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2023 Jamaican Rock Iguana Release a Success!

An exciting event took place on April 19, 2023: the first 2023 release of Jamaican Rock Iguanas (Cyclura collei) that were raised at the headstart facility at the Hope Zoo in Kingston, Jamaica. Everything went very well! Representatives from all the major organizations involved in this conservation program came together to transport 25 iguanas to the Hellshire Hills, a remote tropical dry forest ecosystem along Jamaica’s southeast coast where a wild population is now holding its own. Both male and female iguanas were released, and females were placed at nesting sites, in hopes they will reproduce in the wild this year.

Nesting occurs in underground burrows that are filled with loose soil. Females deposit their eggs from late May to June, and hatchlings emerge after about 85 to 87 days of incubation. Females guard their nests from other laying females for several days up to two weeks, including aggressive interactions such as threat displays, biting, and chasing. Clutch sizes range from six to 17 eggs depending on the size and age of the female. Hatching success varies, but is on average about 80 percent.

Help for a Rare Species

The Critically Endangered Jamaican Rock Iguana (Cyclura collei) is considered one of the most threatened lizards in the world. Found only in Jamaica, it was thought to be extinct by the 1940s, largely due to habitat conversion and invasive species. But remarkably, a small number of Jamaican Rock Iguanas were rediscovered in 1990, in the Hellshire Hills tropical dry forest, a remote ecosystem along Jamaica’s southeast coast. This amazing event galvanized an international recovery effort.

Protection and Capacity Lead to Reintroductions

For the first 30 years of the program, invasive species continued to be common in the area, and the number of iguanas remained low. In 2016, plans were developed for more effective protection, and the conservation area for the iguanas was doubled by implementing a buffer zone surrounding the core iguana area.

At the same time, breeding capacity at the Hope Zoo’s headstart facility was quadrupled, and management was improved to decrease the amount of time iguanas spent there before reintroduction. The target for hatchlings each year was established at 150 individuals.

In the first 20 years of reintroductions, about 300 individuals were released into the wild. Since 2016, an additional 300 iguanas have been reintroduced; plus, there are now more than 500 individuals in captivity. With the improvements made, the program is on track to release the 1,000th Jamaican Rock Iguana by 2026!

Vital Support

A dedicated group of Jamaican and international organizations makes this project possible: National Environment and Planning Agency, Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation, Hope Zoo, Urban Development Corporation, Institute of Jamaica, Fort Worth Zoo, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, and IUCN SSC Iguana Specialist Group. The International Iguana Foundation (IIF) has played an integral role, supporting this project from the start. Generous support to the IIF from US Fish and Wildlife Service, Disney Conservation Fund, and Mohamed bin Zayed Conservation Fund has allowed the program to expand tremendously since 2016.

For 2023 and beyond, support from Disney Conservation Fund, US Embassy–Kingston, and Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund will allow for continued research into the impacts of the buffer zone on the survival of the Jamaican Rock Iguana and other native species, improved invasive species control, increased outreach and education efforts, headstart improvements, and support for the team on the ground.

The April release is another big step in the recovery of this Critically Endangered iguana—and a huge win for everyone who has worked so hard to bring this species back from extinction!

The iguana rangers describe how Jamaican Rock Iguanas are ecosystem engineers and a vital part of the habitat.

Meet the people on the front line of iguana conservation in Jamaica!

Health screening of Jamaican Iguanas leaving the facility at the Hope Zoo in September 2019.