Apr 30

The recovery of the Jamaican iguana is hard work, as introduced predators like the Asian Mongoose are continually captured to relieve predator pressure. “We catch them and kill them. I’m sorry, that’s just the way it is. The way it has to be”, says Booms, whose real name is Kenroy Williams, with a bashful smile. Booms is a handsome young Jamaican who grew up in southern Kingston before moving seven years ago to work on the Jamaican iguana recovery project.

The Jamaican iguana is considered to be one of the greatest conservation success stories

The Jamaican iguana is considered to be one of the greatest  success stories in conservation science

I ask Booms what his friends and family think of his career choice. “Some think I am crazy when they hear that I am touching the iguanas and the crocodiles. But if they were here like me, they would understand, and they would do everything that I am doing”, he says. As he cradles a young American crocodile, a Vulnerable species, found at night in one of the lagoons fringing the Hellshire Hills, he adds, “You’ve got to respect another life, so that the other life can respect yours. It’s all about respect”.

“Booms” cradles a young American crocodile, a threatened animal found during a nighttime search with flashlights in a mangrove lagoon in Portland Bight Protected Area

“Booms” cradles a young American crocodile, a threatened animal found during a nighttime search with flashlights in a mangrove lagoon in Portland Bight Protected Area

In order for the iguana to survive without the life support system provided by Booms and team, the Jamaican Iguana Species Recovery Plan outlines steps to establish Goat Islands as a predator-free haven for the large lizard. That was the dream – until now.

“I just returned from Jamaica, and it’s bad”, began an email I received last month from Rick Hudson at Fort Worth Zoo. Hudson has devoted more than twenty years to recovering the iguana, and was distraught. The Jamaican government had announced that it was going to sell Goat Islands to a Chinese conglomerate that had been disbarred by the World Bank for fraud, to build a massive trans shipment port. The development would involve bulldozing the islands, dredging the sea around them, and building a coal-burning plant – in addition to razing forest and concreting over wetland on the mainland for an associated logistics hub. With opposition from local groups led by the Jamaica Environmental Trust falling on deaf ears, Jamaicans were crying out for some international intervention.

The Portland Bight Protected Area contains the largest intact mangrove forest in Jamaica

The Portland Bight Protected Area contains the largest intact mangrove forest in Jamaica

Tourism brings in half of all foreign revenue and provides one quarter of all jobs in Jamaica; most tourists who visit the country do so to enjoy pristine beaches, clear waters, ample wildlife and a landscape free from the scars of industrial development. The proposed development is akin to the UK government selling off the Lake District for a quick profit, and could hurt tourism if potential tourism outfits are outraged by the destruction of a natural national treasure. And so, in the humble hope that I could do something to shine a spotlight on what was happening in the international press – to alert potential tourists to Jamaica what the government has planned in the hopes that the government may listen – I boarded a plane to Kingston.

A coal burning plant, as seen on Old Harbour Bay, could be built on Goat Islands

A coal burning plant, as seen on Old Harbour Bay, could be built on Goat Islands

Diana McCaulay, co-founder and CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust, meets me at the airport and we drive an hour south to the Portland Bight Protected Area, a 187,515-hectare area mosaic consisting of the largest dry limestone forests in the Caribbean and the largest intact mangrove forest in the country. This, the largest Protected Area in Jamaica, contains the Hellshire Hills and Portland Ridge Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), defined by IUCN as “places of international importance for the conservation of biodiversity through protected areas and other governance mechanisms”. The area was deemed so special that it was under consideration as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, until last year when the government backtracked on the proposal.

A curious pelican in Old Harbour Bay, a community that fish in the waters of Portland Bight Protected Area

A curious pelican in Old Harbour Bay, a community that fish in the waters of Portland Bight Protected Area

Diana introduces me to residents of a fishing community in the heart of Portland Bight Protected Area, Paulette and Herman Coley, who invite me to join them on the water the following morning. I return the next day a little before 4:30 am to join them and their six-year old son Jabari, who seems less than thrilled about being hauled out of his bed at 4am and dressed in a bright yellow lifejacket and facemask.

