September 14, 2012 | 1
We have heard a lot about Cayman Islands banking during this election season, but what about Cayman Islands endangered species? The three tiny islands that make up the Caymans—Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac—are home to a handful of endangered species that aren’t found anywhere else in the world. In the case of at least one of them, they might not even be found in the Caymans much longer.
Human development and habitat loss have put the Cayman Brac parrot (Amazona leucocephala hesterna) and the Grand Cayman parrot (A. l. caymanensis) into fairly dire straits. Both birds are subspecies of the Cuban Amazon parrot and can only be found on the islands that bear their names, but the loss of many of the trees that they used for shelter and food have made it harder for the otherwise hardy birds to withstand the hurricanes that frequently batter the region. Hundreds of birds died during hurricanes Ivan (2004) and Paloma (2008).
Today the Grand Cayman parrot is down to an estimated 4,300 birds. The Cayman Brac parrot now numbers about 425, including just 20 to 60 breeding pairs. Biologists warn that the Cayman Brac could be extinct in as few as 40 years. The biggest danger right now is that the trees the birds would use for reproduction and nesting are disappearing as new subdivisions pop up across the islands. Frank Rivera-Milán, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), told The Caymanian Compass that “the Brac [parrot] is going down the drain very fast. Development there is too fast.”
Luckily, the Brac parrot does have a few friends. The Cayman Brac Parrot Reserve, run by the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, maintains 280 acres of protected old-growth forest, 34 hectares of which was acquired in 2005 with the help of a grant from the FWS. But that might not be enough for the long term. The reserve’s Web site says “The long-term future of the parrots…depends critically on the conservation of enough old-growth forest areas on the Brac to support this inherently endangered species.”
Both Cayman Islands parrots face additional threats. As on many islands, predation by cats and invasive rats is an ever-present danger. The birds are also sometimes illegally captured from the wild for the black market pet trade, although they rarely survive long enough to be sold.
Another endemic Cayman species, the Grand Cayman blue iguana (Cyclura lewisi), represents a conservation success story. The iguanas—which were only recognized as their own species in 2004 after previously being classified as a subspecies of the Cuban iguana—were nearly wiped out by dogs, cats (them again) and cars. By 2003 the wild population of blue iguanas was estimated at just five to 15 individuals. Today, a breeding program has increased their number to approximately 700.
Fred Burton, director of the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, told the Associated Press that the program succeeded due to their low-tech methods: rough-hewn wooden breeding pens were built with tight passageways where the young iguanas could take shelter from predators. The pens were built in 2001 and every infant born that year survived. The recovery program also maintains wire cages for slightly older iguanas. They are released into the protected Salina Reserve at about two years old, when they are big enough to defend themselves against cats and other predators. All of the iguanas born in the program are implanted with microchips to help identify them.
The recovery program now aims to reach a milestone of 1,000 blue iguanas living in the wild, which they may hit in another few years. After that, Burton says, the breeding program may no longer be necessary.
None of these species, however, are out of the woods quite yet. If anyone cares to invest in anything in the Caymans other than a bank, I can think of a few worthy recipients. And who knows, maybe someday the Caymans could be as good a haven for wildlife as they are for taxable income.