Saving a Critically Endangered Iguana with Daisy Fox Maryon
Utila is a small tropical island off the coast of Honduras surrounded by vast coral reefs. It is best known among tourists for its amazing recreational diving opportunities, but what most people don’t know is that Utila is home to a Critically Endangered iguana species found nowhere else on Earth - the Utila Spiny-tailed Iguana (Ctenosaura bakeri). Daisy Fox Maryon is a conservation researcher working to save this species.
It all started when Daisy was looking for a project for her Masters degree: “I had been working in Honduras for a few years and at the time I was looking for a project for my MRes at University of South Wales, and heard about the Kanahau Utila Research and Conservation Facility (Kanahau URCF) through a contact (Steve Green) from Operation Wallacea who had worked with them in the past.”
The Kanahau Utila Research and Conservation Facility (Kanahau URCF) is a small building surrounded by tropical forest and only a short distance from the sea. They support herpetological research, which includes the Utila Spiny-tailed Iguana, and also run projects on bats and invertebrates. The research centre has a small dedicated team which includes Daisy.
Her work there focuses on the Utila Spiny-tailed Iguana, also known as Swamper by the locals: "The current population size of this species is unknown, so I am working towards a robust population estimate. This involves daily transects across the island. I am using distance sampling and mark-recapture methods, which often requires climbing a few metres up the mangroves to catch the iguanas! Each iguana is given individual bead tags and a PIT tag (passive integrated transponder tag) which has a unique identification number.
I am also using radio telemetry to find out important breeding migration routes across the island and gather information about behaviour, habitat preference and home range. Finally, I am looking at their nesting ecology, trying to understand where they nest and which habitats are preferable for them as well as collecting biometric data on hatchlings.
My favourite part is going to the field sites and finding the iguanas. There are some absolutely amazing habitats here on Utila, from swamps where you find yourself chest deep in water surrounded by a maze of red mangroves, to taking a hike up to the Iron shore, a shoreline looking like scenery from game of thrones, crashing waves, fossilized coral and volcanic rock spewed out by the extinct volcano that is now pumpkin hill (where Kanahau is located)."
Species endemic to small islands often have to contend with a variety of threats, and the Swamper is no exception; the main threats to it are habitat destruction and hunting pressure: "Utila has the most extensive mangroves of the bay islands (Utila, Roatan, Guanaja), although these are being illegally deforested for housing and development. This species has been protected from hunting by Honduran law since 1994; however, this law is not enforced and hunting is rife. Gravid (pregnant) females are particularly prized as a traditional Easter dish, but sustenance hunting takes place year-round. Iguana meat is also sold to locals and tourists on the island.
We have been trying to address this through education programmes at local schools, but it is a huge problem that requires the local government to take action and prosecute people who hunt the iguanas. While there are some great people who are really switched on about protecting the island, many do not realize the importance of the mangroves or that C. bakeri exists solely on Utila. Some may see them as a pest (unfairly and without evidence) and confuse them with the other iguanas that exist on Utila. Many locals will see the hunting of the Swamper as their right and may not realize the implication of taking gravid females from the wild."
Fortunately, Daisy's work on this Critically Endangered species is being funded by the International Iguana Foundation and the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. Daisy has also had the opportunity to present her research at the IUCN Iguana specialist meeting and works closely with the IUCN SSC Iguana Specialist Group.
Looking to the future, the project's goals are to raise money to buy private nature reserves in order to protect the mangroves and the flora and fauna on the island, and to involve the local community in their work: "Raising the funds to buy private nature reserves and being able to pay local people to become guards, guides and rangers to protect these areas would be our dream goal. Showing people on Utila that there is money to be made from ecotourism here is key and being able to provide an alternative livelihood and income will make a huge difference. I would hope that this is achievable in the next few years, but will require a big campaign to buy back parts of the island.
We are also working on getting the local community involved. Right now we work with local schools providing an environmental education programme with two NGOs on the island (Bay Island Conservation Association – BICA and Whale Shark Oceanic Research Centre – WSORC). We have taken students out with us to the mangrove and taught them survey methods. I am also writing a grant to provide funds for a local field assistant for next year, which will enable us to train some local guides and begin to provide an alternative livelihood."
Finally, we asked Daisy, if funding was not an issue, what new technologies might benefit her work and could make a significant difference: "Drones and satellite/gps tags! Drones to help us map the habitat of the entire island – the western side of Utila is virtually unexplored due to its difficulty to access (by boat only in many cases) - this leaves endless research possibilities! Satellite/GPS tags would enable to us to monitor migration patterns of iguanas through the entire island and would give us insight into areas that are difficult to access."
Best of luck to Daisy and to everyone at the Kanahau URCF!
Best of luck to Daisy and to everyone at the Kanahau URCF!