Jabari does his best to stay awake after being rudely awoken at 4am to join us on our boat trip around Goat Islands

Jabari does his best to stay awake after being rudely awoken at 4am to join us on our boat trip around Goat Islands

Find out more about the Save Goat Islands campaign

Find out more about the Jamaican iguana on ARKive

Find out more about the American crocodile on ARKive

Discover more Jamaican species on ARKive

Find out more about Robin Moore and his photography

Read Guest Blog: Darkness in Hellshire – part one

Apr 29

Wildlife photographer Robin Moore is an award-winning photographer, author and conservationist who recently visited the Goat Islands in Jamaica after hearing about plans to convert the area into a shipment port. Over the next few days we will be posting the story of his visit and detailing his campaign to prevent the loss of this vital habitat and the species found within it.

As I find shade in a small field station in the Hellshire Hills of Jamaica, a leather-brown lizard with bluish thighs lumbers towards me through forest sprouting from jagged limestone. Its tail scatters red dust as it moves in rhythm with a large flap of scaly skin that swings like a metronome underneath its thick jaws. It stops two bodies length from my feet, tilts its head to inspect me with blood-red eyes and, deciding that I probably don’t pose a threat, collapses onto its stomach to take a well-deserved rest. As we sit in silence, I feel privileged to be in the presence of such a beautiful and iconic creature.

The Critically Endangered Jamaican iguana, Cyclura collie, was described as the “rarest lizard in the world” after its rediscovery in 1990. It has become a flagship for conservation in the West Indies and the subject of an international recovery program.

The Critically Endangered Jamaican iguana, Cyclura collie, was described as the “rarest lizard in the world” after its rediscovery in 1990. It has become a flagship for conservation in the West Indies and the subject of an international recovery program

The Jamaican iguana, Cyclura collei, is a Critically Endangered species that has achieved iconic status through a story of chance, perseverance, collaboration and resurgence. At the start of the 20th century the lizard – the largest native land animal in Jamaica – was thought to survive only on Goat Islands, two small islets close to the Hellshire Hills just south of Kingston. After this population disappeared in 1948, the iguana was believed to be extinct. And then, in 1990, a hog hunter chanced upon an iguana in the limestone forests of Hellshire Hills, triggering exploration that revealed around 50 of the “rarest lizards in the world”.

A view from the Hellshire Hills of the Portland Bight Protected Area, containing one of the largest dry limestone forests in the Caribbean and the largest intact mangrove forest in the country, over to Goat Islands.

A view from the Hellshire Hills of the Portland Bight Protected Area, containing one of the largest dry limestone forests in the Caribbean and the largest intact mangrove forest in the country, over to Goat Islands

The iguana promptly became a flagship for conservation in the West Indies and the focus of an international recovery program, and inspired the formation of the IUCN SSC Iguana Specialist Group. A consortium of twelve zoos, spearheaded by the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas, built a facility at Hope Zoo in Kingston to rear eggs and hatchlings brought from the wild. This process of “headstarting” involves rearing hatchling iguanas in the safety of a cage to release them back into the wild once they are big enough to ward off predators – a technique that has worked. Since 1991, the number of recorded nesting females and annual hatchlings has increased over six-fold, with at least 200 individuals in the wild today. The recovery of the Jamaican iguana is, according to the IUCN, “considered one of the greatest success stories in conservation science”.

Jamaican iguana

Young Jamaican iguanas are raised in a facility in Kingston to see them through the most vulnerable months before being released back into the wild – a process known as “headstarting”

Find out more about the Save Goat Islands campaign

Find out more about the Jamaican iguana on ARKive

Find out more about the American crocodile on ARKive

Discover more Jamaican species on ARKive

Find out more about Robin Moore and his photography

Apr 25

As we approached the end of the rocky shore the Galapagos penguins were awaiting our arrival in their elegant black tailcoats. It had been four months since our last trip and we were all excited to be back with the birds. Some approached us cautiously, others jumped into the water, but most appeared quite indifferent to our presence.

