The Lesser Antillean Iguana on St. Eustatius: 2012 status update and review of limiting factors

Summary 

Abstract:

The endangered Lesser Antillean Iguana, Iguana delicatissima, is an emblematic species for the island of St. Eustatius and in Caribbean Netherlands it is only found on St. Eustatius. In this study we conducted an extensive population survey for the iguana and compared densities in different areas to densities documented most recently in 2004. We conducted 39 field surveys and spent a total of 80 hours and 21 minutes searching for iguanas. We covered 63,672 m of trails and tracks and found only 22 iguanas. An overall average of 3.70 hours were searched for each iguana found. Due to the low encounter rates, detailed estimation and comparison of population densities remain problematic. Overall population density was 0.35 iguanas per hectare which represents 0.5-1% of densities documented elsewhere in healthy populations. Current population densities have declined across all habitats since the 2004 survey. Iguana encounter rates and densities in natural habitat were highest for the region where the northern hills abut onto the central plain. Island-wide, those areas provide the best combination of sun, shelter, food and potential for nesting sites. The population of the Lower Town sector, indicated in 2004 as the most dense and promising subpopulation, has all but disappeared. Island-wide, the residential estate subdivisions remains the second-most important area for the iguana.

We conclude that even though several valuable conservation measures are in place (e.g. establishment of legally protected parks, designation as a legally protected species and a successfully-run awareness campaign), the status of the iguana has not improved significantly in the last 8 years. Our results show that compared to 2004 when the population was estimated to number 425 (275-650) animals, current population size certainly lies on the low side of this range. This is far below the required minimum viable population size of 5000 animals and means that the iguana is critically endangered on St. Eustatius. It is readily vulnerable to extirpation on the island. Human hunting is likely a minor problem, shelter and food availability on the island are abundant, and invasive predator densities in the wild are relatively low. Of the 28 documented instances of death or endangerment of iguanas during the study period, most were attributable to anthropogenic causes. Suitable nesting sites for the iguana appear very limited, especially due to a combination of geology and vegetation. Therefore, lack of nesting sites and high iguana mortalities due to anthropogenic causes are suggested as the two core factors limiting recovery of the iguana on St. Eustatius .

Management Recommendations:

The following management measures are proposed:

1. Protect current populations by:

  • Prevention of introduction of invasive species
    (Train and equip border officials to prevent potential entry of the mongoose and the Green Iguana from neighbouring islands),
  • Enforcement and upgrading of legal protection 
    (Implement enforcement and upgrade protective legislation),
  • Development and protection of additional nesting sites 
    (Develop and maintain new additional nesting habitat, a measure that is both easy and inexpensive),
  • Establishment of an “iguana-friendly yard” programme
    (Establish a programme to promote “iguana-friendly” gardens, as the main means of reducing cumulative mortality).

2. Increase the biological knowledge about the iguana by conducting studies for a better knowledge of the critical biological parameters,

3. Create public awareness for the plight of the species,

4. Establish a small, local husbandry project.
(Development of an in situ husbandry and breeding project could serve a pivotal role in bolstering the other core program themes and especially offers a relaxed setting in which islanders can experience the iguana as the gentle and beautiful animal that it is).

This report is part of the Wageningen University BO research program (BO-11-011.05-004) and was financed by the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation (EL&I) under project number 4308701004.