Blog by Sarah Havery, RSPB International Species Recovery Officer
Iguana Island: One of the last remaining strongholds of the Turks and Caicos rock iguana. Only accessible by boat, to get here you meander across a turquoise blue channel with the occasional green turtle and nurse shark swimming by, before stepping off onto a shore that time forgot and where reptiles rule. White sand beaches, wave-worn coralline coast, silver-top palms swaying in the wind, and mosquito-filled mangrove swamps with floating upside-down jellyfish… welcome to the land of the mini-dinosaurs.
Iguana Island is the Jurassic-Park of the Turks and Caicos Islands, a UK Overseas Territory situated south of the Bahamas in the Caribbean. Managed by the Turks and Caicos National Trust, it is the most accessible place for people to view the unique rock iguanas in their natural habitat in the world, and therefore has become a significant ecotourism destination.
The Turks and Caicos rock iguana Cyclura carinata is the smallest of the 14 Cyclura iguana species which have radiated across the Caribbean region, uniquely evolving to the islands they belong to. They are mostly herbivorous, eating vegetation, fruit and flowers, and acts as a seed disperser for the native vegetation.
The rock iguana, once abundant throughout these beautiful islands and once considered a delicacy, is now an animal rarely seen by Turks and Caicos Islanders. Now they can only be found on small, remote and isolated islands. People no longer eat the iguanas, however habitat loss through development and the spread of invasive species - rodents, feral cats and dogs that have been introduced by people to these islands; has resulted in the local extinction of iguanas from many islands and continues to cause declines. Feral cats and dogs are not like your pets at home, they are wild animals and are a serious problem across the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Not only are the iconic Iguana Islands threated by invasion of invasive species and but several islands are being developed for tourism – meaning the last of the iguana strongholds are under threat.
Through a partnership between Turks & Caicos National Trust, the Department for Environment and Coastal Resources, Department of Agriculture, Environmental Health Department, Ambergris Cay Facilities Ltd, RSPB, San Diego Zoo and Wildlife Management International Ltd with funding from the Darwin Initiative; efforts are underway to establish effective controls and biosecurity on the iconic Iguana Island’s of the Turks & Caicos - to provide safe havens for the amazing rock iguana for the future.
The Environmental Health Department (EHD) are the most recent addition to the partnership are were keen to do what they could to improve conditions around the docks – meeting their own objective to improve port health as well as to reduce the spread of invasive species therefore providing additional protection for the iguanas and other wildlife on the outer islands. The partnership have supported EHD to establish Integrated Pest Management at one of the busiest docks in Turks & Caicos in July 2019 – an approach which aims to reduce rodent numbers through habitat management (e.g. removing food and water sources and cover, as well as excluding rodents from buildings), then monitoring their presence through non-toxic means and only using rodenticide when and where absolutely necessary. There are many advantages to this approach – it leads to a safer and tidier working environment and, by minimising rodenticide use, reduces risks to non-target species as well as costs.
One of the most important activities to make this work a success is to improve the understanding of the importance of the project to the country and the role everyone plays in safeguarding these unique creatures for future generations. Turks and Caicos National Trust have been leading education efforts by attending events and schools across the islands to discuss the amazing wildlife of the Turks and Caicos and the work to reduce the impact of non-native predators.
As we move about the islands cultivating an awareness of the plight and an appreciation for the rock iguana, we hope to create a pride in the incredible wildlife of Turks of Caicos and create a culture that will protect the islands’ unique wildlife for future generations to come.
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