Galapagos penguin 2

Galapagos penguin

We were all on board the Queen Mabel for this seven day field trip. The team consisted of staff from both the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park and, having departed from Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz the previous evening, we arrived into Caleta Iguana on the southern coast of Isabela on the morning of July 16.

Searching along the rugged lava coastline we came across nests with eggs, chicks and adults. This was a great sign and reflected the fact that the conditions this year had been good for the penguins, the water remaining cool enough to provide an abundance of food. This is not always the case. During El Niño years the water temperatures can rise by several degrees, resulting in the penguins primary food source, sardines, moving away from the area to find cooler waters.

Galapagos penguin  Alex Hearn

Galapagos penguin © Alex Hearn

In the afternoon we drove around to the Marielas Islands off the west coast of Isabela which is home to the largest population of Galapagos penguins. At this site we went about catching individuals so that we could record size and weight, attach ID tags, and collect samples for genetic analysis. We tagged a total of 78 penguins during the trip, 37 of which we had recorded in previous trips. Using this mark-recapture technique allows us to make population size estimates and track trends which are backed up by an annual census that is carried out every September.

Flightless comorant Gordon Chambers

Flightless comorants © Gordon Chambers

Flightless cormorants were next on the agenda. We visited three colonies around Punta Espinoza on Fernandina where we carried out similar catch and release sampling to the penguins. Forty-eight cormorants were caught in total, only 9 of which had not been previously recorded. This was a surprisingly low percentage of new individuals and could signify that the population size is decreasing, knowledge of which highlights the importance of carrying out such regular surveys.

Flightless Cormorants & Research

Gustavo Jiminez investigating a flightless cormorant nest © Pete Oxford

Our last job was to collect the data recorded by special meteorological loggers which help us to understand the micro-climates in some areas. Once this was complete, the team returned home but will be back in December to carry out the final survey of the year.

Since last year the Galapagos Conservation Trust has been running a Galapagos Penguin Appeal in order to be able to provide continued financial support to this essential monitoring project. For more information, please visit www.penguinappeal.org.

Apr 24

Amongst the black lava rocks that line the wave-lashed edges of the Galapagos Islands, the world’s only sea-going lizard can be found.  Amblyrhynchus cristatus, the marine iguana, is a remarkable and well-known endemic reptile of the Galapagos Archipelago.  Though widespread and highly abundant on certain islands, small, declining and genetically distinct populations on other islands are causing concern for conservationists.  One population in particular, found at the very tip of the easternmost island of San Cristobal has garnered attention not only for its critically small size, but also for being highly distinctive in genetic terms.  This ‘Punta Pitt population’, named after its location, is so genetically distinct that we are investigating whether it deserves recognition as a new species or sub-species.

image 3

A marine iguana at Isla Lobos, San Cristobal Island. Larger males, like this one, swim and dive to forage on sub-tidal algae, whereas smaller individuals graze along the intertidal zone

 Since 2012 we have travelled to San Cristobal each year to collect information and new samples that will teach us more about Punta Pitt iguanas.  Before we started, iguanas on San Cristobal were known from only two colonies which seem not to interbreed with one another.  We began in 2012 by sailing around the island and sampling iguanas wherever we encountered them.  We found and sampled many new colonies, all on the west coast.  The entire eastern side of the island, wild and wave-battered, sadly eluded us.

