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Iguanas among protected animals at the Hope Zoo

Published:Monday | December 15, 2014 | 12:00 AMKeisha Hill
FILE: Kenneth Benjamin
FILE: This little girl is fascinated by with the iguana.

Hope Zoo: A haven for endangered species

The Hope Zoo is home to the Jamaican iguana and other threatened species that are indigenous to the island. The endangered species are reared in captivity and then repatriated to its natural habitat once they are big enough to fend off predators.

The Jamaican iguana, found only in the Hellshire Hills, is one of the two lizards in the world closest to extinction. It was classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as critically endangered and was ranked among world's 100 most endangered species in 2012.

Executive chairman of the Hope Zoo Preservation Foundation Limited, Kenneth Benjamin, said the iguanas are released into the wild when they are about four years old, 14 to 15 inches in length and weigh about one kilogramme.

"We are able to monitor them when they are released. They are fitted with monitoring devices so we are able to track their progress. We aim to release 50 to 60 of them each year. So far, those that we have released into the wild are having young ones, so the population of the animals is definitely increasing," Benjamin said.

Hunted by mongoose

The Jamaican iguana declined dramatically during the second half of the 19th century, probably due to the introduction of the Indian mongoose in 1872, changing land use patterns, and human population growth. Mongooses are very common throughout the Hellshire Hills and field observations indicate they prey on both young iguanas and iguana eggs. Hence, the iguana was believed extinct after the population disappeared in the 1940s and was not discovered again until 1990.

The Jamaican boa is also other endangered species on the island that has found its home at Hope Zoo. Reports, according to the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), suggest that there is a wide distribution of boas across Jamaica. They have been seen in the Blue Mountains, Clarendon, the Cockpit Country, Hellshire Hills (also home to the Jamaican iguana), Portland Ridge, Southern St Thomas and St Elizabeth. They dwell not only on the ground, but also in trees, inside moist limestone forests, rock crevices, caves and trees.

According to Benjamin, the zoo have been successfully breeding the Jamaican boa. "They are killed as undesirable pests, and at some point they will become extinct if efforts are not made to procreate them," he said.

There are a variety of threats to the Jamaican boa. These threats include the clearing of forests for agriculture, the burning of cane fields, predation by other animals such as dogs, feral cats and mongooses, which consume their young and outright killing by people out of fear and the mistaken belief that they are poisonous.

Against this background, the species is protected not only under the local Wild Life and Protection Act, but it is also listed under Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It is also protected under the Forest Act of 1996.

Boas have always been considered rare, by virtue of their secretive and largely nocturnal habits. The status of the species is unknown, with most of the available information on the occurrence of this species limited to encounters with outlying village communities and/or cultivation areas.

Efforts are also being made to preserve the Jamaican Yellow-billed parrots. They are also on the verge of extinction and are, therefore, protected. Anyone found in possession of a Jamaican parrot or any parts of it can face a maximum fine of $100,000 or 12 months in prison under the Wild Life Protection Act, and can be fined up to $2,000,000 and/or two years in prison if caught trading in or exporting these birds without a permit under the Endangered Species Act.