Page last updated at 15:27 GMT, Wednesday, 7 May 2008 16:27 UK

Probe into giant iguana slaughter

By Georgina Kenyon

Vet tries to save iguana (Fred Burton)
Dr Colin Wakelin tries in vain to save a female iguana

Police on Grand Cayman are hunting criminals who slaughtered six of the island's iconic and critically endangered giant blue iguanas.

The attacks, which also left three other animals injured, occurred on Saturday night in a captive breeding facility on the Caribbean island.

The police are confident the crime was perpetrated by humans.

The dead and injured iguanas seem to have been gouged by knives and show evidence of being kicked and jumped on.

Volunteers who look after the iguanas discovered the bodies on the Sunday morning.

There have not been any arrests yet but local people and businesses have donated reward money for information of KYD$11,000 (6,700).

Dead iguana (Fred Burton)
The ferocity of the attack has shocked islanders

"This incomprehensible carnage has brought people to tears," said Frederic Burton, director of the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme (BIRP) which is responsible for breeding the iguanas in pens before they are freed into the wild.

To the people on the island of Grand Cayman, it was not unlike the slaughter of the gorillas last year in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the body of one dead iguana still missing but its entrails left strewn outside the pen in which it lived.

Some of the pens have blood on the walls.

The iguanas are turquoise blue in colour, weigh up to 10kg, live for about 20 years.

They are listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as critically endangered.

Scientific name: Cyclura lewisi
Related to iguanas found on Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, but quite distinct
Never stops growing, but growth rate slows with age
Biggest adults believed to be up to 1.4m nose to tail
Endemic to Grand Cayman, i.e. found nowhere else
Blue colour only expressed in the presence of other iguanas

However, because of a successful captive breeding programme on the island, supported by local and international NGOs and community groups, the species seemed to have been saved from extinction and their numbers were growing.

While in 2005 there were only 25 of these iguanas left in the world, now there are 140 iguanas in the captive breeding facility on Grand Cayman, and another 230 iguanas living freely in a nature reserve on the island.

"This has shocked people far beyond just the conservation community and brought out stronger than ever the way this uniquely Caymanian creature has become an icon of the Cayman Islands' national culture," explained Burton.

"Each of the blue iguanas killed had rich life stories and distinct personalities. Many people feel they have lost close personal friends," he said.

There has not been an attack on the iguanas like this before from people, although iguanas have been killed by wild dogs.

Map (BBC)

One of the dead adult iguanas was "Digger", a symbol of the BIRP and the iguana that appears on one of the postage stamps of the Cayman Islands.

"They were also the ones that people knew and loved. It is a setback and a horrible tragedy," said Burton.

The attack comes at a time when naturalists on the island are hoping for government legislation to protect significant tracts of shrubland for the iguanas and other animals.

These deaths were of mature adults, capable of producing large egg clutches and could have kick-started the restoration of a wild population. It is estimated that there needs to be at least 1,000 iguanas for the population to become stable and have a real chance of surviving.

"We are hoping for between 400-500 hectares of land to be protected - this is the area we need to support 1,000 iguanas, " said Dr Matt Cottam, senior research officer for the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment.

"We are all so shocked at this slaughter. But we are also overwhelmed by the support from the local and international community since this news broke," he said.

The BIRP and National Trust staff and volunteers are guarding the facility while additional security systems are put in place.

Breeding success for rare lizards
27 Oct 06 |  Science/Nature
SOS call for ancient blue iguana
23 May 05 |  Science/Nature

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