Throughout the year, we’ll be highlighting innovative projects from the Rainforest Alliance’s Eco-Index website on the Frog Blog. The Eco-Index was launched in 2001 to provide the conservation community with an accessible vehicle to share project data and reports, lessons learned and best practices.
By Dipika Chawla
With striking pale gray chevrons alternating with deep gray markings, the Ricord’s iguana (Cyclura ricordii) is easily identified but rarely seen on the island of Hispaniola. One of the most endangered reptiles in the world, the iguana’s native habitat has shrunk to an area smaller than 40 square miles.
Until recently, Ricord’s iguanas were known to exist in just three small isolated subpopulations in the Dominican Republic. But in 2007, biologist Ernst Rupp of Grupo Jaragua, working alongside the International Iguana Foundation (IIF), discovered an entirely new subpopulation in the Haitian town of Anse-a-Pitres. Subsequent research by Rupp and Masani Accimé of IIF revealed the population’s fragility–only 250 adults remain, and their dry forest habitat is rapidly disappearing. With support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), Accimé has been working closely with the Anse-a-Pitres community to create a municipal wildlife reserve that would save this subpopulation from extinction.
Habitat degradation is common in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and a nation that’s been almost completely deforested. What little forestland remains continues to be cut down for charcoal, the country’s primary source of energy. According to Accimé, after an access road to Anse-a-Pitres was built in 2011, charcoal production became a significant source of income for local residents, who also hunt Ricord’s iguanas for their meat and eggs. Cyclura species only reproduce once a year–laying 14 to 20 eggs in one nest–so egg poaching has a devastating effect on the population.
“People in Anse-a-Pitres don’t have a wildlife conservation ethos. They just don’t see animals that way. To make matters worse, there’s also a fair amount of herpetophobia in Haiti,” Accimé explains. “A lot of our work involves trying to foster a different attitude and making people aware of the role of these animals in their environment.”
As the largest endemic herbivore on Hispaniola, Ricord’s iguanas are of great ecological importance to the region. They play a vital role in dispersing plant seeds—in fact, an IUCN study found that seeds that had passed through the alimentary tract of rock iguanas ended up growing more quickly and into bigger mature plants than seeds that had not.
“Iguana species are absolutely paramount to reforestation efforts in Haiti,” Accimé says. “We need to show people that these animals are their allies.”
IIF plans to create a municipal wildlife reserve in Anse-a-Pitres that would legally protect Ricord’s iguanas from poachers and their habitat from charcoal producers. This goal is modeled after a previous IIF project with Grupo Jaragua in Pedernales in the Dominican Republic, where they established a 70-acre (29-hectare) private reserve to protect and monitor Ricord’s iguanas. As a result of their work, the iguana’s population in Pedernales has increased by 60 percent in the past five years.
While the success of the Pedernales project is encouraging, Accimé acknowledges that the different cultural, institutional and socioeconomic conditions in Haiti require a different strategy. In the Dominican Republic, the national government has historically been much more proactive in creating and maintaining protected areas.
“Environmental education and wildlife conservation ideals are part of the public school curriculum in the Dominican Republic,” says Accimé. “Dominicans are generally more aware of the importance of conserving natural resources and wildlife.”
In contrast, she says, even though Haiti does technically have a national system of protected areas, a lack of institutional capacity and frequent leadership challenges pose challenges for conservationists.
Accimé has taken a grassroots approach, focusing on garnering local support in Anse-a-Pitres for her project. IIF has held several workshops and community meetings in town and both the municipal government and the community now support establishing a wildlife preserve in the area. Once the municipal protected area is established, Accimé aims to lobby to include it in the national protected areas system. For now, her short-term goals are centered on increasing local awareness.
“When we meet with the people, we try to educate them about Ricord’s iguanas and their importance to the environment, but we also want to learn about their needs and their perspective,” Accimé says.
Accimé hopes to have the municipal protected area approved and established within three to eight months. If successful, the Anse-a-Pitres reserve will be the first of its kind in Haiti and would benefit a wide range of plant and animal species, including the vulnerable rhinoceros iguana (Cyclura cornuta), which shares an ancestor with the Ricord’s iguana. IIF also discovered Haitian solenodons (Solenodon paradoxus) in the area–a very rare, endemic insect-eating mammal that is a priority species for conservation in Hispaniola.
“Everything we do for Ricord’s will help other wildlife species.” Accimé says. “It’s all connected.”
An extended version of this piece originally appeared on the Rainforest Alliance’s Eco-Index.