Environment

'We will not give up!’

Herpetologists still banking on Goat Islands

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Associate editor — features thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, November 20, 2013    

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MEMBERS of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Iguana Specialist Group (ISG), which met in the island last week, are resolute that they will not abandon hope that Goat Islands will be the final habitat for the Jamaican iguana.

The group has been involved with the recovery of the species, thought to be extinct since the 1940s, since the early 1990s when it was rediscovered in the Hellshire Hills. It has been contributing financially and in terms of technical support to the headstarter programme where hatchlings are taken from Hellshire, reared at Hope Zoo, then returned to the wild once big enough to fight off predators.

The eventual plan, as far as the conservationists were concerned, was to repatriate the iguanas to Goat Islands — located a mile off the Hellshire coast.

But Government's plan to locate a transshipment port in the area has put a proverbial spoke in the wheel, so much so that the group's 20th anniversary, originally planned to be celebrated with much fanfare in Kingston this year, was reduced to a low-keyed meeting focusing on whether they had failed the reptile.

Asked if there was an alternative for Goat Islands in their conservation plans, the group told the Jamaica Observer that it had no contingency and didn't think one was necessary.

"There is a cloud of depression over the group," co-chair of the IUCN ISG Dr Charles Knapp admitted. "To get so close and almost see the light at the end of the tunnel then see it kind of disappear is depressing... but we're not giving up hope."

The depression, he said, stretched beyond the ISG to the global conservation arena as the Jamaican iguana recovery programme is celebrated as one of the most recognised conservation success stories in the world.

"This was our flagship programme. In fact, it was the genesis of the group," said Knapp.

He was joined in the interview by IUCN co-chair Dr Stesha Pasachnik, and IUCN ISG Programme Officer Dr Tandora Grant.

The trio said there was no arguing that economic development is critical — which is how the Jamaican Government justifies the transshipment port — but stressed that it must be done in a sustainable way, which means taking into consideration the ecological services provided by the habitat in question.

"As a group, we are extremely disappointed with the progress so far, particularly with the lack of transparency and that's only one of the things that's disappointing for us. And if we, as non-Jamaicans are so (put off), we can only imagine the level of outrage among Jamaicans because it is your cultural heritage that is being taken from you, and in secret," Knapp continued.

Other than potentially losing a habitat for the iguanas, however, the ISG said even more is at stake.

"Jamaica is a signatory to the IUCN and to about six other conventions that apply to the Portland Bight Protected Area and it should be extremely embarrassed on the international scene by breaking any of these conventions," said Dr Grant.

"It would mean that their word can't be trusted and that they can't be taken seriously... and that includes funding," Dr Pasachnik added.

The IUCN ISG also expressed its concerns, in an open letter, to the Government — a copy of which the Observer obtained.

"The Goat Islands within the PBPA (Portland Bight Protected Area) have long been considered the final, critical piece to the successful recovery of the Jamaican iguana. For 20 years, conservation groups, including those in Jamaica, have envisioned restoring the Goat Islands for the eventual re-introduction of the iguana to its native range," it said.

"If the port project is approved, it will destroy the iguana recovery progress, devastate the surrounding fish sanctuaries, have irreversible impacts on local biodiversity, and eliminate the environmental services this region provides to the Jamaican people. A clear message will be sent to global entities that a long-term investment in Jamaica is unwise, that protected area designations are not upheld, and that short-term commercial promises supersede the thoughtful planning required to increase economic opportunities without sacrificing national heritage."

The letter was signed by members of the IUCN ISG Steering Committee, some of whom are also members of the International Iguana Foundation — a major funding organisation for reptile conservation, research and awareness.

It continued: "Many of us work in other countries that have faced similar economic opportunities that appeared too lucrative to ignore, yet the lack of planning resulted in unanticipated and unfortunate consequences. We do not advocate against economic development, we only urge the Government to consider alternatives to ensure the protection of a truly unique area, which is already recognised and protected both nationally and internationally."

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