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

A study has highlighted how two rare species of Chelonian are being threatened by hunting in India.

Two endemic species of the Western Ghats in India, the Travancore tortoise and the Cochin forest cane turtle are being threatened with extinction due to poaching from indigenous and non-indigenous people. The Chelonians (turtles and tortoises) are the second most imperilled vertebrate group in the world and the two species highlighted in the study are no exception, with the Travancore tortoise classified as Vulnerable (VU) by the IUCN Red List and the Cochin forest cane turtle classified as Endangered (EN). Cochin cane turtles inhabit evergreen forest habitats, and unlike many other turtles, do not require the presence of water. This turtle species is so rare that no scientists saw the species for 70 years between 1912 and 1982. The Travancore tortoise is an omnivore, and can be found in evergreen, moist deciduous, and bamboo forests. This tortoise species is known to produce chorus calls at night, but the purpose of the call is unknown.

The Cochin forest cane turtle

A study published in The Asian Journal of Conservation Biology in 2013 investigated the illegal hunting and consumption of these rare animals, and found that many individuals are caught by non-local forestry workers, including those who work as part of fire management initiatives. However, there was also evidence that Chelonian experts were harvesting these rare species and some individuals even used trained dogs while hunting. The study indicated that 77 percent of the 104 people that were interviewed had consumed the Travancore tortoise and 22 percent had consumed the Cochin forest cane turtle. Chelonian meat was reportedly on sale in local establishments. Although it was found that the primary reason for harvesting wild individuals was for consumption, there was also some evidence that the two species were taken due to superstitions and for medicinal purposes.

The Travancore tortoise

The authors of the report, said, “Wildlife hunting in India is illegal and punishable via the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) 1972, which includes most of the susceptible species … However, hunting continues to be widespread in several regions of India even though it is disregarded or refuted”. The interviews indicated that all 104 respondents knew the illegality of consuming the two species, but problems with pressing charges and corruption are thought to mitigate the risks.

Cochin forest cane turtle on leaf litter

The authors of the study suggest that a limit on the number of dogs allowed at each indigenous settlement may help to reduce the risk of Chelonian hunting, and that the forest department must make a concerted effort to properly supervise forest staff and educate them about the plight of Chelonians. The authors also highlighted the past success of poster campaigns introduced by the Kerala State Forest Department, which aimed to challenge similar local use of animals. Threatened Chelonians, including the Indian star tortoise, were targeted by the previous campaign, and the authors suggest that this kind of promotion could be repeated for the Travancore tortoise and the Cochin forest cane turtle.

Read the original article at Asian Journal of Conservation Biology – Hunting of endemic and threatened forest dwelling chelonians in the Western Ghats, India

Find out more about the Travancore tortoise at Conservation Biology of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises – Indotestudo travancorica

View photos of the Travancore tortoise and the Cochin forest cane turtle on ARKive

Find out more about the wildlife of the Western Ghats on ARKive

Read more about this story at Mongabay – Chelonians for dinner: hunting threatens at-risk turtles and tortoises in India

Read more about turtle and freshwater tortoise conservation at the IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group

Mar 23
Juvenile Philippine crocodile

Juvenile Philippine crocodile

Species: Philippine crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis)

Status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Interesting Fact: The Philippine crocodile is one of the most endangered freshwater crocodile species in the world.

More information:

The Philippine crocodile is a relatively small species of freshwater crocodile, with a broad snout, and thick bony plates on its back. Until recently, it was considered a subspecies of the very similar New Guinea crocodile.

Philippine crocodiles are thought to feed mainly on fish, invertebrates, small amphibians and reptiles, but very little else is known about the natural history or ecology of wild populations. In captivity, females build mound-nests at the end of the dry season from leaf litter and mud, upon which they lay a relatively small clutch of 7 to 14 eggs. Only the females show parental care of both the eggs and the hatchlings.

Previously found throughout the Philippines but now reduced to a small and highly fragmented population on a number of small islands, the Philippine crocodile favours freshwater marshes, the tributaries of large rivers and small lakes and ponds.

The massive population decline of the Philippine crocodile was originally caused by over-exploitation for commercial use. Today, habitat destruction is the most pressing threat to the species’ survival, with rainforests being cleared throughout the region to make way for rice fields. The fearsome reputation of the saltwater crocodile undoubtedly contributes to local intolerance of any crocodile species. The word for crocodile in the Filipino language is a vile insult, and crocodiles are often killed when encountered.

The Philippine crocodile is considered to be the second most endangered crocodilian in the world, with possibly fewer than 100 individuals in the wild. International trade of this species is prohibited, but there is only one officially protected area within the Philippines and its protection is poorly enforced. At present, captive breeding of the Philippine crocodile takes place in a small programme run by the Silliman University and at the government-run Crocodile Farming Institute.

 

Find out more about the Philippine crocodile at the Mabuwaya Foundation.

See images of the Philippine crocodile on ARKive.

Phoebe Shaw Stewart, ARKive Text Author

Jan 18
Close up of the Annam leaf turtle

Annam leaf turtle (Mauremys annamensis)

Species: Annam leaf turtle (Mauremys annamensis)

Status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Interesting Fact: Until recently, the Annam leaf turtle had not been documented in the wild for 65 years.

More information:

The Annam leaf turtle has a dark brown head with striking yellow stripes that extend from its snout to the base of the neck. Three ridges, known as keels, run along the back of its dark brown upper shell. The underside of the shell, known as the ‘plastron’, is yellow-orange with black blotches on each bony plate. The Annam leaf turtle’s feet are fully webbed, which make it well adapted to its semi-aquatic lifestyle.

This species is omnivorous and will readily eat fruit, fish and invertebrates. A semi-aquatic creature, the Annam leaf turtle feeds both on land and in water, and lays its eggs in a hole dug into the soil. The young turtles emerge after around 80 to 90 days, and resemble miniature adults in appearance.

The Annam leaf turtle is found in a small area of central Vietnam. It inhabits lowland marshes and slow-moving or still bodies of freshwater. The small range that this species inhabits is a prime location for rice production, which puts the turtle’s habitat at risk. The Annam leaf turtle is also under constant threat from unsustainable hunting and illegal trade. In China, it can often be found for sale as meat or traditional medicine.

The Annam leaf turtle is protected under Vietnam’s wildlife protection law and is also listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that international trade in this species should be carefully monitored. Despite trade in the Annam leaf turtle being illegal, it continues to occur as the law is often poorly enforced. Various breeding programmes have recently been set up and captive populations are increasing. These programmes try to involve local school and university students to boost awareness of this Critically Endangered turtle’s perilous situation.

 

Find out more about the Annam leaf turtle at the Southeast Asia Campaign and the Turtle Survival Alliance.

See images of the Annam leaf turtle on ARKive.

Phoebe Shaw Stewart, ARKive Text Author

 

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