16 Jul 2019

Welcome to Iguana island: the land where reptiles rule

The Turks & Caicos Islands harbour two remaining strongholds for an endemic, Critically Endangered rock iguana, under threat from invasive mammals and development. Now a partnership of NGOs is working hard to ensure the ‘Iguana Island’ remains worthy of its name.

Rock iguanas mostly eat plants, fruit and flowers © Sarah Havery
Rock iguanas mostly eat plants, fruit and flowers © Sarah Havery
By Sarah Havery

To gain access to one of the last remaining strongholds of the Turks & Caicos Rock Iguana Cyclura carinata, you’re going to have to get your sea legs. Only accessible by boat, you meander across a turquoise blue channel before stepping off onto a shore that time forgot and where reptiles rule: white sand beaches, wave-worn coralline coast, silver-topped palms swaying in the wind, and mosquito-filled mangrove swamps with floating upside-down jellyfish. Welcome to Little Water Cay, otherwise known as ‘Iguana Island’.

Iguana Island is in the Turks and Caicos Islands, a UK Overseas Territory situated south of the Bahamas in the Caribbean. Managed by the Turks & Caicos National Trust, it is the most accessible place in the world to see these unique rock iguanas in their natural habitat, and therefore has become a significant ecotourism destination, with dedicated boardwalks. The Turks & Caicos Rock Iguana 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 native plants.

At 30 cm long, this iguana is the island’s largest (extant) indigenous land animal, but it is in decline. Once abundant throughout these beautiful islands and considered a delicacy by islanders, it is now rarely seen around people and no longer hunted for food. Habitat loss through development, and the spread of invasive species such as rodents and feral cats and dogs, has resulted in the local extinction of iguanas from many islands and continues to cause declines.

The iguanas are closely studied to help us understand how to protect them © Sarah Havery

Just two strongholds remain: Iguana Island and Big Ambergris Cay, the latter supporting the largest sub-population left in the world. Unfortunately, Big Ambergris Cay is being developed for tourism and although Iguana Island is protected, it has been invaded by rats and feral cats.

There is hope, however. A three-year partnership project between Turks and Caicos National Trust, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB, BirdLife in the UK), San Diego Zoo, TCI Department for Environment and Coastal Resources and TCI Department of Agriculture began in April 2017. Funded by the Darwin Initiative, this project is aiming to establish effective controls and biosecurity on Iguana Island and Big Ambergris Cay to provide safe havens for the rock iguana as well as surveying to better understand them.

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Surveys are being undertaken of other islands for native reptiles and invasive species which will be used to inform where iguanas can be translocated to in the future. Also, a privately funded project will begin in April 2019, aiming to remove all rodents and feral cats from Iguana Island and the adjoining Water Cay and Pine Cay, creating more suitable invasive-predator-free habitat for the iguanas.

'Rocky' the Rock Iguana raises awareness among local communities © Sarah Havery

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 & Caicos National Trust is leading a public awareness campaign, funded by the EU BEST program, which focuses on raising awareness and pride in Turks and Caicos Islanders of the amazing wildlife only found on these beautiful islands. The Turks & Caicos National Trust, along with ‘Rocky’ the iguana, have been attending events and schools across the islands to discuss the amazing wildlife of the Turks and Caicos and the work that is being done 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 & Caicos and create a culture that will protect the islands’ unique wildlife for future generations to come.