When you think about the RSPB’s work to save species, perhaps you think about birds like bitterns, puffins or swifts. But do you ever think about iguanas in the UK Overseas Territories? Perhaps not. Today is iguana awareness day and what better time to find out about how we’re working with partners to protect iguanas. Joe Jeffcoate, Species Recovery Project Officer and some of our colleagues based in the Caribbean UK Overseas Territories take up the story.

Turks & Caicos Rock Iguana © Dr Giuliano Colosimo

Iguanas need our help
A mostly herbivorous reptile group found in tropical regions such as Central/South America and the Caribbean, iguanas are among the world’s most threatened groups of animals. The RSPB is working with partners to deliver on the ground conservation actions for two rock iguana species in UK Overseas territories in the Caribbean: the Turks & Caicos rock iguana Cyclura carinata and the Cayman Islands Sister Islands rock iguana Cyclura nubila caymanensis.

Turks & Caicos rock iguanas are relatively small for an iguana, yet they’re still the largest native land animal on the Turks & Caicos Islands. The Sister Islands rock iguana, so called as it’s only found on the smaller ‘Sister Islands’ of Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, is a large iguana capable of growing to more than 9 kg.

Turks & Caicos Rock Iguana © Joe Wasilewski

Turks & Caicos rock iguanas now only occupy less than 10% of their historic range, largely due to the impact of invasive mammalian predators. The Sister Islands rock iguana is also struggling. On Cayman Brac, the larger of the two Cayman Sister Islands, the population of rock iguanas is now thought to be fewer than 200 mature adults. In fact, there are now so few rock iguanas left on Cayman Brac that the traditional population monitoring methods used by our partners are no longer effective.

Female Sister Islands Rock Iguana © Marique Cloete

These iguanas are priority species for the RSPB and form part of our globally threatened species programme to support the recovery of a whole suite of species, avian and non-avian, where RSPB can have the most impact through working with local partners in the UK Overseas Territories and around the world.

“With more than one in five of the world’s reptiles being threatened with extinction, the Caribbean rock iguanas are flagships for conservation of this often-overlooked group of species. Not only are iguanas iconic and play an important ecological role, but they also play a key role in the tourism economies of these islands.” Sarah Havery, Senior Species Recovery Officer

Facing up to the threats
Threats to these two rare rock iguana species are well understood. Invasive non-native species such as feral cats kill and eat the iguanas, and invasive green iguanas Iguana iguana compete for the rock iguanas’ resources, spread disease, and can hybridize with them. These threats from invasive species are exacerbated by the loss of habitat caused by unsustainable development, often driven in support of the tourism industry.  

What are we doing to help?
The RSPB has been supporting partners in the Caribbean for over 15 years as part of our commitment to protect and save nature in the UK overseas territories. Thanks to support from Darwin Plus we’re working in close collaboration with partners in the Turks & Caicos Islands, and the Cayman Islands to secure a future for the islands’ precious rock iguanas. Our projects in both island nations aim to reduce the spread of invasive species between islands through biosecurity, implement invasive species control, as well as engage local communities and stakeholders to raise awareness of the threats facing these and other native species.

Department of Environment Volunteers on Cayman Brac regularly head out looking for invasive green iguanas © Marique Cloete

Stopping the spread of invasive non-native species
In the Cayman Islands, most non-native species appear to be introduced accidentally. Animals may arrive in shipping containers or as stowaways in passenger transport. But some species are still (illegally) brought to the islands as domestic pets (eg. green iguanas) and though we expect this to be rarer, the impact can be just as devastating.

An invasive green iguana found in a shipping container arriving to the Cayman Islands © Vaughn Bodden

That’s where colleagues like Tanja Laaser come in. Tanja joined the RSPB in 2021 after spending many years working with Sister Islands rock iguanas alongside the community on Little Cayman. Tanja is now seconded into the Cayman Islands Government Department of Environment as the Biosecurity Officer - working to improve inter-island biosecurity.

