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Earth Today | Jamaican iguanas get second chance at survival

Published:Thursday | June 13, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Jodiann Blisseth, senior zookeeper of the iguana reserve, is all smiles as she shares lens time with one of the lizards.
A juvenile iguana undergoes an examination.
Milton Rieback, former general curator with the Hope Zoo, seen here with one of the iguanas.

THE HOPE Zoo, Jamaica’s oldest and largest operating zoo, is doing its part to preserve the island’s biological diversity.

Chief among its projects is rescuing the Jamaican iguana from extinction, through research and development.

Since the iguanas reappearance in Jamaican ecology in 1990 — after being declared extinct in 1948 — the zoo has played an integral role in rehabilitating and releasing 465 of their number back into the wild, with another 350 reptiles to be released this year.

One of 27 reptile species endemic to the island, the Jamaican iguana thrives in dry forest habitats, such as the Hellshire Hills in St Catherine and helps to maintain the forest cover that sustains the water aquifers on the south coast.

“The Hope Zoo is a rescue centre for iguana hatchlings until they are ready for re-release, and we take great care that they are healthy,” said Valerie Juggan-Brown, director of the Hope Zoo Preservation Foundation, adding that in 2018 they were a part of the release of some 69 iguanas in the wild.

A recent report of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)-implemented Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme has lauded the zoo for its efforts.

GEF SGP national coordinator, Hyacinth Douglas, said its programme focused on a critical gap in the Iguana Head Start programme, boosting the diagnostic and medical care capabilities of the zoo to ensure healthier, stronger and more resilient adults capable of surviving its dangers.

“Our grant provided the enclosures, as well as the diagnostic centre, which is like a hospital or medical centre for the animals. It was imported as a prefabricated kit and installed at the Hope Zoo,” Douglas said.

The zoo also hosts a UNDP/GEF SGP-supported building, where biannual health screening of the iguanas – including weighing, blood testing, measuring, and other physical examinations – are done.

Milton Rieback, former general curator for the zoo, said in the report that the checks are critical to the health of the iguana population and to assessing their readiness to survive predators and other dangers in the wild.

They take stock of the length, weight (1 kg and above) and showcasing of healthy nose, mouth, eyes, and teeth that are indicators of the iguana’s readiness to return to the wild.

“When new animals come to the zoo, they are quarantined and tested for diseases. We keep them separated for a while until everything checks out, then we put them in their cages — three or five per cage — and we feed them on a specialised diet. They eat very healthy ... stuff like callaloo, cabbage, kale, tuna (a type of cactus),” Riebeck noted.

The project has proven fruitful, with last year seeing – together with the release of almost twice the usual number each year – the best health evaluation for the animals and an increase in average weight gain of 50 to 100 kilograms per month.

The team at the zoo, which currently holds 250 to 270 hatchling-to-adult iguanas, is calling on Jamaicans to stop harming the lizards and support their efforts, understanding the value of iguanas to south coast water supplies. What is more, the story of the iguanas’ restoration is something of a Cinderella story.

“You are looking at an animal that was (once thought to be) extinct. We are looking at a rediscovery, at a second chance,” said Riebeck.