It is a truth almost universally unacknowledged that the Caribbean has seen more reptile extinctions than any other region in the world, accounting for over 60% of all reptile species lost worldwide.
Habitat loss has played its part, but one of the main culprits was undoubtedly the swarms of alien predators – from ship rats and feral cats to mice and mongooses – that invaded these island havens, overwhelming native species that were simply not equipped to deal with them.
Whether accidentally or deliberately introduced, the hostile invaders continue to cause havoc to this day. And while conservationists struggle valiantly to put that particular malevolent genie back in the bottle, native reptiles have an additional human-induced threat to contend with: illegal wildlife trade.
The demand for exotic pets, particularly among collectors in Europe, the US and Japan, is having a severe impact on wild populations of some of the Caribbean’s most charismatic – and endangered – reptiles. A number of these species are in urgent need of greater protection, and CITES plays an instrumental role in safeguarding their future.
A Grenadines pink rhino iguana, one of many Caribbean reptiles threatened by the pet trade. Credit: Jenny Daltry/Fauna & Flora
What is CITES?
CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) aims to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
Fauna & Flora is no stranger to the workings of CITES. Along with other IUCN partners, we were instrumental in its conception in the early 1960s, and there at its birth at the so-called Washington Conference in February 1973.
At COP19 – shorthand for the latest meeting of the decision-making body of CITES, held in Panama in mid-November – we worked to raise the profile of several Caribbean reptiles that merit future inclusion on the Appendices of CITES. Not to be confused with one of the twelve labours of Hercules, these are the three official lists of species that benefit from varying degrees of legal protection according to the level of threat posed by trade.
But just how effective is that paper protection, and what impact has it had on the trade in Caribbean reptile species already listed?
How effective is CITES?
While a CITES listing is no silver bullet, it is certainly a vital tool in the conservationist’s armoury. For a shining example of its effectiveness, look no further than the curious case of the White Cay iguana (main photo).
This little-known lizard has more pseudonyms than a well-known UK Cabinet minister, also answering to the name of Sandy Cay iguana and San Salvador rock iguana. It first came to our attention back in 1997, at which point it had been driven to the brink of extinction by alien predators.
In close cooperation with Bahamas National Trust and other partners, Fauna & Flora helped rescue the last 150 White Cay iguanas on the planet by removing a non-native raccoon and a colony of ship rats from their last refuge, a 15-hectare islet in the Bahamas. But that wasn’t the end of the story.
This male White Cay iguana was rescued from wildlife traffickers and repatriated to a secret location in the Bahamas. Credit: Jenny Daltry/Fauna & Flora/Re:wild
CITES in action
In 2014, a dozen live White Cay iguanas – which had been transported without the appropriate CITES permits – were seized by the Border Force at London’s Heathrow Airport as they were being trafficked from the Bahamas to Germany via the UK. The culprits were both sentenced to 12 months in prison.
Regrettably, several of the iguanas died, but the surviving lizards were successfully repatriated with the support of the CITES authorities in the UK and the Bahamas, who had cooperated throughout on the handling of the confiscated lizards. Once back home, they were used to establish a second colony of this critically endangered reptile at a secret location within a protected area that is managed by Bahamas National Trust with support from Re:wild, Fauna & Flora’s alliance partner and long-term collaborator.
The repatriated iguanas are now thriving in their predator-free sanctuary, and numbers of this once-perilously rare lizard now exceed 2,000 individuals. The protection and international cooperation afforded to the White Cay iguana under CITES rules points the way forward for other Caribbean reptiles, including the Southern Antilles horned iguana, which is threatened by both national and international trade.
The opportunity for immediate action under CITES is complicated by the fact that this ‘species’ has yet to be formally accepted by the Iguana Specialist Group (in a nutshell: it’s complicated, folks, as this article explains). But in the meantime, the two recognised subspecies – the Saint Lucia iguana and Grenadines pink rhino iguana – merit serious conservation attention, as they are already attracting considerable interest from unscrupulous collectors and the poachers who stand to profit from that demand.
Adult male Saint Lucia iguana, one of two recently recognised subspecies that are in urgent need of CITES protection. Credit: Elizabeth Corry/Durrell
Priorities of the Caribbean
Fauna & Flora and our partners highlighted the plight of this and other Caribbean reptiles at the recent COP19 event in Panama, in order to ensure that the importance and precarious conservation status of each and every one of these rare endemics is acknowledged on the global stage.