Fort Worth Zoo Conservation Biologist Kelly Bradley spends the majority of the year in Anegada, a small island in the British Virgin Islands, working to conserve the critically endangered Anegada iguana. Since the conservation program began in 1998 in partnership with the National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands, Bradley and a team of fellow conservation biologists have created and maintained a headstart program for the endangered species. Providing a safe environment for juvenile iguanas to grow large enough before they are released in the wild has significantly impacted the population of this species in its native habitat.
The eye of Hurricane Irma was forecasted to pass directly through the 15-square-mile island, so the country was preparing for the worst. At the headstart facility, this included volunteers rearranging iguanas’ caging and reinforcing doors to essentially give it the best chance. The island sustained 225 miles-per-hour winds, the strongest storm in the Atlantic on record. Amazingly, the wind blew through most caging structures, so they remained intact, along with the facility. Four large juvenile iguanas got loose, but staff believes they are big enough to survive in the wild on their own. Aside from damage to the perimeter fence, loss of some signage and three of 20 camera traps, the facility and iguanas onsite emerged unscathed. Kelly recalled one of the most nerve-wracking issues being stateside, was not hearing from anyone at the facility for several days. With no power and all cell towers demolished, she had no way of knowing if everyone and the animals were safe. After three days, she finally heard from staff members and got the good news.
Kelly visited the island in November to check on the health of the animals, see the damage firsthand and take part in recovery efforts. Most all of the island’s vegetation had snapped from the strong winds; however through adaptation from storms in years past, these plants have found a way to survive and grow. The winds also dispersed seeds from plants all over the island, which is wonderful news for the wild iguana population, as it is their main food source. Despite the devastation and rebuilding that faces the people of Anegada, the residents were donating food to the captive iguanas and lending a helping hand to the headstart facility following Irma. Kelly said it was inspiring to see the residents chipping in, which she attributes it to years of conservation work and spreading awareness about the importance of these reptiles.
Kelly returned to Anegada in early 2018 to release 17 iguanas back into the wild. Since the conservation project began, a total of 233 iguanas have been released. To compare, when the project started nearly 20 years ago, it was estimated that only 200 Anegada iguanas even existed.