation success stories: the Blue Iguana Recovery Project. Years of captive breeding brought the iconic native species back from the brink of extinction, and now more than 1,000 blues are believed to be living in the wild.
For operations manager Nick Ebanks, working with the Blue Iguana Recovery Project is more than a job, it’s a labour of love.
“You just end up loving it when you have a passion for it,” said Mr. Ebanks.
This year, the programme celebrated a major milestone, releasing its 1,000th blue iguana into the wild. This, just 17 years after the population bottomed out at around 25 individuals.
Mr. Ebanks told Cayman 27 captive breeding is set to continue in 2019, but with an added emphasis on preserving genetic diversity.
“We are going to be focusing on genetically important animals, so we’re not going to be focusing on numbers, we are going to be focusing on who is who. We want the important ones out in the wild,” said Mr. Ebanks.
He said 2018 was a tough year for the captive breeding programme. A clutch of seven blue iguana hatchlings featured in a Cayman 27 news report in September only survived for a matter of weeks.
“Every single one that we incubated did die unfortunately, but usually for example 2016, it was seven deaths out of 110 babies, but because we only bred seven and all of them died, we had a 100% wipe,” said Mr. Ebanks.
He said when a geneticist determines the 2019 breeding roster, the pair responsible for 2018’s failed clutch will likely be re-paired or never partnered again.
“For the first 10 to 15 years [of the captive breeding programme], humans were very much in charge of the family tree, but now we are trying to leave it up to the wild,” said Mr. Ebanks. “Nature always does a better job than humans at making stronger, more virile animals.”
Mr. Ebanks told Cayman 27 while Mother Nature knows best, only human hands can ensure these endangered blue dragons’ long-term survival.
“They are always going to have to be protected at the very least by the law, and the National Trust are going to do their best to have a helping hand in making sure that there’s an active and strong population for as long as we need to,” said Mr. Ebanks.
Guided tours of the Blue Iguana Recovery Project facility at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Park are available six days a week.
Lucky visitors on the park’s woodland trail may even catch a glimpse of a Blue Iguana in the wild.