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A Jamaican iguana in the Hellshire Hills, outside of Kingston, Jamaica in July 2013 (Picture:: Nick Davis)
Image: DW/N. Davis

Jamaican conservation

Nick Davis, Kingston
September 23, 2013

The rare Jamaican iguana is fighting for survival as the illegal charcoal burning industry in Jamaica destroys its last remaining habitat. The lizard almost went extinct in the 1940s - can it survive this new threat?


Access to the most remote parts of the Hellshire Hills region outside of Jamaica's capital Kingston, is still only possible by boat. But, with it's crystal clear coastal waters and old forests, the area is starting to become a target for housing developments. Then, there is a unique industry scarring the landscape as well.

"As the wave of destruction moves inwards, the last remaining habitat for local animals is a big tree right in the middle of the peninsula," says Byron Wilson, a lecturer and conservation ecologist at the University of the West Indies.

In this area a number of endemic animals still live and prosper, but according to Wilson it's the fate of the Jamaican iguana that is of real concern. The habitat of the species once covered much of the southern belt of Jamaica including Kingston but, as the landscape changed, development brought non-native predators like the mongoose as well as cats and dogs.

Measuring over one meter in length and with a distinctive ridge of frills down its back, the Jamaican iguana seemed to disappear in the late 1940s as it fled from introduced predators into remote parts of the island. But, it was rediscovered again in 1990. It's still in the top 100 most threatened species in the world. The IUCN Red List, the international index for endangered animals, lists the species as 'critically endangered'.

Byron Wilson on a boat off the southern coast of Jamaica
Byron Wilson is trying to save the Jamaican IguanaImage: DW/N. Davis

Charcoal the only option

The demand for wood as fuel means that the protected forests where the iguana should be safe are now also being cut down illegally.

"It's hard, but it's still a living," says George, who makes charcoal in the hills. He works here every day, chopping wood and burning scrub in order to create charcoal kilns. With unemployment at over 16% in Jamaica the environment isn't his first concern it seems.

A single bag of charcoal sells for around $10 and each kiln like this can produce over 100 bags before it's exhausted, explains George.

The wood in Hellshire is ideal because it comes from rare tropical dry limestone forest. There's limited soil so the trees grow out of the rock and are small enough to be cut down with saws or chainsaws by one person.

Ein Bild, aus einem Hubschrauber geschossen, von einem versteckten Holzkohle Brennofen in den Hellshire Hills, außerhalb von Kingston, Jamaika in Juli 2013 (Bilder: Nick Davis)
A hidden charcoal oven photographed on a helicopter surveillance mission over the Hellshire HillsImage: DW/N. Davis

"When you speak to the people who cut charcoal, you tell them it's bad and all that but they don't understand," says Leggo, a warden in the Hellshire Hills. "We have to educate people from childhood that what they are doing here is bad for the environment."

A clutch is born

Every week Byron Wilson's team monitors clutches of hatching iguanas before transporting them to Hope Zoo in Kingston as part of a special animal conservation program. In just over a year, the iguanas will be brought back to the area, ready to be released into the wild and to fend for themselves against the cats and dogs that make their way into the hills.

The iguanas reach sexual maturity in three years with females laying between six and 20 eggs that incubate over three months. When the animals hatch they're given unique identity numbers.

"We also measure weight, snout length, tail length and take blood readings. We see what gender they are and the location of the nest site too," explains one of the researchers. The information gathered means that, in the future, conservationists will be able to determine whether iguana numbers are really increasing again.

But, as development continues in the Hellshire Hills, the concern is that the nesting sites may not be here for too much longer. If that were to happen it would be unlikely the local iguana population would survive.

Halbfertige Häuser in den Hellshire Hills außerhalb von Kingston, Jamaika in Juli 2013 - es gibt zur zeit viele Bauprojekte in diesen Region, die das Leben für das schon gefährdete Jamaican Iguana nur noch schwerer machen. (Bilder: Nick Davis)
Half-finished houses on the Hellshire Hills site are forcing out the iguana, and other endemic speciesImage: DW/N. Davis

In addition to the charcoal makers, the Jamaican government is also currently looking at a Chinese proposal to develop a giant shipping hub on small islands just a few miles further along the coast.

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