In April 2011, the Jamaican Iguana Recovery Program released 17 headstarted iguanas back into their native habitat in the Hellshire Hills. The headstart and release program in Jamaica began in 1997 and has since released a total of 155 iguanas back into the wild. Once thought to be extinct, the Jamaican Iguana was rediscovered in 1990 and became the focus of a massive recovery program. The Jamaican Iguana is a flagship species for the IIF which has provided core support funding and grant funding to keep this project moving forward since its the inception of the IIF in 2001. Headstarting is a vital conservation component for the Jamaican iguana because hatchling iguanas are predated upon in the wild by feral animals, particularly mongoose and feral cats.
The headstart program collects hatchlings from the wild and places them in a safe, captive facility at the Hope Zoo until they have reached as size which allows them to defend against predators. Prior to release, all of the iguanas in the headstart facility (202 in total) were evaluated by a team that comes together from around the US and Jamaica. This year, Orlando Robinson, Quarrie, Mr. Gordon, and other Hope Zoo staff were joined by Dr. Nancy Lung and technician Jackie Woods from the Fort Worth Zoo. Dr. Lung has been working on the Jamaican Iguana project for many years. Additionally, Tandora Grant from the San Diego Institute for Conservation Research and Melanie Litton and Melissa Tomingas from the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans also traveled to Jamaica to lend their expertise and support for the release. Prior to release, iguanas are checked over by veterinary staff, weighed, measured, and tagged for future identification.
The Jamaican Iguana Recovery Program works diligently to ensure the survival of this species through multiple conservation efforts. In the Hellshire Hills, the Jamaican Iguana is monitored year round and trapping efforts along the perimeter of the primary iguana population help to reduce predation by feral animals, particularly mongoose and cats. The Jamaican Iguana recovery team is led by Dr. Byron Wilson from the University of West Indies (UWI), Kingston, with support from field coordinator Rick VanVeen and field assistants Leego, Boomz, Killa, Lil Kim, and other UWI students. The efforts of the field staff in monitoring the iguana population and protecting the core area throughout the year allows for the headstart program to have a safer natural habitat for released iguanas to return to as well as providing a protected area for nesting of both headstart and wild iguanas. The presence of iguana researchers in the Hellshire Hills also protects the habitat by deterring charcoal production which can destroy native vegetation which iguanas rely on. The annual release of headstart iguanas brings us closer every year to a brighter future for the Jamaican Iguana.