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Americas
13 Sep 2016

Digging deep to save Rock Iguana

Ricord's Rock Iguana © Juan Sangiovanni/ Shutterstock
Ricord's Rock Iguana © Juan Sangiovanni/ Shutterstock
By Ali North

This robust, prehistoric looking species is fighting for survival with all populations covering an area of less than 100 km2 .

The soil is hot to touch, the temperature reaches over 37° C in the early morning hours, and someone is covered in dust, lying face down on the ground with their head in a hole in the sand. Not an uncommon sight in certain  areas  of  dry  forest  on  the  Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

What could at best be considered unusual behaviour, or even mistaken for illegal activity – egg stealing,  a  threat  facing  many  reptiles  across the globe, is a scientist – Dr Stesha Pasachnik – conducting vital research to help save a large reptile from extinction. The Ricord’s Rock Iguana Cyclura ricordii is a stocky, prehistoric looking creature that occurs in just four sub-populations on Hispaniola (an island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti).

Researchers collect data to better understand the nesting ecology Ricord’s Rock Iguana © Rick Hudson

Classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, the species is fighting for its survival, with a total range of less than 100 km2 and an uncertain  global  population  estimate  of  fewer than  4,000 individuals.  The  threats  facing  this island endemic are broad, and are exacerbated by its restricted range: illegal hunting, predation and disturbance by introduced mammals, agricultural expansion and charcoal production are all ramping up the pressure.

In the early 2000s, a Species Recovery Plan was developed by the IUCN and its implementation brought together five partner organisations. Grupo Jaragua (BirdLife in the Dominican Republic) was one, whose contributions have been instrumental in building a greater understanding of the species and raising environmental awareness among local communities. Ground surveys have revealed the existence of a handful of critical nesting sites, including a population in Haiti that was previously thought to be extinct. These sites, locally called fondos, are small areas with deep dirt/clay soils where the iguanas can dig and lay their eggs in synchrony with the rainy season.

One of the most dense concentrations of iguana nests is Fondo de La Tierra, a conservation area of 26 hectares purchased in 2010 by Grupo Jaragua with funding from the International Iguana Foundation. Since 2006, four fondos have seen a three-fold increase in Ricord’s Rock Iguana nest numbers. Research by Grupo Jaragua, INTEC University in Santo Domingo, Mississippi State University and San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research is helping to better understand population size, genetics and the ecology of this and another iguana – the Vulnerable Rhinoceros Iguana Cyclura cornuta. This explains the dust-covered scientists, excavating nests to determine hatching success and retrieve temperature loggers.

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Using camera traps and frequent field surveys, Grupo Jaragua has also been able to document and help control one of the many threats facing Ricord’s Rock Iguana: invasive alien species. These include cattle and donkeys (which degrade iguana habitat) and cats, dogs, and mongoose. (which prey upon iguana hatchlings and adults). President of Grupo Jaragua, Yolanda León, adds

“We are also documenting the severe habitat destruction caused by charcoal production and have been actively involved in advocacy activities to reduce this illegal activity. We are working with journalists, filmmakers, and social media to document and expose the situation”.

Grupo Jaragua has trained 400 teachers about the species’ ecology and the importance of iguana conservation to help foster positive attitudes towards the species, while the use of native and endemic plants in an agroforestry programme, alongside the promotion of bee-keeping as a biodiversity friendly activity, is ensuring that critical habitat for iguanas, birds and other wildlife will remain for generations to come. To ensure the future of Ricord’s Rock Iguana and the habitat it relies on, conservation organisations on the island really are having to dig deep. However, through a huge collaborative effort involving research, land protection and local engagement, there is now genuine optimism that the decline can be reversed.

This is just one of many non-avian species that are the focus of work by the BirdLife Partnership across the globe. A recent survey, supported by the Aage V Jensen Charity Foundation, revealed that 74% of BirdLife Partners are conducting work that benefits or focuses on taxa beyond birds. Over 370 projects were identified worldwide, with Grupo Jaragua’s work on Ricord’s Rock Iguana being just one of over sixty projects involving reptiles.