“In a world that is so very well connected by air and ship, prevention is the best way to keep unique ecosystems safe. Biosecurity is everyone’s job; we need the help from our communities to tell us what they see to be able to identify pathways and to do something about it.” Tanja Laaser, Biosecurity Officer (Cayman Islands) 

Tanja discussing risk of plant imports with dock workers and Department of Environment staff © Sarah Havery

Community approaches
Both Sister Islands are inhabited by people and the support of the communities is crucial to the protection of the native flora and fauna. Marique Cloete is the project’s Community Engagement Officer. Marique, a resident on Cayman Brac, has recently been out on both islands to speak with islanders and to compile their opinions and values in relation to everything from invasive species management, domestic pet regulations and to find out how much the communities really know about their native and unique wildlife.

“It has been important to our project to be transparent about what we are doing even when we need to discuss sensitive issues like invasive non-native species control. This is helping to build trust and credibility between the community on the Sister Islands and the project team. Island restoration projects (on inhabited islands) can only truly achieve sustained success if founded on a basis of strong community support and trust.” Marique Cloete, Community Engagement Officer (Cayman Islands)

Marique discussing the project on Cayman Brac © Marique Cloete

Supporting our partners
Partnerships with local organisations are crucial and is central to the RSPB’s work overseas. There are no BirdLife partners within the Caribbean Overseas Territories, so we partner with local Non-Government Organisations and local Governments, including the Cayman Islands Government Department of Environment and the Turks & Caicos National Trust - an organisation tasked with protecting the natural and cultural heritage of the islands.

By working together, we’re making a real difference. In 2020, the Turks & Caicos rock iguana saw an improvement in its conservation status when the species was downlisted from Critically Endangered to Endangered.

Della Higgs of the Turks & Caicos National Trust on Half Moon Bay with Turks & Caicos rock iguana © Sarah Havery

Simon Busuttil, Turks & Caicos Operations Manager, has been working in close collaboration with the Turks & Caicos National Trust since 2021.

“With over a million members, over 2000 specialist staff and 120 years of experience behind it, the RSPB can offer a huge amount of support to newer, smaller organisations.  The UK's Overseas Territories support amazing nature and wildlife resources and sharing our experience, knowledge and resources with local partners is the best way to ensure development is sustainable and species and habitats are protected. The passion and commitment to saving nature is shared. In Turks & Caicos, everything I do is about learning from and supporting the National Trust so the projects and solutions we come up with make the most of the experience of both the islanders' and the RSPB's strengths. Islands are fragile. The next recession or hurricane could set back progress significantly, so we are building for the long term.” Simon Busuttil, Turks & Caicos Operations Manager (Turks & Caicos Islands)

Simon delivering training with local tour operators in Turks & Caicos © Enock Simmons 

We’ve also been supporting our partner, National Trust of the Cayman Islands to tackle the issue of habitat loss - purchasing land to protect important habitat from being developed and providing a home for Endangered blue iguanas.

Keeping on top of progress…
It’s crucial to understand how the actions we take are having an impact. We are working with partners to monitor the native iguana populations, track the arrival of non-native species and monitor invasive species control efforts. On the Turks & Caicos Islands, Biosecurity Officer, Nichoy Bent spends much of his time out on the islands where the iguanas remain.

Nichoy undertaking rodent control on priority sites for the Turks & Caicos rock iguana © Simon Busuttil

“Having watched numbers and behaviour of the Turks & Caicos Rock Iguana fluctuate, it is fulfilling to be such a big part of the project aimed towards stabilizing and improving the situation of the species. With the control measures currently in place and the work being done, I am proud of their improved protection. Despite their small size, these native reptiles are a big part of what Turks & Caicos Islands is and should be.” Nichoy Bent, Biosecurity Officer (Turks & Caicos Islands)

Sister Islands Rock Iguana © Marique Cloete

If you’d like to keep informed about our projects to support iguanas in the Caribbean, you can find more information on the Cayman project Facebook page and the Turks & Caicos National Trust Facebook page.

Continue reading

Want our blogs emailed to you automatically? Click the cog in the top right of this page and select 'turn blog notifications on' (if you have an RSPB blog account) or 'subscribe by email'.