Listed among the Turks & Caicos Islands’ must-see places to visit is Little Water Cay, popularly known as Iguana Island. This 116-acre cay lies just off the eastern end of Providenciales and has two small interior ponds surrounded by an abundance of native plants. It is home to between 2,000 and 3,000 Turks & Caicos Rock Iguanas (Cyclura carinata carinata). A day trip to Little Water Cay means stepping onto one of the only places in the world where you can see this rare species of iguana in their natural habitat.The Turks & Caicos National Trust, the main non-governmental organization committed to the preservation of this endangered species, reports that almost 18,000 tourists visited the cay in 2007. Ideally, the more visitors, the better. Revenue generated from visitors means more resources can be used to develop projects that are aimed at preserving our physical, natural and cultural heritage—the National Trust’s core mission. Moreover, iguanas will continue to thrive and be protected to ensure that this unique creature does not become another name on the extinction list.
In recent years, the National Trust has worked with a team of researchers led by Dr. Glenn Gerber of the Zoological Society of San Diego to restore the Turks & Caicos Rock Iguanas to their former range. In 2002, hundreds of iguanas were moved from two islands with large populations to four uninhabited cays where they can be safe and multiply.
Adults and children visit the Little Water Cay site. Children usually enjoy seeing iguanas. Some of them even put names on them, like Rocky or Iggy. One Little Water Cay warden shared an incident of a four year old girl who screamed at the top of her lungs when she saw an iguana which she had mistaken for one she had seen in the Cayman Islands a year before. She shouted, “Ebby is here, Ebby is here!” The warden, with a nod from the girl’s father, said, “Yes, it’s Ebby.” The reality is that Rocky, Iggy, Ebby and thousands more like them need to be protected for all to see.
Unfortunately, these docile lizards are extremely vulnerable to extinction. Inappropriate development, introduced domestic animals and habitat destruction threaten them daily. In the 1970s, in a study conducted by Dr. John Iverson on Pine Cay, iguana numbers dwindled from 15,000 to almost zero in just three years. Without any positive action, all the iguanas in the country could suffer the same fate.
Little Water Cay is a protected nature reserve within the National Park System; dogs and cats are not permitted on the island, to ensure the survival of this critically endangered species.
Trails on Little Water Cay are raised on boardwalks, constructed for visitors to avoid stepping on the iguanas and disturbing their habitat. Some iguanas will greet you while others hide in shallow burrows dug in the sand or under rocks. Others are busy eating berries, leaves and fruits and some are simply “sunbathing.”
The Turks & Caicos Rock Iguana is the largest native land animal in our country and plays a very important role in the ecosystem. Their foraging activities help to maintain native plant communities and aid in the dispersal and germination of seeds. In the morning, they emerge from their burrows and bask in the sun before going off to feed. At midday, when the sun is the hottest, they retreat into the shade to avoid overheating.
During mating season, beginning in early May, the nesting females, characterized by their lack of large dorsal spines, dig a side tunnel off the main burrow to lay their eggs. After laying their eggs in early summer, the female seals up the nesting chamber and walks away. The heat from the sand incubates the eggs, which hatch about 90 days later. Guided by instinct, the small hatchlings dig their way out through the top of the chamber and emerge into the sunlight.
Iguanas on Little Water Cay have been tagged with colored beads. Scientists and researchers use bead tagging, which is a harmless procedure, to get information about the iguanas’ life span and survival, reproductive rate, eating and mating habits and individual growth rates.
To differentiate one iguana from another, scientists use tags made of colored glass beads—each bead color corresponding to a different number. By using 8 different colors and putting up to 3 beads on each iguana, it is possible to have 888 possible identifiable individuals.
To tag a captured iguana, the scientist uses a sharp, hollow needle to thread a thin wire through the upper dorsal crest of the animal. This crest contains fatty tissue and has few nerves, similar to our ear lobes. The bead pattern is mirrored on each side of the iguana’s crest so that the color code can be read from either side.
The trail at Little Water Cay offers more than just an opportunity to easily view these normally shy animals. It winds through a pristine habitat that holds an abundance of native plants and other species.
Along the trail, a viewing tower gives a vista of the vastness the cay and the adjacent busy island of Providenciales. The area in front of the tower is a good viewing spot for iguanas, too, as it combines burrows and open basking areas sheltered by a variety of vegetation.
Like all Cyclura species, the Turks & Caicos Rock Iguana is primarily herbivorous, consuming leaves, flowers, and fruits from over 58 different plant species. The Sea Grape and Seven-year Apple are a couple of their favorite foods. Interestingly, native plants and trees benefit from the iguanas presence as much as the iguanas do from these many sources of food. The trees and other plants benefit from iguanas eating their seeds and fruits, too; when ingested the seeds are cleansed of pests and their protective waterproof coatings are removed, allowing them to grow in the fertile surroundings of iguana droppings.
Visitors to the cay should also be on the lookout for a variety of bird species. Small birds such as Bananaquits often cling to tree branches in the dense understory. A longer walking trail leads to the north shore where, especially if the tide is high, it’s easy to look for some striking wading birds, like the Great Egret, the Reddish Egret and Tricolored Herons. Raptors such as Osprey and American Kestrel are often seen.
An area of thick Red Mangroves, with their special prop root system that allows them to survive in salt water, can be seen along the north shore. These mangroves are important for many species of marine animals as they provide a protective habitat for many fishes and invertebrates.
In the next several months, Little Water Cay will undergo yet another improvement as the National Trust plans to put up a Visitor’s Centre and Conservation Management Office on the cay itself. The centre will allow the Trust to boost eco-tourism activities, implement more conservation measures, better monitor the iguana population and preserve their habitat. This undertaking is a bold step that seeks to prevent the further loss of these endemic reptiles, a unique symbol of our national heritage.
Traditional life and culture in the Islands has always depended on the bounty of the land and sea, forests and reefs. So conservation measures in our natural world also stand for the protection of the roots of our culture. Sadly, if these roots are lost they can never be brought back, and both our ties to the past and our hopes for the future will suffer.
At Little Water Cay, people and iguanas meet; it is where both share a common world. Your visit would make a big difference—so that nature and our special iguanas will always be there for future generations to see and enjoy.
By Jonathan Sayao, T & C National Trust Education Officer, Photo By Brian Riggs