A young Anegada iguana at the Headstart Facility has an 80% chance of surviving in the wild after being released when it nears two years old.

Inspiring Iguanas

Anegada is the refuge for the rare Anegada rock iguana

Lee gently releases an adult Anegada iguana back to the wild. The headstarted iguanas, have an 80% survival rate in the wild.

Anyone who has been there will tell you that Anegada is very different from the rest of the B.V.I. Sailors warn of the shallow waters that make passage to and from the island dangerous. Other visitors say it is the slow and gentle pace of life there that seems anachronistic in our modern age. And for a small but growing number of people, Anegada is being recognized as the refuge for one of the world’s rarest creatures.

On any given day on Anegada’s north shore, the morning sun’s radiant heat coaxes a lizard from its sandy burrow. This gentle vegetarian crawls forth to warm its stout, gray body and find sustenance within its dry forest habitat. With enough time, these lizards can grow to an astounding 15 or more pounds (seven kilograms) in mass. The animal wanders through its territory of scrubby vegetation, eating fruits, flowers, and leaves. These days, the large lizard seldom encounters another of its kind. This animal is an Anegada rock iguana, the largest land animal native to the B.V.I., and it is an important part of the island’s ecology and natural heritage.

Like all the iguanas that are commonly known as rock iguanas, the Anegada iguana is in the genus Cyclura, a reference to the rings of enlarged spiky scales that encircle their tails. Rock iguanas are found throughout the Caribbean where they live in low-elevation rocky and sandy habitats.

Because rock iguanas evolved on Caribbean islands with few natural predators, they produce fewer but larger young than iguana species that evolved in mainland areas with many predators. On average, female Anegada iguanas lay only 13 eggs each year, whereas common green iguanas, which are native to  Central and South America and adapted to living with many predators, produce an average of 40 eggs annually. 

Having fewer young means rock iguanas are even more susceptible to pressures that are all too common for island endemics – habitat destruction and predation by introduced species. At one time these iguanas were so numerous on Anegada some people considered them pests. But in a twist of bitter irony, cats, brought over to control introduced rats, have become the true pests.

Anegada now harbours a significant population of feral cats that kill most of the young iguanas that hatch each year. With only a few hundred adults remaining, the Anegada iguana is now internationally recognized as critically endangered.

An adult Anegada iguana searches for food in its natural habitat.

The Anegada iguana’s plight has inspired a range of actions to save them from extinction and restore their population. In 1997, the BVI National Parks Trust, with the help of the Fort Worth Zoo and the San Diego Zoo, constructed a facility to help raise young iguanas. In a practice called “headstarting,” young, wild-born iguanas are brought to the facility just after hatching to be cared for by the facility staff. After about two years of growth, the iguanas are large enough to survive amongst the feral cats and are released back to the wild.

This headstart facility, located in The Settlement, is the best place for visitors to see these interesting animals and learn about the work to protect them. Besides headstarting, efforts to restore the iguanas include scientific research on their ecology, educational activities for locals and visitors, and protection of nesting areas.

Could these giant lizards roam the entire island again, sparking the imagination and wonder of Anegadians and visitors alike? It is possible; people and iguanas can coexist. But iguanas and feral cats cannot. In addition, the iguana’s habitat is being degraded and disappearing due to introduced hoofstock, that now roam wild, along with ever increasing human development.

Slowly, and with the help of some committed individuals, Anegada iguanas are becoming less rare. Hopefully one day they will again be common on Anegada. Though this would remove their novelty status as one of the most endangered animals in the world, it wouldn’t make them any less interesting. In fact, being able to see them in the wild would make them more appealing, especially as they head-bob and posture to communicate their intentions to one another.

There are many reasons to visit Anegada and seeing the native and critically endangered iguana is just one of them. Even if rare lizards are not your thing, there are stunning beaches, amazing snorkeling, and a unique pace of life to experience. If you do go, don’t be surprised if you don’t happen upon an Anegada iguana. For now, these gentle giants are a rarity in the wild. But things change, even on gentle-paced Anegada.

 

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