Processing samples in the field at La Galapaguera, where Punta Pitt type iguanas are found

Processing samples in the field at La Galapaguera, where Punta Pitt type iguanas are found

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Weighing a young iguana at Islotte Pitt

In 2013 we returned to San Cristobal, this time to take a closer look at Punta Pitt and investigate the threat posed by feral cats, known to eat marine iguana hatchlings.  We camped at a remote beach for seven weeks.  During this time we fitted four feral cats with GPS-enabled radio collars and followed their movements.  We also collected measurements, samples and photographs of marine iguanas in order to investigate both physical and genetic differences between iguanas on the island.  Though we were only three people at the camp, we were certainly not lonely; the resident mocking birds, as curious as they are comical, watched our every move.  Constant vigilance was needed to prevent the legion of local hermit crabs from stealing all manner of things, and most evenings provided a cascade of newly hatched green turtles on the dunes, making their way down to the sea.

The resident mocking bird, who assumed ownership of all our things at camp (especially any unguarded porridge)

The resident mocking bird, who assumed ownership of all our things at camp (especially any unguarded porridge)

Frigate birds oversee the dish washing at camp

Frigate birds oversee the dish washing at camp

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The finches give our packing boxes a close inspection

Galapagos_April_2013 159

Newly hatched green turtles begin their journey down the dunes to the sea at Salinas beach

We are now in the midst of the final field-season of my PhD.  This season will be shorter, and we intend to find a way to sample the East coast.  This will involve searching for safe landing sites with an experienced fisherman, and a lot of walking along lava rocks.  If we are successful, we will have surveyed and sampled almost the whole island.  Back in Germany, we are working hard to analyse the morphological and genetic data that will tell us whether or not Punta Pitt iguanas are a new species.  In any case, the information we have gathered here in San Cristobal will be a valuable contribution to assessing the conservation status of marine iguanas on this island, where their population is the smallest of any of the Galapagos Islands.

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Punta Pitt type iguanas on the headland at Playa Cafe, the white cross is a temporary mark which indicates a sampled iguana

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Amy MacLeod is in the final year of her PhD at the Technische Universität Braunschweig in Germany. You can contact her by email at ms.amymacleod@gmail.com

Apr 23

It’s a well-known fact that Britain is a nation of animal lovers and is particularly obsessed with its wildlife. However, there is one group which often gets overlooked – our piscatorial friends the freshwater fish. Currently there are 54 species of freshwater fish swimming around the United Kingdom, including species like the mullet and flounder which, despite just visiting the estuarine parts of rivers, can be found surprisingly far up from the sea! Non-native species such as the wels catfish, which resembles a giant tadpole, and the topmouth gudgeon are also present in the UK. Despite the UK not suffering from the presence of non-native species as much as other countries such as Spain, the tiny topmouth gudgeon does still cause big problems by outcompeting native fish and spreading disease.

The topmouth gudgeon has been described as Europe’s most invasive fish species

In recent years, the number of native European eels has declined by around 95%. However, 2013 was recorded as one of the best elver runs in recent years, with millions making their way up the Severn. Whilst many may think that floods are not good for fish, flooding helps the European eels get into ponds and lakes where they can grow before returning to the Sargasso Sea with the next floods.

European eel image

The European eel is very long-lived, potentially reaching an impressive 85 years old

There are many other native freshwater fish species which are less well known to the general public and even wildlife enthusiasts (I bet most birders in the UK have never heard of a spined loach or allis shad, for example). One such species is the Arctic charr, a cousin of the trout, which lives in deep glacial lakes mostly in the Lake District and Scottish Lochs. The Arctic charr can also be found in Iceland where it reaches much larger sizes of up to 20lb and, unlike the British populations, goes out to sea like a salmon.

Male and female Arctic charr

So next time you’re walking by your local canal or river, take a look and see what you can spot -  you’ll be surprised by the wealth of fish life beneath the waterline in British waterways.

Video showing 28 species filmed by me: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjAIUKfYtHA

Jack Perks Photography – Underwater & Wildlife Photographer

Website – http://www.jackperksphotography.com and http://www.btwlfishproject.com/
Twitter – @JackPerksPhoto

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