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Scientists trying to prevent Jamaica from experiencing similar crisis to Grand Cayman

BY VERNON DAVIDSON From Jamaica Observer

Green iguana worry

Local scientists are growing concerned that Jamaica could experience damage to its ecosystem from the invasive green iguana after reports of sightings and the capture of one of the large lizards in Clarendon last year and one in St Andrew four years ago.

The concern has its foundation in the harmful impact that the animals have been having on Grand Cayman, which some officials have described as a crisis.

A December 2016 story in the Philadelphia Tribune reports an article written by Jed Kim in September 2016 stating that the green iguanas have not only invaded the island but have also been gobbling up the landscaped environment and the native flora.

“Since the green iguana has no natural predators in this region, its numbers continue to grow and [this] is posing a threat to the island’s native habitat and could cause drastic changes to the ecosystem,” the Philadelphia Tribune article states.

The newspaper reports that the species was brought to the island in the 1980s as pets. “Somehow one or more got loose in the wild and multiplied,” making their homes in trees and buildings close to the water.

They have now become a nuisance and a threat, forcing Cayman’s Department of Environment to embark on a programme to reduce the population in a country that has declared its own blue iguana an endangered species.

The newspaper article states that in 2015, scientists believed that the green iguana population in Grand Cayman had grown to 152,000. That number, they projected, could increase to almost one million in a few years and could spread to Little Cayman and Cayman Brac.

In May this year, Cayman scientists were reported as saying that the estimated green iguana population on Grand Cayman stood at 500,000.

The problem is that the reptiles, which are herbivores, have not only been destroying landscape and eating away flora, they have also been damaging crops and destroying infrastructure.

Jamaican scientist Damion Whyte, a PhD research student at The University of the West Indies who is working with a team tasked with protecting the Jamaican iguana, said the Cayman experience is fuelling concerns in Jamaica.

According to Whyte, the rapid spread of the green iguana population in Grand Cayman has been affecting that island’s tourism industry. Golf courses in particular, he said, have felt the impact of the lizards.

“Their habit is to burrow and build their nests in sandy soil,” he explained, adding that the animals have also been found to build nests under roads. “After a while that nesting cavity collapses, causing the road to collapse.”

Whyte, who showed the Jamaica Observer a presentation he prepared on the problem, said that the concerns among the Cayman authorities grew after they found that the green iguana can reproduce with their local blue iguana.

“That’s a big threat to their conservation programme,” he said, adding that the discovery has made Jamaican scientists nervous.

“The Grand Cayman iguana is closely related to the Jamaican iguana, so if the green iguana can reproduce with their local iguana, we suspect it can reproduce with ours,” Whyte told the Sunday Observer.

“Here in Jamaica we have reports of green iguana sightings in 2013, but last year we got one in Portland Cottage,” Whyte said. “Everybody was surprised that the green iguana was here in the wild.”

He said that after the animal was captured in Portland Cottage, people in that fishing village told his team that they had seen other green iguanas there.

“Even though in that area it is possible that we could find our endemic iguana, we have been looking but have not yet seen any. “It’s not like those people there would be interested in having iguanas as pets, so we’re doing work there now to see if we can find the others,” added Whyte, who also serves with an Invasive Species Group at the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA).

He said that in 2013 a resident of Stony Hill in St Andrew reported that they had seen a “big green lizard in a tree”.

“At the time we thought it was a normal green lizard, but when we got there we saw that it was an iguana,” he told the Sunday Observer.

“We found one in Manning’s Hill on the road, which was hit by a car. That could have been a pet that got away,” he explained, pointing out that there are Jamaicans, mostly in uptown Kingston neighbourhoods, who have green iguanas as pets.

According to Whyte, the pet trade is one of the avenues by which green iguanas got into Jamaica. The other is via the fishing industry.

“We have anecdotal information as to how it got to Portland Cottage. Local fishermen were complaining that the animals were on some of the South American boats that came here.

“It’s part of the South American culture, when they’re going on fishing trips, they have like 200 iguanas in their boats for food, and they like the ones with the eggs,” Whyte said, pointing to his presentation which shows that the iguana is a source of meat referred to as “gallina de palo” or “bamboo chicken” or “chicken of the trees” in Central and South America.

The presentation also shows that in St Vincent it is referred to as “guana”, while in Trinidad and Tobago it is called “wild meat”.

In the Cayman Islands, authorities have resorted to culling in an effort to keep the green iguana population from growing.

In June this year, a week-long culling was held after 18 registered cullers were chosen.

A report in the Cayman Compass newspaper said that the cull followed “a much smaller initial effort to eradicate some of the green iguanas by three experienced hunters using licensed air rifles and small teams”.

According to the Compass, that cull, which ran for two weeks, resulted in more than 4,000 iguanas with a combined weight of about two tons being turned in. “The carcasses are taken to the George Town Landfill,” the Compass reported.

In addition to culling, the Government is also promoting the green iguanas as food.

According to the Philadelphia Tribune report, local chefs are being encouraged to create new dishes with the green iguana meat.

While that would likely not happen in today’s Jamaica, Whyte said there was a time in the distant past when iguana meat was consumed here.

“We have old pictures of people downtown Kingston selling iguana meat. It was cheap meat,” Whyte said.

However, what he and his team are asking is that sightings be reported to the relevant authorities.

“If people see them, we ask that they take a picture, if they can, send it to NEPA or report it by e-mail to [email protected] or call me at 435-9475 and we will come and remove them,” Whyte appealed. “We need people to tell us where they are seeing them because we don’t have enough manpower to go around.”

He also cautioned the public against killing the reptiles as they may inadvertently kill Jamaican iguanas which are protected by law.

“The problem we are having is that the only records we have of the Jamaican iguana here is in the Hellshire hills. There’s a slim chance they could be somewhere else, so we don’t want people go out and kill every iguana they see,“ Whyte said.

“Our regular green lizard looks like a juvenile green iguana, so you can see the problem we will have if people start going out to hunt and kill the green iguana.”

However, he emphasised that the effort to find green iguanas was very important “because if it gets to the point where we are seeing them everywhere, no matter what we do, we can’t control them”.

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