Another group of headstarted Jamaican Iguanas was released recently and is now getting reacquainted with their native Hellshire Hills after a lifetime in captivity. Between 4 and 28 February 2008, 15 (9 males, 6 females) were repatriated to the wild after having been headstarted at Kingston’s Hope Zoo. This brings the total number of Jamaican Iguanas that have been returned to Hellshire to 100 since 1996. Survival of these iguanas has been extremely encouraging, and adults are now commonly seen along the trails in Hellshire, whereas ten years ago sightings were rare except during the nesting season. The number of nesting females in the core iguana conservation zone is also up, having apparently doubled since 1991, due largely to the recruitment of new adult-sized females to the breeding population, as a result of the releases. Several of the released iguanas have become so habituated to the presence of biologists that they have taken up residence at the field camp, having nested there successfully for the past two years.
Of the 15 iguanas released, six were “Judas Iguanas” equipped with radio-transmitters that biologists hope will lead them to other iguana populations. These are named after the Judas goat concept where female goats are tethered to attract (thereby betraying) the remaining male goats on Galápagos Islands so they can be shot in attempts to recover the habitat for giant tortoises. In Jamaica these iguanas are released in remote areas where there have been historical reports of iguanas but no recent observations. It is hoped that the Judas iguanas will lead biologists to other individuals or populations of iguanas, or to new nesting sites. This is a new technique that is being tested for the first time in 2008. Plans to double the headstart and release program are finally underway. Given the tremendous success of this effort, it was decided to increase the number of hatchlings collected annually from 20 to 40, and to expand the number of iguanas released annually to 40. We will move to a five-year schedule whereby 40 new iguanas are coming into the program while 40 are going out for release on an annual basis. Such a major expansion will require additional facilities at the Hope Zoo where the headstarting program is based. Fortunately thanks to an anonymous donation to the IIF, $10,000 USD is now available to build a new headstarting unit. Groundbreaking got underway in March 2008 with completion expected this summer.
Funding for the Jamaican Iguana Recovery Program in 2007 – 2008 is provided through core support from the IIF and a generous grant from the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund.